How Pilots Choose an Emergency Landing Spot in an Airplane

People at Maho Beach Watching Landing Plane
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During flight training, student pilots spend many hours practicing emergency or "off-field" landings so they'll be prepared in the event they have to perform one in real life. ​

There are several reasons why pilots might have to put an airplane down in a field, on a road, or somewhere else outside of an airport. Engine failure due to fuel starvation is probably the most common reason, but an off-field landing can be the result of structural failure, an engine or cockpit fire, a bird strike, or any of a number of other emergency situations.

Choosing a place to land in an emergency can be difficult, and pilots may have to take many factors into consideration, including automobile traffic on the ground, surrounding terrain and obstacles, wind direction and speed, the plane's altitude, and the glide distance of the aircraft (the distance the plane can travel without engines).

The two best options are usually a field or a road, with other possibilities generally proving more hazardous to the plane's passengers and crew and to people on the ground.

Fields

Fields are usually very good options for forced landings. They're wide open, empty, and unpopulated. They're often flat and free of obstacles and offer plenty of space for a long landing if the pilot overshoots.

But pilots must be cautious even in fields. They can have hidden obstacles like fence posts and irrigation lines. And depending on what's growing, the pilot may be in for a bumpy landing. A cornfield, for example, might actually destroy an airplane, while a mowed hayfield might cushion the landing. And a freshly tilled field might look inviting to a pilot, but if it's wet enough, it will probably cause the airplane to sink into the mud and then cartwheel. 

Roads

Roads can be good landing sites, but only if there are no cars or pedestrians on them. Pilots should always choose a field over a road if there are cars or the possibility of cars on the road because they're responsible for not becoming a hazard to people on the ground.

A paved or a dirt road that's not in use is an obvious choice for an off-field landing. But as with any other landing site, pilots need to be on the lookout for obstacles like fence posts and power lines that may not be visible until they're very close.

Other Landing Areas

Besides a field or a road, there are a few other suitable landing areas that might help minimize the destruction of the plane and save lives. Pilots might look for beaches, dried lake beds, shorelines, dirt patches, or any other type of flat terrain.

A beach is a fine option for pilots as long as there aren't any people around. The sound of the waves could mask the noise of the engine—if it's working—and people might not see the plane coming. 

Pilots should avoid hilly or rocky terrain if at all possible. A level surface is crucial for landing.

When There Is Nowhere to Go

If pilots have no good landing spots in sight, they shouldn't panic. Many pilots have landed aircraft on top of trees or in water and lived to talk about it.

If a pilot is over a forested area and a tree landing is inevitable, they should prepare the aircraft for an emergency landing and concentrate on making the approach as slow and as stable as possible. A slow approach near stall speed with minimal descent rate and minimal forward speed will increase their chances of survival and minimize wreckage.

Ditching on water might be one of the most challenging of all of the potential emergency scenarios. A water landing requires a bit more finesse in order to not cartwheel or flip over. With too much speed or in an uncontrolled state, a water impact can be like hitting a wall. But a nice controlled landing might mean passengers and crew will survive, as long as they can swim to shore or have a life vest and the water isn't too cold. 

In all cases, the most important thing for pilots to do is to continue to fly the plane. No matter where they are, a controlled approach and landing is better than a crash and subsequent fire.