Emergency landing vs. crashing

A common phrase that appears in many accident reports says, “The aircraft stalled and crashed!”

The emergency off-field landing situation seems to infer a crash if damaging the airplane and a landing if not damaged. However, there is a difference between landing and crashing which does not involve the condition of the airplane.

The control of the aircraft during any approach and touchdown determines the difference of landing or crashing. A controlled aircraft flown to and through touchdown is a landing. An approach which stalls the aircraft at any time prior to touchdown will result in a crash. A crash is the aircraft falling uncontrolled to the surface, even just a few feet.

If making an emergency off-field approach to an area with obstacles there is a strong tendency to try to make the aircraft avoid these obstacles.

Often it is not possible to avoid these kinds of obstacles in partial or unpowered forced landings. You must accept that it is going to be bad and continue flying the aircraft to a normal landing approach and touchdown, no matter the condition of the landing area.

The landing gear is the obvious first place you want contact with the surface. Its design is to absorb lots of energy. After the gear, the wings contacting obstacles will absorb some energy.

Plane crash in trees
Keep the airplane flying as long as possible. Eventually you become a passenger.

The fuselage should be the last place you want to encounter an obstacle. You are there. A direct encounter with an obstacle can push the engine back into the cockpit. That is not good. A glancing encounter may be better.

The key is to use all means possible to slow with minimum contact of the fuselage. This means you must have controlled the aircraft as long as possible. At touchdown, you will quickly become aware when you no longer have any control and have become a passenger.

Continuing the Approach

You have now gained enough experience to be aware you definitely want to land on that chosen area or at least close.

You will visually establish a Directed-Course (collision course) on the final approach. Now you are confident you can make the field. The field sure looks bad. There are trees and rocks just short of the touchdown point, and the field looks rough down this low to the ground. It looked a lot better from a higher altitude. The tall grass was covering up a lot of rocks, ditches, and gullies.

You have to live with the decision. In some cases, if recognized early enough, it may be possible to change landing fields. That is another decision that deserves consideration when discussing scenarios. Be real sure, if you decide to change landing fields.

Landing

Now you have to land on the selected area. Get it centered low and unmoving relative to the windshield. Attaining a Directed-Course (collision course) allows early confirmation of the landing area and enables more time for controlling. If maintaining a Directed-Course (collision course), you cannot miss.

Consider if it is necessary to land on the area at slightly faster indicated-airspeed, or can you afford floating past some. Are you faster or slower than best glide indicated-airspeed?

Keep the visual picture. Make the airplane go to it.

You better watch out when trying to make the airplane do something. Maybe it can’t. Be real careful using the elevator-pitch control now. You have the indicated-airspeed set with elevator-trim. All you can do with the elevator-pitch, before roundout and flare, is pull too much and stall. Don’t do that!

Extreme Landing Surface

If landing on an extremely bad surface, it is obvious dismantling of the aircraft will follow. Consider using maximum nose up trim and full flaps for a minimum forward velocity. Then you don’t need the elevator-pitch control. The aircraft will be at its minimum indicated airspeed, a behind-the-power-curve situation.

The descent rate will be somewhat higher and any change will require pushing the control wheel. That allows the landing gear to absorb its maximum of both vertical (potential) and horizontal (kinetic) energies.

Remember, there is no set way to make these rough field obstacle landings. You must have previously considered as many different scenarios as possible. Never decide there is one way to do this.

Stopped engine
Resist the urge to pull back at this point – you must maintain best glide speed.

When the time comes, you must do whatever it takes for that situation. It will not be any of those previously considered. Every landing approach is the same; the touchdown will be different in different circumstances and with different obstacles. Land the aircraft first; don’t let it stall.

Landing on a Relatively Smooth Surface

On relatively good surfaces, you can set the indicated airspeed for a normal approach to a short field or soft field landing. Set the elevator pitch trim to this speed in anticipation of making a normal touchdown.

Now, are you high or low? Most people tend to be high. You can utilize drag procedures like extension of the flaps or slips to increase descent.

Are you low? You could be somewhat low, although with care (keeping the landing area centered on the windshield) it should not be too low. You are below best glide indicated airspeed; push it down to get best glide indicated airspeed again. That will extend the glide. If you are making the approach with full flaps for drag, raising some partial flaps will extend the glide distance.

Do you feel you are too low for that? You have little choice but to push the elevator pitch control to gain best glide indicated airspeed, or even a little faster, and level just above the surface, with minimum flaps for reduced drag. Now you will be in ground effect. That can extend your glide distance even more.

Maneuver to a minimum forward speed. You are just above the ground, hopefully, approaching the selected touchdown area. You are landing… wait a minute! This technique is the same for all landings. Your approach to touchdown is always the same.

It is just another Visual Directed-Course toward a landing area. This is what you always do when making any idle-power approach… isn’t that interesting?

Touchdown

The roundout and flare will likely be the last control inputs you can make, unless you are on a relatively smooth field. At this point, whatever it takes. Keep flying through touchdown. You will recognize when you have become a passenger; until then, keep flying, and keep steering.

The roundout has leveled the aircraft, and it is slowing and sinking. Continue to flare the nose up as normal. Just don’t stall. Any stall should occur only at touchdown. You have maneuvered to a minimum forward speed. That is the best you can do. Do not try to make it fly slower. It can’t. It will stall if you attempt it.

You are on the ground. It is rough. You’ve never experienced anything like this before. This part needs discussion. You just landed in rocks and gullies. The airplane just came to a rapid stop.

Upon touchdown, you realized you had no control. You became a passenger. You even thought… “I am now a passenger—I have to be conscious when the aircraft stops.”

Cessna 170 in the field
A forced landing doesn’t have to be a crash; sometimes it’s just an off-airport arrival.

It may seem strange, if this ever happens, but you will think that. Why? Because I just told you so! It is now in your mind, and if the time ever comes, you will recall it… believe me, I know.

Landing Roll

Did I say roll? Well, maybe so, maybe no. You are not finished yet. Most of the excitement takes place from touchdown to stop. You thought the approach was tough, but the landing is where it is.

What do you do during the landing roll? The main thing is, in what condition you need to be when the aircraft stops.

YOU NEED TO BE CONSCIOUS! If not conscious, you can do nothing for yourself or for others.

How do you do that? Well, you have to protect your head. Don’t let it bang around. You just instructed your passengers to protect their heads and faces. You have to do the same, if you can.

Consideration of some techniques might help protect you during touchdown to stop. (I don’t necessarily call it a landing roll.)

Survival

You can expect any emergency landing touchdown and rollout to be very exciting.

Assume there will be obstacles of some sort that will cause rapid deceleration and probable dismantling of the aircraft. Therefore, at touchdown you must be prepared to survive this deceleration until stopped.

Staying Conscious

You just touched down on an unprepared field. Things are quickly going bad.

How quick is quick? How long from touchdown to stop, if you land in the trees, rocks, and gullies? If you encounter irregular hard objects, the airplane is going to start coming apart. It may tip over on its back. No one can guess. No two incidents are ever the same.

Everything takes time. The one thing you can depend on is that the deceleration will be quite fast. In many cases, you could expect touchdown to stop within three to five seconds.

Time

During those few seconds of deceleration, you are to recognize you are a passenger and be protecting your head to assure consciousness when stopped. That is not a lot of time, but maybe it is enough to do something. How long is three to five seconds?

Skyhawk panel
That panel is not your friend – protect your head.

Try counting: one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five… That is a lot of time!

What did you do during this time?

One thousand one… you had previously figured out how this works, so at touchdown in these extremely rough conditions, you quickly realized you were now a passenger. You had no control of the aircraft.

Thrown forward from the rapid deceleration, you have leaned against the shoulder harness. You happened to have a coat you had previously put in your lap, put it up into your face, and wrapped your arms around your head to keep from banging against the glare shield and window post.

One thousand two… you are keeping your eyes open, so you can react. Things are bouncing all over. When is this thing going to stop?

One thousand three… It seems like it has been three minutes. It is like slow motion. I almost feel that I can do anything I want.

One thousand four… wow, it just flipped over on its back.

One thousand five… It finally stopped. I’m conscious, but I’m hanging upside down. I’d better get everyone out of here.

After Stopping

Anyway, you have stopped, upside down, hanging by your seatbelt, with a broken arm.

Do you know what that feels like? Take time to consider this kind of situation as part of your experience training.

Don’t worry. You are conscious, and if you get out quickly before the plane catches fire, you are home free. You will heal. Those bumps on your head will go away.

Ouch! That hurts, dropping from the seat belt onto your head. Your left arm isn’t doing anything. You have to get these people out!

What do you think just happened?

You were protecting your head and face while watching what was going on. Your brain works fast. It seemed like minutes for the thing to stop. You were lucky enough to be conscious.

You will be able to remember in detail all these events the rest of your life. That is what happens when you have your eyes open during fast-moving events. It could be the same in a rolling car accident, a fall from a ladder, or any other fast-moving situation.

Time seems to slow down… if you are watching.

Your passengers are conscious too as they were not bumped so badly. They were protecting their faces with coats for padding; arms wrapped around their heads, and leaning forward at impact, so… get them out of the airplane. The door is blocked! Kick the window out with your feet.

That part is all over now. Take care of anyone hurt badly, then go sit together by a tree somewhere and try listening for the birds singing. It’s nice and quiet now. The birds should begin singing soon.

This is a way of relaxing for control of shock. There is not anything pressing for now.

Rescue will come sometime in the next few minutes or hours. Don’t worry about food. It takes a few weeks to starve. Most people need to lose a pound or so anyway. Of course, you always carry water.

7 Comments

  • Great article with many points to ponder. In your scenario the aircraft “flipped over on its back.” With so many new GA and Light Sport aircraft sporting low wing/clamshell or pop-up canopy configurations, I wonder what the odds are of getting out of the aircraft and away from the fire should it flip over. What can a pilot do in preparation to enhance survival in a “canopied” aircraft?

    • “get rid of the canopy before touchdown.”

      Maybe that canopy is what will keep your head above your shoulders.

      I think every seat needs a 4-point restraint and a tool, ie: ax available to bust your way out. Cessna was good enough to provide one with my TTx. I added another for the rear seats and make sure my pax are aware of it. (I just hope they don’t use it on me.)

      Yes, I know I’m making some assumptions. However, opening that gull-wing door in flight is going to be worse than a flip over seeing how it will probably separate from the airplane or cause some serious aerodynamic issues before the emergency Landing v. Crash

  • Very nice break down of situation, events, and what to expect.
    Training for engine out it was counterintuitive that pushing down actually extends the glide. Once you train and experience it, it stays with you.
    Always heard: fly the plane until it can’t.
    Your writing crystallizes this!

  • Very nice article – just a student pilot but a former Eng Lit / Creative Writing major who appreciates engaging and well-written work.

  • My FIRST engine failure occurred above eight foot high willows during an Alaska moose hunt. Our altitude at the time was less than 400-feet. I had decided to wipe the wings by flying between two tall Sitka spruce trees, which would have been a real mistake. One has precious little control over a flying spear.

    The Aeronca Chief which I was flying had a tremendous wing, much like the two-place Taylorcraft, and I was able to make a 180-degree turn to head into the wind for our landing into the eight-foot willows. The forward roll was about four feet. The skeleton of the plane is still there after more than sixty years. There were no injuries, but the landing gear failed and slammed both doors shut . . .

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