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CAP Talk  |  Operations  |  Aviation & Flying Activities  |  Topic: Precautionary Landings - Done one???
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Salty & Seasoned Contributor

Posts: 718

« on: April 27, 2018, 01:11:31 PM »

Rick Durden's article (below) was published in Aviation Safety Magazine just two years ago (April 2016) and recently included in the AVwebFlash news letter.  IMHO, it's a "must read" for those of us who fly in the troposphere in normally aspirated piston engine aircraft. 

Out of curiosity, How many of us have made a 'precautionary' off airport landing for any reason? 

FWIW, despite knowing dozens and dozens of pilots I've only heard of a small number of off airportprecautionary landings. 

In one instance a friend was returning from Spokane to his home airport in north Central Washington when he encountered unforecast spring time IMC from snow and low clouds while flying his C177 VFR.  This isn't too different from the situation encountered by the unfortunate pilot in Durden's anecdote. In my friend's case he recognized he had a serious problem, and made the correct decision to land on a county  road someplace northwest of Davenport, Washington.  During his rollout Darrel bumped a sign post with his wing and busted a nav light.  No NTSB report required, though he did tell the FAA after the fact.  The Inspector he spoke with congratulated him for his good decision making, and didn't even call it an incident because there was a clear record with FSS of a 'standard briefing' just 45 minutes before Darrel's takeoff from Spokane's Felts Field Airport.

What these disparate, but similar events tell us is that bad information (a preflight conversation with FSS that missed unforecast weather can change the plans of the best of us and suggest we'd better land... regardless of whether at an airport or elsewhere. 

So, to repeat my question... What's your experience?  Have YOU ever landed OFF AIRPORT?


Dick Durden's article (below) is a good read.  FWIW, I don't recall any discussion during a CAPF5 or CAPF 91 check ride of criteria I might use to make an off airport precautionary landing decision... despite numerous pretend engine failures with a check pilot in the right seat....  However, that omission hasn't stopped me from thinking about it quite a bit.

Precautionary Landings   
Rick Durden 
April 2016 issue of Aviation Safety magazine.

I’ve amended the details a bit to preserve anonymity. The pilot and his family came to grief on a flight that was forecast to be VFR. There was a slow-moving warm front approaching, but it appeared the 150-nm trip could be completed before conditions worsened. Friends of the pilot indicated he had intended to launch at 10:00 a.m., but a combination of delays getting out of the house and discovering some luggage had been forgotten—necessitating a 90-minute round trip—and lunch meant they didn’t get airborne in the 180-hp, four-place single until 2:30 pm.

Post-accident investigation indicated the warm front started moving faster and the weather deteriorated sooner than forecast. The airplane’s radar target went directly toward the destination for about 110 miles, and descended to 800 feet agl. The track then turned into the afternoon sun and haze toward an airport only seven miles away. About two minutes later, the airplane turned left and descended below radar coverage. Impact with the ground—in a steep left turn, at high speed—was a half-mile from where radar contact was lost. The probable cause was continued flight into IMC and loss of control due to spatial disorientation.


What struck me is that I happen to know the area where the accident occurred. It’s almost-level farmland with large corn, soybean and hay fields. Thinking of the area, I tried to imagine the feeling of the pilot, watching the ceiling come down and the visibility drop. He descended, probably hoping to stay under the ceiling for the remainder of the trip; after all, he was two-thirds of the way there. I suspect he punched the “nearest airport” button on his GPS a few times; then as things got worse, made the decision to divert.

It had to have been a tough decision to make, especially with family on board. The psychological pressure to be the “man of the family” and complete the flight successfully must have been tremendous. He started for the nearest airport, perhaps not thinking entirely coherently with the noise of the airplane drumming in his ears, the unfamiliar low altitude and lack of visual references. He made the mistake of turning toward worsening weather and into serious haze, further reducing visibility as he was forced to look into the sun.

He lost control and took his family into the statistics, causing untold heartache for many people. Along the way, he convinced others that little airplanes are a menace.

Missed Opportunities

Yet, in those last 15 minutes of his life, as he was recognizing that things were going sour, he flew over scores of farm fields upon which he could have safely landed. Somehow I doubt the idea even entered his mind.

For the last 50 years, the precautionary, off-airport landing has rarely been taught. Pilots who have a mechanical or weather problem are trained to go to the nearest airport and only attempt to land “out” (as glider pilots say) when the engine actually quits. Pilots who have found themselves very low on fuel have pressed on, hoping to make it to an airport, then listened the big silence up front due to fuel exhaustion and been injured or killed when they had to make an off-airport landing in a place they hadn’t selected, without power.

How many pilots have died because no one taught them that when things are bad, landing in a decent farm field can make the difference between being dead and merely inconvenienced?

The Courage To Stop

When it comes down to the real thing, the pilot has to have the courage to make the decision that continued flight involves too much risk given the fact that there are decent places to land safely. Once we’ve gotten low, in bad visibility, we are down where there are a heck of a lot of towers. We know that scud-running has become so dangerous as to be a last-ditch ploy a pilot tries when out of options, often just before dying. So, we get smart. We spot a field that may be acceptable. The diagram below depicts a circling approach to a precautionary landing area, which may be preferable due to terrain, weather or other considerations. If not and obstructions allowing, we’ll set up a normal, left-hand pattern (because that’s what we’re used to) at whatever altitude we can, given ceiling and visibility. We’ll fly a downwind, base and then a pass over the field to look it over. We’ll stay about 100 feet up, just right of center so we can see the area where we want to land. We’ll carry a third to half flaps; at VY plus about 10-20 knots and the airplane trimmed for level flight so we can divert our attention to the outside world without losing control. We’re looking for the right place to touch down, the best area for rollout and for any obstructions.

Then we’ll climb back to our pattern altitude and turn downwind. On downwind, we’ll double-check to make sure the cabin is secure, that there are no loose items to become projectiles and that everyone is well strapped-in with something to put in front of their face on touchdown. We’ll pop open the doors so there won’t be a delay in getting out, unless we’re in an airplane that flies poorly with the cabin door open slightly (and we should know that already, right?).

Turning base and final, we watch for obstructions. We know we probably will not be able to see power lines, so we look for the poles. To assure we will clear the wires, we assume they run straight between the tops of the poles. If we find ourselves in the position where we have to go under wires, the technique is to look at the ground, not at the wires. If we look up at the wires, we are likely to snag the fence under them at flying speed, bounce off the ground, or catch the wire with the vertical stabilizer.

We’ll touch down as slowly as we can, with a tiny bit of power as needed to really get the nose up with all of the flaps. Once on the ground, the power goes to idle, the mixture is pulled to idle cutoff and the master is turned off while the pitch control is held full aft. When the nosewheel touches down, we’ll get on the brakes firmly, but avoid sliding the tires. If the airplane flips now, it will be a slow-motion sort of affair. Should it happen, there are two approaches to getting out of the airplane without hurting yourself: Ag pilots who have had to extricate themselves from inverted spray planes told me that you should put your hand on the ceiling to help keep from falling suddenly to the ceiling and to be careful releasing the seatbelt after everything stops; however, a former reacing driver informed me that even though he was in good shape, his arm wasn't strong enough to support his weight when he released the restraint system from an inverted race car. He said to hold onto the bottom of your seat with one hand, release the belts with the other and then grab the bottom of the seat with that hand. You're then in a better position to lower yourself to the cabin roof without falling. By the way ... you are wearing the shoulder harnesses, right?

Once the airplane stops, make sure everything is turned off and take inventory of people and the situation. Shut off the mags and check that the master is off, then open the doors and let yourselves out.


After landing, you will probably get to meet the landowner. Be polite and respectful. If you’ve done any damage to the crop, plan on paying for it.

You may be able to fly the airplane out once you’ve gotten fuel or the weather improves. That’s a decision you have to make based on available information and the conditions you are facing. I strongly suggest you make it in conjunction with someone who has experience with such things.

Assuming you do not do enough damage to the airplane or your passengers to cause the landing to fall under the definition of an accident in the NTSB regulations, there is no requirement to report your landing to the FAA or NTSB. There may be those who are quiveringly anxious to do that for you—including perhaps the landowner, emergency responders, local law enforcement or the media—but unless there is an accident as defined by the NTSB, there is no federal reporting requirement.

A word about roads and streets: Their value as precautionary landing sites varies. Because they are paved, they seem attractive. The problem is they usually are narrower than the airplane’s wing span, have power poles and utility lines crossing over or along the side, and generally have things such as mail boxes and signs that are just waiting to grab a wingtip and jerk the airplane into a ditch. And then there are moving obstacles—cars and trucks, or even pedestrians. Don’t make a bad situation worse by endangering others—pick the best open area and land on it.

There is a chance you’ll get to talk to the FAA and you even may be the subject of an enforcement action. So what? The very good thing is that you’ll have some time to consider how to respond. Keep thinking about that phrase—you’ll have some time—because just before you made that successful precautionary landing, you were looking at an extremely short life expectancy. Now, because you were smart, you do have time, a future—a new life, so to speak. So you can deal with those who desire to be negative about the whole thing in a calm, considered manner. Calm and considered was pretty foreign to you when things were going badly. Now you have the luxury of time.

You’ve got to be alive to get in trouble. Isn’t that a good feeling?

Seasoned Member

Posts: 411

« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2018, 02:11:41 PM »

Have I made precautionary landings?  Yes, at least a couple that come to mind.  Off airport, one, and that was not by choice, the plane was coming down.
As an aviator (and instructor) I always take potential emergencies into account, and that includes looking an possible unplanned landings.  examine to route of flight and make note of where airports are along the planned route.
1.  Flight 1:  Wife and I are on our way from Panama City, FL to Birmingham, AL.  Flight is IFR and its late afternoon.  All is well with the world until the AI rolls over and dies.  Just about then, through a break in the clouds we see a runway and land.  It was another two days before we got home, and a lot of go/no go decisions that took place. 
2.  Flight 2:  Beautiful VFR Day and Lady Kat (my wife) and I were flying from San Saba, TX, to Killeen, TX.  Our airplane was just out of the paint shop, and the engine had just been overhauled.  We were at 4,500 ft.  Lampassas Airport was off our wingtip and Robert Gray Army Airfield visible in the distance, and although not visible, Killeen Municipal and home was just a few miles beyond RGAAF.  Have you ever noticed how loud silence can be when the engine just quits?  We had about 4 or 5 seconds of silence and then the engine came back as if nothing had happened.  Decision time:  Continue home, head for Robert Gray (where I had left my car), or land now.  Subscribing to the theory that when something bad happens it will never get better on its own an immediate let down and landing at Lampassas was in order.  As we exited the runway the engine quit for good.  Turned out the diaphragm in the carburetor had ruptured.  Call home and tell our daughter to come get us, and a call to the engine shop to go fix the airplane.
3.  Flight 3:  High School Senior, brand new Private Pilot, and the engine started making some loud and expensive sounds.  RPMs and MP started down, oil pressure low and falling, oil temp rising.  A quick look and there is a brand new road under construction.  No option, land there.  turned out the fitting at the oil cooler had cracked and most of the engine oil was now outside the engine.

As an instructor I try to teach my students to always have an out.  When planning cross countries and picking their checkpoints, don't just pick the one to fly over, pick three one on front and look at what they can see off each wingtip.  (checkpoint is a road intersection but there will be a small town left and a lake to the right.  Times up, no road but there is a lake in front  Look left, way out there is that a town?  Hey we're way right of course.).  I also teach them to look for escapes should they become totally lost.  Something easy such as:  Leg 1:  If lost, turn to 270 degrees find I-65 turn left or right until you can find yourself.  or if lost, fly heading 180 degrees find the first ocean and turn right.
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Salty & Seasoned Contributor

Posts: 5,092
Unit: of issue

« Reply #2 on: April 28, 2018, 12:53:15 AM »

I didn't precisely make the precautionary, but I was part of the crew. Matter of fact, I'm the guy who got to say "put it on the ground."

Then again, we were kind of designed to land "off airport" when needed. Pavement was a benefit. A way to keep the cabin floor a little cleaner.
Darin Ninness, Lt Col, CAP
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I like to have Difficult Adult Conversations™
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Posts: 6
Unit: MI

« Reply #3 on: April 28, 2018, 11:36:43 AM »

That is an excellent article covering a subject that is not part of the Syllabus for pilots, and should be in my opinion.

Like Cliff_Chambliss, I've made precautionary landings, but at airports, and the one landing I made in a field was in an engine out/electrical out situation.

The one thing the article did not mention that I would have added if I had written it is that you have the benefit of possible immunity from enforcement action from FAA by submitting an ASRS report within 10 days of the incident.

Posts: 86
Unit: GLR-MI-063

« Reply #4 on: April 28, 2018, 06:31:09 PM »

I have not, but on one occasion I *very* nearly did.  It was at the top of my mind as I was in a declared emergency heading into what's a busy, but non-towered, flight training airport with expectations that if I attempted a go-around that it would not end well.  Fortunately everything worked out fine, but I had eyeballs on every farm field around me that I could reach!
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CAP Talk  |  Operations  |  Aviation & Flying Activities  |  Topic: Precautionary Landings - Done one???

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