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If Your Engine Quits, Where Should You Land?

David Boushy and Tamara Elliott, Global News

When your engine fails and you can't reach an airport, where should you land? A field, or a road?

It's a question that isn't easily answered, so we decided to do some research on forced landings to see where the hazards were for both field and road landings.

We researched the NTSB accident database and pulled 10 accidents, 5 that were field landings, and 5 that were road landings. Keep in mind as you read these, our goal isn't to critique the landings or the pilot's decision making process, but instead to identify the hazards each pilot faced when they attempted their landing on a field or road. Here's what happened with each landing:

First Up: Field Landings

TSB Canada

Field Landing 1

During cruise flight at 12,000 MSL, a Cessna T210's engine began running rough, and oil covered the windshield. The pilot immediately diverted to an airport, and the engine died shortly after. Because the pilot couldn't make the airport, they made a forced landing in a field. During the landing, the right wing struck the ground, and the airplane nosed over. Read the NTSB report here.

Field Landing 2

The pilot of a Thunder Mustang experimental aircraft had an oil pressure problem, forcing him to land off-airport. During the landing, the airplane impacted a telephone pole with its right wing, cartwheeling the aircraft and significantly damaging it. Read the NTSB report here.

Field Landing 3

During climbout, a Rockwell 112A's engine began to surge. The pilot attempted an off-airport landing in a nearby field. During landing, the airplane collided with power pole, power lines, and then the ground. The aircraft came to a rest inverted, and was destroyed in a postcrash fire. Read the NTSB report here.

Field Landing 4

During a descent to landing at the Boca Raton airport, a Cessna 180 lost power. The pilot spotted an open field to land, and after successfully maneuvering around power lines, touched down in the field. Because the field was soft and sandy, the airplane nosed over and came to a rest inverted, substantially damaging the plane. Read the NTSB report here.

Field Landing 5

A pilot and flight instructor were practicing takeoffs and landings. During one of the takeoffs, the engine quit, forcing the pilots to land in a nearby field. During the landing, the nose gear separated, and the left main gear was damaged. Read the NTSB report here.

Next Up, Road Landings

Mammoth Lakes Fire Department

Road Landing 1

In cruise flight at 4,500 feet MSL, a Cirrus SR-22 began losing power. About a minute later, the engine completely stopped, forcing the pilot to land on a road. During the landing, the pilot maneuvered the aircraft to miss an oncoming car, and ran into a utility pole guy wire, substantially damaging the airplane. Read the NTSB report here.

Road Landing 2

A Vans RV-9 was approaching Hobart Regional Airport when it lost power. The pilot determined they couldn't make the field, and opted to land on a nearby road. During landing, the airplane veered off the road and into a field, buckling the fuselage. Read the NTSB report here.

Road Landing 3

Shortly after takeoff from Murphy, Idaho, a Just Aircraft Superstol lost power. The pilot initiated a forced landing on a dirt road. During the landing roll, the airplane hit a fence and nosed over. The airplane was significantly damaged, however, the pilot and passenger were unhurt. Read the NTSB report here.

Road Landing 4

During takeoff, a Piper Tripacer lost and regained power three times at approximately 300 feet AGL. The pilot turn on carb heat, and the engine completely quit. Because the plane was beyond the runway, the pilot landed on a road, striking the left wing on a tree. Read the NTSB report here.

Road Landing 5

While maneuvering to land, a Cessna 206 float plane began running rough. The pilot thought the right fuel tank may be running low on fuel, so he switched tanks. Because the 206 was only at 500 feet AGL and not able to make the water runway, the pilot chose to land on a road. During landing, the 206 struck a power lines. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the airplane was damaged. Read NTSB report here.

The Hazards Of Field And Road Landings

It's clear to see that no matter where you choose to land, you can face some very serious hazards. But from our small sampling of the NTSB database, a few things are clear.

Field Landing Hazards

Field landings have their own unique set of hazards. One of the most common problems we saw was the surface condition of the fields. They tend to be very soft or very rough, making a landing difficult (especially with small aircraft tires). There's a reason so many airplanes nose-over during field landings: fields don't come close to the smooth, hard surface that you get with on a runway.

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Road Landings

Road landings have some very specific hazards of their own. Roads are typically more narrow than a runway, forcing you to make a precise landing in a high-pressure environment. On top of that, unless you're landing on a divided highway, there's a chance of oncoming traffic. On top of that, there are usually power lines near most roads, and those power lines aren't very forgiving to airplanes.

Mammoth Lakes Fire Department

So what's the best answer when it comes to a forced landing? If you have a wide open, lightly trafficked road, it's probably not a bad option to try. And if you have a wide-open field that doesn't look too rough or soft, that may be a better option.

When it comes down to it, there's no perfect solution to choosing a place to land. It just comes down to making the best decision you can, with the altitude and landing spots that you have. And ultimately, any landing that you can walk away from, especially in this situation, is a good one.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

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