(Disclaimer: I am not a pilot so my understanding of things may be really broken)

If a plane has lost engine power, has limited altitude to work with, and is upwind of a landing strip, and the pilot doesn't believe she has enough glide range to pass the appropriate runway and turn around for a landing into the wind on the full length of the runway, would it make more sense to

(a) land directly on the full length of the runway, accepting the tailwind

or

(b) pass part of the runway, turn 180, and land into the wind using only, let's say, half the runway length

Assume that an emergency has been declared, airspace and runway are all cleared, etc. In my particular scenario we're talking about a single-seat, single-engine fighter-type plane with generally poor glide ratio. I'm curious about any contributing factors.

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    It probably depends on the strength of the wind and how much altitude there is. My uninformed guess is that pilots would generally prefer the simpler option - i.e. no last-minute turn. – Thomas Aug 25 '17 at 16:41
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    Even with a tailwind it would almost certainly be best to just land and accept possibly running off the end of the runway under control and at low speed. That's a lot safer than messing up a turn at low altitude and airspeed, and possibly stalling. But there are plenty of variables and what ifs in any scenario like this. – Pondlife Aug 25 '17 at 17:28
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    What's wrong with landing with a tailwind? There are a number of back-country strips where that's the only option, or the most practical one unless the wind is really strong. Given the higher landing speeds, tailwinds would seem to be even less relevant in fighter-type aircraft than in single-engine prop planes. – jamesqf Aug 25 '17 at 18:51
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    Recipe for stall/spin: Start at low airspeed, add tailwind, reduce altitude to low, make tight 180° turn, bake in fuel fire for 10 min until crispy – TomMcW Aug 25 '17 at 18:54
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Attempting a tight turn, while low and slow, is an almost certain recipe for disaster.

Your first option of landing with a tailwind is possibly preferable - there is no inherent danger landing with a tailwind - it'll extend your landing, and is not ideal. However, it is much safer than trying to maneuver into a position with a headwind with only part of the runway remaining. And with a short runway to start with (if that was the case) you might not have enough distance to land safely anyway.

There is a third option, with the setup you describe, which is to completly disregard the (seemingly) obvious runway close by and look for a suitable area to land in front - a field, a highway, a beach - any of the usualy places you might make an emergency landing in the case of an engine failure.

(Disclaimer: My experience is with single engine propeller aircraft, but I am fairly sure the mantra of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate applies to all aircraft types. Really, in this situation its only the aviate that is relevant)

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    I think the important mantra here is that in emergency poor but certain options are better than uncertain options no matter how good they might otherwise be. You only have one attempt, so choose the option that is easy. – Jan Hudec Aug 27 '17 at 20:22
  • Regarding aviate, navigate, communicate, in this context, aviate just means push down and stabilize on best glide speed, retracting flaps in the process if they were out. Then you look for suitable spot for forced landing, which is navigation. And if you are high enough, and have radar services, you may even communicate first and ask ATC for nearby runways. – Jan Hudec Aug 27 '17 at 21:19
  • @JanHudec - you're right. In the ideal you'd indeed utilize all three. That was poorly worded in my answer. – Jamiec Aug 27 '17 at 23:12

It depends on a number of factors including the aircraft type, its associated glide/descent ratio at max L/D, where the a/c in relation to the landing site, your current absolute altitude, other potential landing sites nearby, etc. Many of these factors should have been discussed and anticipated for in the pre takeoff briefing prior to flight and is going to require some savvy ADM sometimes in order to make the right decisions.

For ASEL operations, I usually do the following pre-takeoff brief:

Loss of engine power on runway before Vr - ABORT TAKEOFF

Loss of engine, airborne, adequate rwy left - ESTABLISH BEST GLIDE, LAND STRAIGHT AHEAD ON RWY.

Loss of engine, airborne, no rwy left, 0-300 ft AGL - ESTABLISH BEST GLIDE, MAKE OFF FIELD LANDING STRAIGHT AHEAD.

Loss of engine, airborne, no rwy left, 300-600 ft AGL - ESTABLISH BEST GLIDE, SELECT BEST LANDING SITE WITHIN GLIDING DISTANCE +/- 30° FROM RWY HEADING, MAKE FORCED LANDING ON THAT SITE.

Loss of engine, airborne, no rwy left, 600-900 ft AGL - ESTABLISH BEST GLIDE, SELECT BEST LANDING SITE WITHIN GLIDING DISTANCE +/- 90° FROM RWY HEADING, MAKE FORCED LANDING ON THAT SITE.

Loss of engine, airborne, no rwy left, >1000 ft AGL - ESTABLISH BEST GLIDE, SELECT BEST LANDING SITE ANYWHERE AROUND AIRPLANE WITHIN GLIDING DISTANCE, MAKE FORCED LANDING ON THAT SITE. NOTE: DEPARTURE AIRPORT MAY OR MAY NOT MEET THAT CRITERIA AT THIS POINT.

IF TIME AND WORKLOAD PERMIT, COMPLETE ENGINE FAILURE AND FORCED LANDING EMRGENCY CHECKLISTS.

  • You and I both know what all caps means on an emergency checklist, but it would be much easier to read this answer without them. – Steve V. Aug 27 '17 at 3:31

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