Harrison Ford’s off-airport landing was predictably a media event, and while it was tough on him and the Ryan ST he was flying, perhaps there is a silver lining in all this. The good news—nobody on the ground was hurt and Harrison, while banged up, is as sold on flying as ever and will be able to go back up again. It shows that most crashes are survivable and by just the kind of guy many of us wish we were—Han Solo or Indiana Jones. Harrison has lots of experience in back country airports and short fields which certainly was beneficial.
Off-airport landings can be made safely, especially when flown by a competent pilot and with a reasonable option for touchdown even at a place like the embattled Santa Monica. The golf course located to the left of the departure runway was a near perfect place to park an aircraft with an ailing engine. The groundskeepers will have some healthy divots to replace but that’s job security. I’m a big fan of runway safety zones and compatible development. ‘Nuff said.
This is the year of avoiding the Loss-of-Control accident (LOC) according to the NTSB, and that includes crashes that occur during takeoff. We are told that, generally, in the event of an engine failure in a single-engine airplane to land more or less straight ahead. This avoids the “impossible” turn back to the airport that carries a high risk of stalling. There are several factors that go into a successful engine-out landing:
- Don’t stall, don’t stall, don’t stall…ever!!!!
- Fly the thing as far into the crash as possible—Bob Hoover’s priceless advice—because it dissipates the G forces.
- A shoulder harness is worth more than gold. If your old aircraft doesn’t have them, get them before buying anything else!!!!
- Minimum speed—above stall—is the best.
- IF you attempt to turn back after takeoff, don’t do it below maneuvering altitude, whatever that might be for your aircraft, and it will likely be significantly higher than you might think.
- Allow time for reaction, confusion, and wishing that you were someplace else.
- Immediately change pitch attitude from climb to glide.
- Feather a controllable pitch prop.
- Make the turn back into the wind which will lessen the ground speed and keep you closer to the airport.
- Optimal bank is about 45 degrees according to author and my friend, Barry Schiff, who has tested this. More bank than that and the stall speed goes up. Shallower means an off-airport touchdown.
- Practice the maneuver at altitude. I speculate that we lose as many or more aircraft practicing for the event than due to actual failures.
- Other options are another runway, a taxiway, or just an open area—any port in a storm!
A few more caveats to avoid the whole adventure in the first place:
- Be sure the aircraft is properly configured for takeoff. If you lowered flaps on preflight, be sure that they are set properly. We’ve suffered six fatalities in the last 12 months due to what I think may be a questionable preflight check.
- Fuel. Verify adequate quality and quantity in a tank connected to the engine.
- Proper maintenance. Obvious, but if the engine isn’t happy, you won’t be either!
Finally, it’s a good idea to think through, on the run-up pad, what you’ll do and where you’ll go if the unthinkable happens. That cuts down on the “swimming-in-glue” that burns up precious unavailable time.
Harrison is a national icon and he’ll say that flight is worth the risk, just as his movie characters always seem to be living life to the fullest. I don’t presume to speak for Harrison, but take this opportunity to start the discussion with some of your non-flying friends. Life is never risk free, but it can be managed. Would love to hear some of your engine-failure-on-takeoff stories that resulted in a successful outcome and why.
A speedy recovery Mr. Ford, and many thanks for all you’ve done for GA!!!!