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How To Make A Safe Emergency Landing

When you practice simulated engine failures, how do you pick a landing spot? Did you know that landing in a small field might be a better option than landing on a large, flat one during an emergency? Here's what you should know about off-field landings...

Dissipating Energy

According to Chapter 17 of the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook, survivability during emergency landings has a whole lot to do with how you dissipate energy. Most airplanes require substantial speed for landing, typically much faster than you'd drive down the highway. Keeping your aircraft structure intact with slow deceleration and no forcible contact between the passengers and interior of the airplane is the ultimate goal.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do as a pilot to make a safe emergency landing...

The Sheet News

Slow Your Groundspeed Down

The severity of deceleration is governed by ground speed. Doubling your groundspeed means quadrupling the destructive energy of an impact. Whether it's from the wind or pilot technique, small changes in groundspeed at touchdown greatly affects the outcome of the "controlled crash" (FAA).

Most light airplanes are designed to provide protection during crash landings up to 9Gs in a forward direction. That's nine times the acceleration of gravity. Assuming a uniform 9G deceleration at 50 mph, the required stopping distance is about 9.4 feet. At 100 mph, the stopping distance is about 37.6 feet.

When it comes to emergency landings, that's really good news, because you don't need a lot of space to make a survivable landing.

During your landing, the slower you can get (safely) before touchdown, the better. If you're able, fully configure your airplane for landing during emergency landings to slow to the lowest possible airspeed.

Picking A Good Landing Surface

During a rough impact, the airplane's structure will absorb some of the impact, helping deceleration. But other surfaces can help too. Vegetation, water, trees, and even manmade structures can help decelerate your airplane. According to the FAA, "cultivated fields with dense crops, such as mature corn and grain, are almost as effective in bringing an airplane to a stop with repairable damage as an emergency arresting device on a runway."

Brush and even small trees can provide a cushioning, decelerating effect without totally destroying the airplane. Of course, try to avoid large trees if you can. Hitting a 75-foot tall oak tree isn't nearly as forgiving as landing in 5-foot tall brush.

Sharon Mollerus

How A Small Field Might Be A Safer Option

During an emergency landing, you might have the tendency to look for the largest, flattest surface to land on, and that can be tough to identify from the air. In reality, very little stopping distance is required for a safe landing if the speed can be dissipated uniformly.

The most ideal situation is to decelerate evenly over your landing distance. The same concept is used for aircraft carrier landings. The arresting gear provides a constant stopping force from the moment of hookup (FAA).

If you see a field covered with a tall crop, like corn, it might be a better option than landing on a large one that's recently been plowed.

Even Deceleration Is The Key

If you have to make an off-field landing, slowing your plane down as evenly as possible throughout the landing is the key. If you're left with less-than-ideal landing options, pick a landing spot that has low, soft vegetation. Land into the wind, and slow your plane down as much as you safely can before touchdown. Combine those techniques, and you'll set yourself up for a landing you can walk away from.


What kind of off-field landing spots do you look for when you're flying? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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