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When faced with the situation of a power off emergency landing, how do you best select your location to land?

At what point is a road too small or the crosswind too great to attempt a safe landing and instead select a corn field or such? Should the road even be considered?

EDIT: Also, how does plane size and build factor into the decision?

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4 Answers 4

Really depends on what you are flying, what's growing, what season and what the roads are like. Our Cessnas have used gravel roads a couple of times, either due to problems aloft or at the airport (bad weather). In the Alberta prairies finding a side road to land on is no problem whatsoever. 100 and 200-series Cessnas have fairly narrow fixed gear that can take an amazing amount of abuse, don't know about other types.

A real cornfield, with the corn fully grown, will destroy a light aircraft. The plants are 2-3m high with a hard, heavy log of corn at the top. Hit a couple of thousand of them at 100km/h..... (Skydiving centers in corn country have firm advice for landing in the corn: keep your legs crossed.)

Ripe canola is also nearly 2m high and is a bushy plant interwoven with it's neighbors. You'll probably flip over forward. Wheat is the best choice.

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... and freshly harvested wheat fields are even better, but of course this is a strictly seasonal thing. –  yankeekilo Aug 15 at 17:56
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... and plowed fields are only any good if you land along the furrows, I hear. –  romkyns Aug 17 at 0:13
    
You say that corn will destroy a light aircraft, which I can believe. Regardless, will that crash be more or less survivable than a different alternative, such as skidding off of a thin road into a ditch or hitting power lines next to a road? –  pheidlauf Aug 20 at 18:41
    
Of course it depends heavily on where you are. My background is the Alberta prairies, where the roads are straight and level with lots of space on either side. North of Thunder Bay is challenging for a working helicopter. However, as a pilot you should know what is below you and choose appropriately - there is no single correct answer. –  paul Aug 21 at 11:54

If I had the option of a field, I'd take it. For small planes, roads are usually wide enough from shoulder to shoulder to not pose more of a problem in terms of cross wind landings than with a regular runway, but they are dangerous for a number of other reasons.

  1. People and vehicles. Your first priority should be to not take any innocent bystanders with you in your crash. With the engine out, they won't hear you coming either as in the unfortunate incident in Venice, Florida the other day.
  2. Poles, posts, and other obstacles along the side of the road. Power and telephone lines often run along roads if you're in a part of the world where they're still above ground. Road signs and other obstacles are bound to follow along the road ready to rupture your fuel tanks and throw a spark in the mix, bigger roads have bill-board sized signs going across the road as well. A good example caught on camera is the glider that attempted a road landing, only to have the wing catch a mail box.
  3. Bigger roads often have a median barrier to separate traffic. It helped the Gimli glider slow down, you probably won't be so lucky.

I'd go for the road before the trees, but that's about it.

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A lot of rural roads (even paved ones) aren't more than 25 feet wide, which is less than the wingspan of a C152. That's a very small landing target. Throw in some of the obstacles you mention, and that makes landing on a road pretty scary. –  Fred Larson Aug 15 at 16:39
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The road may be less than the wingspan but it's wider than the gear, which is what counts. If you can't put the nosegear on the centerline in average weather you need to spend some time doing circuits. –  paul Aug 16 at 5:16

As a glider pilot, I think a lot about landing in fields, and do it moderately routinely.

As has been commented, the answer to "where to go" depends dramatically on the aircraft that you're in.

A cornfield is a almost-guaranteed crash for a fixed undercarriage nose-wheel aircraft. But it's probably a nice soft bed for a jumbo.

If we limit ourselves to aircraft with less than two engines, the main factors that come into play are:

  • Retractable under carriage
  • Nose wheel or tail dragger
  • High or low wing configuration

Retractable undercarriage affects your choice of outlanding, because it gives you the opportunity to take the wheels away from a grabby crop (or water).

Nose wheel or tail dragger affects your choice because it affects which part of the aircraft will hit the grabby crop first, and affects the centre of gravity of the configration at the time this happens. You want tail-first low CofG in a grabby crop.

High or low wing configuration affects the choice because a low wing configuration means that the posts on the side of a single lane road are significant, and a crop can grab them.

The "types" of outlanding choices that you have fall into categories that include:

  • Empty fallow field
  • Stocked field (and whether the stock is spread out or in one corner)
  • Recently harvested wheat - low
  • Recently harvested wheat - high
  • Corn/canola
  • Vines
  • Road

Each of these (and choices similar) have different characteristics, and the choice "chart" for each is different depending on the aircraft configuration variables mentioned above.

It may surprise you that corn and canola are grouped together, given that corn has massive cobs, and canola does not. But actually the major factor for this type of crop is it's depth and "grabby-ness". Canola is only marginally better to land in than corn, because it is not as deep. But is is just as grabby.

This is why corn/canola is a certified crash for a nose-wheel fixed undercarriage aircraft. Unless you are a gun pilot with a cunning plan to get around it - in which case your approach will be anything but normal - that crop is going to grab your mainwheels and you're going in nose first: bang.

In a taildragger, you have the opportunity to come in nose-high and have the tail-wheel grab first. In this instance, depending on the stall-speed of your aircraft (IE how fast you are going when this happens) it might turn into a "landing" instead of a "crash".

But if you have low wings, then you're still in trouble, because the chances are quite reasonable that this grabby crop will grab a wingtip, and boom - crash.

On a road, if you have high wings, then you are in good shape.

You asked "should a road ever be considered?". ONLY IF there is NO traffic. In a small aircraft, with less than a handful of passengers, you have no right to risk the life of people travelling on a road, which is what you will be doing if you put down on it while they are driving on it. If you suprise just a single car doing country road speeds, that driver can end up rolled in a ditch.

So ONLY if I had a high wing aicraft with a deserted straight road would I consider that - and then it is actually quite attractive.

(Edit: in case it isn't obvious, vines are death).

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It depends on many factors. If you have plenty of height, you have time to consider many things.

If you need to react immediately, I would choose the field, you will probably cause significant damage to crop & aircraft, but will most likely walk away. I haven't tried it yet (:-)), but would imagine that it would be similar to landing the plane in water.

If you have a clear, straight road with no obstacles (people, traffic, hedges, power lines, etc) and reasonable wind angle, I would choose the road.

My grass, dirt, beach landing experience (which dates me) was mainly with Rallye (Minerva, MS. 880), Piper Colt, and various small Cessnas (150, 152, 172). While landing off pavement is much more fun, there are many more factors to consider, so if you have the opportunity, I would go for pavement...

(As an aside, we carried an electric fence in the plane to stop cattle from rubbing against the plane in grass fields.)

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