This article contains information on dealing with non-normal and emergency situations that may occur in flight. The key to successful management of an emergency situation, and/ or preventing a non-normal situation from progressing into a true emergency, is a thorough familiarity with, and adherence to, the procedures developed by the airplane manufacturer and contained in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Airplane Flight Manual and/or Pilot’s Operating Handbook (AFM/POH). The following guidelines are generic and are not meant to replace the airplane manufacturer’s recommended procedures. Rather, they are meant to enhance the pilot’s general knowledge in the area of non-normal and emergency operations. If any of the guidance in this site conflicts in any way with the manufacturer’s recommended procedures for a particular make and model airplane, the manufacturer’s recommended procedures take precedence.
This section contains information on emergency landing techniques in small fixed-wing airplanes. The guidelines that are presented apply to the more adverse terrain conditions for which no practical training is possible. The objective is to instill in the pilot the knowledge that almost any terrain can be considered “suitable” for a survivable crash landing if the pilot knows how to use the airplane structure for self-protection and the protection of passengers.
Types of Emergency Landings
The different types of emergency landings are defined as follows:
- Forced landing—an immediate landing, on or off an airport, necessitated by the inability to continue further flight. A typical example of which is an airplane forced down by engine failure.
- Precautionary landing—a premeditated landing, on or off an airport, when further flight is possible but inadvisable. Examples of conditions that may call for a precautionary landing include deteriorating weather, being lost, fuel shortage, and gradually developing engine trouble.
- Ditching—a forced or precautionary landing on water.
A precautionary landing, generally, is less hazardous than a forced landing because the pilot has more time for terrain selection and the planning of the approach. In addition, the pilot can use power to compensate for errors in judgment or technique. The pilot should be aware that too many situations calling for a precautionary landing are allowed to develop into immediate forced landings, when the pilot uses wishful thinking instead of reason, especially when dealing with a self-inflicted predicament. The non-instrument-rated pilot trapped by weather, or the pilot facing imminent fuel exhaustion who does not give any thought to the feasibility of a precautionary landing, accepts an extremely hazardous alternative.
There are several factors that may interfere with a pilot’s ability to act promptly and properly when faced with an emergency. Some of these factors are listed below.
- Reluctance to accept the emergency situation—a pilot who allows the mind to become paralyzed at the thought that the airplane will be on the ground in a very short time, regardless of the pilot’s actions or hopes, is severely handicapped in the handling of the emergency. An unconscious desire to delay the dreaded moment may lead to such errors as: failure to lower the nose to maintain flying speed, delay in the selection of the most suitable landing area within reach, and indecision in general. Desperate attempts to correct whatever went wrong at the expense of airplane control fall into the same category.
- Desire to save the airplane—the pilot who has been conditioned during training to expect to find a relatively safe landing area, whenever the flight instructor closed the throttle for a simulated forced landing, may ignore all basic rules of airmanship to avoid a touchdown in terrain where airplane damage is unavoidable. Typical consequences are: making a 180° turn back to the runway when available altitude is insufficient; stretching the glide without regard for minimum control speed in order to reach a more appealing field; accepting an approach and touchdown situation that leaves no margin for error. The desire to save the airplane, regardless of the risks involved, may be influenced by two other factors: the pilot’s financial stake in the airplane and the certainty that an undamaged airplane implies no bodily harm. There are times, however, when a pilot should be more interested in sacrificing the airplane so that the occupants can safely walk away from it.
- Undue concern about getting hurt—fear is a vital part of the self-preservation mechanism. However, when fear leads to panic, we invite that which we want most to avoid. The survival records favor pilots who maintain their composure and know how to apply the general concepts and procedures that have been developed through the years. The success of an emergency landing is as much a matter of the mind as of skills.