When both the engine fails or fuel is empty, the airplane is designed such a way to glide in mid-air for sometime.

During this glide phase, is it possible to perform emergency evacuation with the help of other military aircraft? Is it done or tried already?

For discussion purpose, let’s keep aside time taken for military aircraft to reach the airplane location and the time airplane is in glide phase.

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    $\begingroup$ If you had enough altitude/control to even attempt this type of thing, the better/easier/more successful outcome would be to point the aircraft at one of the many airports and land normally. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Mar 17 '20 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ See the IMAX movie "Flyers" from several decades ago. The plot involves a mid-air rescue of someone who has fallen out of a plane. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Mar 17 '20 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ Related: Can a passenger jet be towed to safety if it breaks down in midair? $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Mar 18 '20 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ Not generally possible, but there are cases: popularmechanics.com/flight/a9650/… $\endgroup$ – Dave Gremlin Mar 18 '20 at 14:01

No. That is not even remotely feasible, by any stretch of the imagination.

  1. The extreme wind blast would make it extremely difficult to hold on, even for healthy people. Children, the elderly, and people who are sick or disabled wouldn't stand a chance.

  2. Maneuvering another airplane close enough to reach by hand is impossible, and there's no way to attach a cable to climb across.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, yes and no. Airliners can slow down to approximately landing speed at low altitude, and that's slow enough to exit more or less safely (by parachute, for instance). Doors can't be opened when pressurized, but if all engines are stopped, the cabin will lose pressure fairly rapidly. The impossible part is the Air Force One cable escape. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Mar 17 '20 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ There used to be a ground-to-air delivery system utilizing specially equipped C130s and tethered balloons. There are also winch systems used to recover paratroopers hung up on the outside of aircraft during a jump. Both of these are military performed with trained and experienced personnel. Both are considered for emergency use only. This would not be feasible with one let alone one hundred civilians. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Mar 17 '20 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon I get what you're saying about my first point, so I'll remove it. But the question specifically asked about evacuations with the help of another plane. I interpret that as specifically transferring from one plane to another. But for my second point, the stall speed for a commercial jet is well above the limit for designating a storm as a hurricane; that much wind would cause problems for even healthy individuals, not to mention children, elderly, and disabled people. $\endgroup$ – HiddenWindshield Mar 17 '20 at 17:26

Any attempt to evacuate an aircraft in flight will have to be by parachute, because it's impossible to safely join two aircraft in a way that will let people transfer from one to the other (it has been done, a small number of times between slow-flying barnstorming aircraft, but it was a stunt, not even a demonstration of something intended as a practical procedure).

This won't work because airliners don't carry parachutes. If they did, the weight penalty to do so would make it much more difficult to operate at a profit, and cut deeply into the cargo and luggage capacity (or limit passenger seating, since if it were practical, it would be required).

Even with static-line parachutes, the risk to passengers attempting to evacuate and in-flight aircraft is likely higher than keeping passengers in their seats and belts while making a dead stick landing -- but generally, a competent pilot will have landed the plane before the fuel is fully depleted, so there will be power available to adjust glide or even go around if needed. The rare exceptions to this -- like the Gimli Glider -- have demonstrated that dead stick landing is preferred over a mass parachute jump by untrained people over randomly selected terrain.

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    $\begingroup$ Totally agree. Plus a parachute jump with highly trained personnel in the best conditions and controlled terrain is not without risk. You can plan on injuries and pray for no casualties. Jumps into urban terrain has proven even worse. Combine that with panicked passengers with no training, it would be a disaster. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Mar 17 '20 at 16:21

For which aircraft are you speaking? Each aircraft is going to have a different glide ratio and best glide speed. Altitude is going to determine best glide range and endurance. Either way, any assistance aircraft would have to be on station at the time engine loss occurred.

Now, for arguments sake, let’s consider an average military transport aircraft. A well trained and equipped group of paratroopers can completely evacuate an aircraft in less than two minutes with no more than two minutes advanced warning. That is if they were suited up before the emergency ensued. If they were not suited up, an in-air donning of all the gear for an entire plane load may take ten minutes if all of the parachutes were palletized. Five minutes if each person were already carrying the gear in hand. That would include buddy checks and maybe jumpmaster checks if enough jumpmasters were present. Having done mid-air parachute donning, I know that it is possible. Having not done it in an emergency, I have been conservative on my estimate of the time involved. I also have not included any time spent by the pilots scoping out an appropriate or safe LZ for the paratroopers. Nor time spent racetracking a pattern around the LZ to line up for the right distance and direction for favorable wind drift.

This would be the bench mark for a rapid emergency deployment. It would be the best scenario if flying at low altitudes. If flying at higher altitudes, like those normally flown by airliners, it may be wiser to try to glide down to a nearby airport with all personnel still onboard. It depends on the circumstances. Considering a safe LZ for an entire plane load of paratroopers would be a clearing at least a mile long and an eighth of a mile wide, a safe landing on the same field may be possible for a military aircraft with STOL capabilities.

Now, saying all that, my only real mid-flight emergency came as a passenger paratrooper in a C141 over the Pacific. The pilots opted for a glide to Oahu for a dead-stick landing. We had three other C141s in echelon. Since only a few of us were awake at the time, most of the other paratroopers were not even informed of the emergency until it came time to prepare for landing.

Using that as an example, can you imagine the possibility of doing the same with one to four hundred civilians with no prior training. The weight and space (mainly space) required for the parachutes would eliminate the possibility of carry-on luggage other than personal items. Then, the jump itself would be a complete cluster. The possibility of a complete evacuation of a fully loaded commercial airliner in the time remaining for the glide would be slim. Especially since the jump would need to be performed below twenty thousand feet MSL. Even if you were using parachutes with AADs. Especially if you were using static lines. Above that, your time of useful consciousness without supplemental oxygen goes down to as low as five minutes and continues to decrease to mere seconds at the altitude that most airliners fly.

Again, this is the best case scenario for a commercial airliner. Given the above conjecture, it would make some type of Hollywood style plane-to-plane transfer of passengers darn near impossible in the glide range of most transport aircraft.

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    $\begingroup$ To add some numbers to this: an airliner flies about 6 miles up, but if it lost power and depressurised it would have to descend to about 2 miles (10,000ft) pretty quickly. Then it glides at about a ratio of about 10:1, so it could cover about 20 miles in about 10 minutes. It takes longer than that for passengers to leave a plane normally. $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Mar 18 '20 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ If we gave the airline the benefit of the doubt and said the glide ratio was 17:1 (what I found for the B737), and the jump altitude was 20,000 feet MSL with a ground elevation of 0 MSL, I still don’t think it would be enough time to organize and evacuate a plane full of panicked civilians. Even if they were able to, the casualty rate would be very high. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Mar 18 '20 at 14:59

It is a stunt that has been done by trained wing walkers.

This has been done by wing walkers. In 1921, Wesley May performed a plane-to-plane transfer with a fuel tank on his back and made the first ever air-to-air refuelling. Ok "military aircraft" probably need to be from the times of WWI.

How much this can be done without extensive preparation (suitable type of the both aircraft involved, trained walker, both trained pilots) I would not speculate. Probably not very possible.


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