Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Engine Loss: How Will You React?

When an aircraft engine loses power, the pilot’s initial response can mean the difference between life or death

The heat of the moment isn't the best time to have to look for acceptable landing sites. That's best accomplished with a calm mind and useful tools.

What makes a landing site a good one? Look for a flat area long enough to land. If your aircraft can land in 800 feet (or 1,000 feet over a given obstacle) that's your ideal landing target. But, if there aren't any places available of that length, you need another option. Here are the physics: There's significantly less energy to dissipate when touching down under control at minimum speed than there is to force it onto the ground at higher speed or to lose control trying to stretch a glide. If it comes to a worst-case scenario, you're looking for a place big enough to touch down under control and begin hard braking while aiming at something as soft as possible.

There's a very important thing to keep in mind when taking off. Knowing this may well change the way you depart every runway. If you double your height above the ground, say from 200 to 400 feet, the potential area that you can land in is four times greater. For example, in no-wind conditions, a 10:1 glide ratio, and a 45-degree angle to both sides of the runway heading, at 200 feet, the pie-shaped area ahead of an airplane is approximately 31,400 square feet. At 400 feet, that area increases to 125,660 feet! That knowledge puts teeth in the old saying, "There's safety in altitude!"

How To Reconnoiter
What's the best method for reconnoitering (aka "recce") the area around an airport? First and foremost, look around for logical places every time you arrive and depart an airport by either airplane or car. Take a glance down after takeoff or when you're on final. Look for locations with enough room to get an aircraft safely on the ground.

Another simple recce method that can even be used at airports you haven't been to is to use Google Earth, the iPad's Map application, or any program that provides the capability to closely examine the area around an airport. Depending upon the location of the airport, the quality of the picture can vary from spectacular, almost to the point of identifying people, to something substantially less sharp. Typically, you'll get better resolution where you need it most, around major metropolitan or populated areas. Sectional and Terminal charts can be helpful, but they lack the detail to make them particularly useful.

The primary thing you're looking for is open space. Determine the airport's runway length and use the map's runway depiction to estimate the length of any potential landing place. Once you find a spot that looks promising, focus on the area between the airport and that TDZ, and beyond. Look for hidden gotchas like power lines, ditches, fences, walls, buildings, towers, trees, etc., in short, anything that can snare an aircraft. Also be aware that sometimes what looks okay on the screen could, in fact, be untenable. An inviting stream bed, for example, might actually be in a deep ravine. If possible, follow up with personal observation.

Golf course fairways can be a good choice because they're long, but be aware of golfers. Parks, football fields and baseball diamonds are inviting, but often have fences, light poles and stands around them, and there's always the possibility that they're populated.

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