By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091
This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the September 2021 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
In the past year, two friends of mine suffered engine problems. In each case, the engine went from running fine to catastrophic failure in less than 10 minutes. Fortunately, both cases occurred when they were close to an airport and the pilots executed safe landings. But it didn’t have to work out that way. Had they been farther away from an airport, perhaps over desolate terrain, the situation could have been much more challenging. It got me thinking more seriously about the possibilities of an engine failure and how we might plan our flights better.
Reexamining Our Routes
These days, thanks to the modern miracle of GPS navigation, we are perhaps more likely to fly directly from point to point. While that might save time, it could add an increased element of risk in some scenarios. If we need to make an off-field landing and survive until help arrives, we might wish we had taken the road more frequently traveled.
The lesson comes from the world of mountain flying. For such endeavors, we always like to keep in mind where the closest or best (survivable) site is for an off-field landing. We often choose a route of flight that provides more survivable options. A route that follows major roads or railroad tracks might keep us closer to populated areas and a cleared patch of terrain on which to put down. It also puts us in a location that might be more readily accessed by rescue personnel.
Communication and Flight Plans
If an emergency requires an off-airport landing, we would probably like help to arrive promptly. The key to keeping the wait time to a minimum is to employ one or more forms of communication.
The best situation is to be on an IFR flight plan and in constant radar and communication contact. Should something go awry, ATC will likely recognize that we have disappeared and act quickly to send help. If we can tell ATC that are going down, all the better.
A close second to an IFR flight plan is ATC flight following. Again, someone is watching us and communicating with us. We might be able to let them know as soon as something goes awry.
A VFR flight plan also provides a mechanism through which authorities are alerted should we not reach our intended destination, but it can take considerably more time. To enhance the chances of a quick response, we should make frequent position reports along the way. We can make such position reports to FAA facilities via VORs, remote communication outlets, and even via other aircraft we might be able to contact. We may be able to relay position reports via FBOs. Giving someone a position report can be a boon to the searchers contacting the FAA and other facilities along our route of flight.
A handheld VHF radio provides a way to communicate if our aircraft radio or electrical system fails, or if we end up on the ground directing assistance to our location. Once we’re on the ground (hopefully in one piece), we might want to trigger our ELT, in case the landing wasn’t jarring enough to set it off.
As pilots, we’ve spent a lot of time practicing our takeoffs and landings. What we don’t spend much time on is proper crash techniques. If we’re going to make an off-field landing in a less-than-suitable location, then the end result could likely be described as a crash. If we wish to survive the crash and live to fly another day, we might want to give some thought to what makes a crash survivable. Consider the following:
- Hitting the trees at 20 knots at the far edge of a clearing is much more survivable than hitting the treetops at the approach end of a clearing at 70 knots.
- If we’re going to land in the treetops, we must do so slowly and under control. A stall or spin can be fatal.
- Avoid coming to an abrupt stop. The longer the time and distance over which energy is absorbed in the crash sequence, the better the chances of survival.
- Tumbling in a crash sequence is not conducive to survival. Stay in control to the maximum extent possible until the aircraft comes to rest.
If an off-field landing occurs in a sparsely populated area, we may need to survive on our own until help arrives. If we’re lucky — or took some of the right steps — it might be just a few hours. If not, it might take days for help to arrive.
Among the challenges we will likely face are the need for shelter, warmth, tending to any injuries or medical conditions, food, and water. Staying with the aircraft is usually the best course of action should we make a crash landing in a desolate area. The aircraft can provide shelter, has numerous survival resources, and is easier to find than a person. If we were thinking ahead, we might have warm clothes, blankets, and fire-making materials aboard the aircraft.
In many survival situations, a critical item is water, so it pays to carry a good supply of drinking water on board. Consider bringing multiple small bottles rather than a few large bottles since some could rupture during an emergency landing. While food might not be as critical to survival, it can help keep spirits and energy up, both of which can give us a clear advantage in survival.
We will also want to take action to ensure that searchers can find us. Even if we’ve taken all proper precautions, having the means to draw attention to our situation and lead rescuers to us can be pivotal to resolving our situation quickly. Again, we’ll want to make sure the ELT is activated and have that handheld VHF radio available to communicate with search personnel. While cellphones have a limited range, they can sometimes be of value if we happen to be close enough to a cell tower. Otherwise, having green limbs handy to throw on a fire to create lots of smoke can also help lead rescuers to our location.
A first aid kit, properly stocked with items to treat lacerations, contusions, and broken bones, can be worth its weight in gold in the aftermath of a crash landing. Some prepackaged first aid kits fit the bill, but we can probably do as well or better to put together our own emergency first aid kit. Be sure the kit includes a first aid manual to assist in putting the resources to good use.
It’s always nice to have an airport nearby when an engine decides to call it quits, but that’s not always the reality. The more thought we give to the elements of off-field landings and emergencies, the more likely we are to survive when a crisis situation occurs.
Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.