Emergency Landings

Well, another event happened following a loss of power in a general aviation aircraft. A pilot had an engine failure, tried to make it back to the airport, and landed on a Florida beach. Unfortunately, the forced landing killed a Georgia man and critically injured his daughter. For more details, you can follow this link: http://abcnews.go.com/US/inside-frantic-moments-florida-beach-plane-crash/story?id=24742758.

This is not the first time a pilot landing a stricken airplane on a beach has killed someone. A similar occurrence happened in South Carolina as reported by USA Today – http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-03-16-plane-kills-jogger_N.htm.

As pilots, we must keep in mind that we have accepted the risk of flying and we must do everything in our power to keep those we are flying over – safe. I believe landing on a beach or on a road is a very poor choice for an emergency landing. As an old Navy pilot, I would definitely keep the beach-going public safe by landing offshore. As an old taildragger pilot who learned to fly off grass runways, I would always opt for a pasture rather than a road.

So, why do pilots land on beaches or a road? Flight instructors sometimes tell student pilots they can land their airplanes on a beach if the engine fails. When it comes to the option of landing in the water or on hard packed sand, many pilots will opt for the sand. There’s only one problem – people.

In light of this last accident, some observers asked the question of why those on the beach did not get out of the way of the distressed airplane. Pilots should realize people on the beach will not be paying attention to anything other than the waves, sun, wind, their friends, and family.

Here is something else they should keep in mind: surf sounds on the beach can be pretty loud, along with other beach noises like screaming kids while having fun. Another factor is that the wind will carry the noise of the airplane away from the people on the beach. While the pilot approaches into the wind, people out there in front of the airplane will not hear the noise of the approaching airplane because the wind will silence it. Additionally, for the pilot whose engine completely failed, there will be no engine noise; no noise more than the soft sound of the airplane slipping through the air and by the time anyone on the ground notices the plane, it has already hit them.

The only way a landing on a beach will work is if the area of the landing is remote. As in, completely remote. No people. At all! This pretty well eliminates most of the beach areas of Florida. In order to pull off a successful landing on a beach, the beach has to be isolated.

The same applies for landing on a road. It has to be isolated.

However, there are other problems with landing on a road. Trying to get an airplane down on a road is a precarious proposition at best. It is akin to threading a needle. Oh, and you have to be really successful when you try landing on the road.

There are many considerations to safely landing an airplane without power, especially over or on a road. If a pilot is going to land on a road, he or she is going to have to be ready to fly a crosswind landing while dodging mailboxes, power lines, telephone poles, billboards, overpasses, and oh yeah, traffic.

Landing in a pasture, however, is so easy! If it is a large field, you can land directly into the wind and more than likely, the only thing you might have to dodge is a cow or steer.

So why do pilots attempt landing on roads? Here is my theory.

Over the years, we have gotten further away from flying off grass airstrips. With young pilots trying to play Maverick or fly like airline pilots, they have somehow come to the erroneous conclusion that airplanes are only capable of operating from and to hard surfaces – concrete, asphalt, or the like. Consequently, when the engine fails, many young pilots believe they must have a hard surface on which to land their airplane safely.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

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I am very interested in your opinions on this matter. Let’s start a discussion and learn more. I welcome all responses. Please leave a reply below.


©2014 J. Clark

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4 Responses to Emergency Landings

  1. Harrison says:

    Joe, your premise is a good one and I agree with your conclusion. I think one reason pilots go for the road is because they want to limit the damage to the airplane, but there are very few rural roads without powerlines and there are even fewer freeways without traffic. People on the beach might see the airplane coming, but they are not likely to hear it. If you have ever lost an engine in flight, you will never forget the silence. I love flying gliders because of the serenity, but not so much in an airplane. If I absolutely had to land on a road, I would probably try to land in the same direction as the traffic. I would rather land on top of a car going 60 mph as opposed to a head on collision at a combined 120 mph. Great discussion for hangar flying.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Harrison, I agree – too many pilots are thinking about the damage to their airplanes over the injury to people on the ground, or even their own safety. I concur with your assessment about the silence following an engine failure – it has to be one of the loudest silences ever heard by a powerplane pilot (which is why I also agree with your comment about flying sailplanes – everyone should fly sailplanes). I have often told my students that if you ever hear that I made an off-airport landing on a road, rest assured it happened on take off and there was no other option.

  2. Joe Clark says:

    Unfortunately, the little girl passed a few days later in the hospital.

  3. Hans Friedebach says:

    Joe and fellow readers:
    I had just moved to southwest Florida when this beach forced landing happened and gave me plenty to think about as a CFI, such as:

    How do we impress on all our students that the airplane we’re going to fly “in the next hour” is totally disposable/recyclable and is the LAST thing to be factored in any critical scenario? – human life being first by a wide margin?

    How do we help our students to learn and internalize that obstacles in front of us will be much harder to detect if there is no lateral motion in our field of view (such as a person walking on the beach, an airplane oncoming or any stationary object in our path)?

    The parts of Florida I have flown over are rife with very challenging emergency landing / survival scenarios, yet very little guidance is visible for a student or flying visitor to the peculiarities.

    I look forward to more dialog on this topic.

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