Big Field, No Sweat

Okay, it happened again. Another pilot decided to try landing his crippled airplane on a road. Follow this link to view dramatic law enforcement dashcam video of a Cessna 150 trying to turn a road into an emergency runway.

Time and again I have made the argument that roads are unsuitable for landing in an emergency. There are many reasons for this, with vehicular traffic ranking up there as number one. Right behind that, is trying to get the airplane to a very narrow ribbon of roadway – a tricky feat to accomplish under the best conditions. Finally, pilots will invariably have to deal with crosswinds, power lines, and more while trying to get down safely on a road.

In the video above, we see it did not work well for these pilots. It appears the airspeed decayed too much, and while they were trying to make the right turn to line up with the road, the wing stalled. With the left aileron down, the port wing had a higher angle-of-attack, and it quit flying. This caused the airplane to roll to the left away from the road and into the trees. Classic out-of-control situation.

Of course, you can’t see it from the video, but chances are there were open fields near the crash site. If they had simply lined up on any of those fields with their nose into the wind, they would have fared much better than going into the trees out-of-control. Here is a critical concept of flying: Always maintain control of the aircraft at impact. If you do, more than likely you are going to walk away from the scene of the crash.

However, if you lose control for whatever reason, all bets are off – as evidenced in this video. If you can maintain control and fly as slowly into the crash as possible, you will be fine.

So, the question becomes, why do inexperienced and experienced pilots feel they must land on a road when the engine quits?

Here’s my theory…

Thirty years ago or so, we taught student pilots how to fly from “fields.” Yes, that’s right, fields. Actual pastures, land in which grass grew, and beef grazed. We used to land airplanes – on that grass. We no longer do that, and as a result, I believe many private pilots firmly believe airplanes are incapable of flying from a field.

Today a student pilot learns how to fly at airports with 5000-foot, or longer, runways. Consequently, they are taught to think they must have a long, hard surface runway from which to take off or land. The idea that airplanes can only operate from a wide, long, hard surface is then reinforced in their minds.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

But because most new pilots today have only operated from wide, long, hard surface runways, they do not realize airplanes, particularly general aviation aircraft, operate just fine from grass airstrips. Operating from grass runways tends to make them nervous. Why? I don’t know. Many have an irrational fear of it. Hence the reason for many pilots only look to roads and interstate highways as what they believe are the only suitable places to land when the engine fails.

Many of these same pilots are reticent to believe King Airs and other turboprop aircraft have worked from grass runways. Indeed, when you show them photographic evidence of the B-17s and B-24s operating from the grass runways of East Anglia during World War II, they still tend to deny airplanes can and do take off and land on grass runways.

This brings back the point of emergency landings.

When an engine quits, pilots need to do their best to find as large a field as they can, orient themselves properly to land into the wind, and then follow through. Landing in a large field without obstacles is far easier and less risky than trying to squeeze onto a road fraught with numerous obstructions including traffic, trees, power lines, traffic lights, mailboxes, billboards, overpasses, and more.

It is a simple concept, big field, no sweat. Skinny road, look out!


©2017 J. Clark

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