I like it flat

When you’re flying, how much time do you spend scanning for an emergency landing spot?

If you answered “a lot,” I salute you. If you said “not much,” I refer you to Wally Miller’s excellent 2002 article “Playing the What-If Game.”

I was doing a lot of thinking about emergency landing sites during my recent trip with AOPA’s Fun to Fly Sweepstakes Remos. During this multi-day trek, colleague Patrick Smith and I flew from Maryland over lumpy-bumpy terrain near Huntington, West Virginia, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and onward to Mount Vernon, Illinois, for the Midwest LSA Expo. From Illinois we flew west and then south through Missouri, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and then California.

A funny thing happened as we left Illinois for Missouri and then Kansas. The ground got progressively flatter, and my nerves—usually cranked up a notch or two on a cross-country—got flatter too. Everywhere I looked, I saw great expanses of farmland, with very few power lines or trees to interfere with a forced landing. There wasn’t any need to search for Wally’s “Jolly Green Giant’s footprint.” Middle America offers plenty of options.

In Waco, Texas, we stopped for an overnight visit with our friend Claire. She looked at our route for the next day—Midland, Tex., and then Roswell, N.M.—and snorted. “There’s not much out that way,” she said. “If you should have an engine-out, try to land near something. A town, a ranch.” The implication was clear: We had reached the part of the country where obstructions weren’t so much of an issue, but finding emergency assistance could be.

The Fun to Fly Remos’s 100-horsepower Rotax engine hummed along throughout the trip, but after that discussion you better believe I stopped taking the terrain for granted. Flat is good, but staying alert and having a plan for whatever you might encounter is better.

—Jill W. Tallman


  1. I learned to fly in Chesapeake, OH, just across the river from downtown Huntington, WV. Yes, the ground here is “lumpy-bumpy,” but there are many good emergency landing sites. Flying across boring flat spaces west of the Mississippi, there are many large windmill farms, and a close look often reveals the landscape is not actually flat, just very short rolling hills.

    The lumpy terrain is much nicer to look at, and no, I am not a native to this area. From even a thousand feet in the air, the view of the hills and hollows is quite impressive, and gives you a much better appreciation of how the area was settled and built up, and why.

    As always, altitude gives you more choices. Pick your cruising altitude wisely, and be careful of reported cloud bases as many airports are in smooth valleys surrounded by hills. I often trade a nice view for a longer glide to more options on cross-countries of an hour or more, and go as high as possible when crossing to the other side of the mountains [i.e., to Virginia or the Carolinas], often 7500 msl or higher.

  2. An upside to regularly looking for suitable off-airport landing sites is that you will discover many non paved airstrips in the process, both charted and uncharted, private and public use. Many times over the years, I have seen a surface that looked good for an emergency or precautionary landing, only to then spot a windsock, hangar, aircraft, runway or wire markers,

    Even with the precision of GPS, many non paved landing strips are difficult to locate visually, and even once the “airport” is acquired, determining exactly where the landing zone is requires evaluating what the best surface is for touchdown.

  3. Some 6 1/2 years ago, I had the distinct non-pleasure of losing my engine at a relatively low altitude, northeast of Fort Collins. My basic training from back in late 1972 kicked in, and the landing was a non-event, into a relatively flat pasture. $23,000 later, I had a new engine, and with a few thousand added on, a number of other improvements that were easier to do at the time than waiting until later. But the experience certainly made me more aware of the need for looking for suitable landing spots–and I do that much more than I did before the incident. Yes, there are many uncharted airstrips across the country, and many other suitable landing spots which may result in destroying the airplane but should result in minimizing injuries. But you have to look for them, and now I do, every flight.

    When I fly through the nearby Rocky Mountains, the suitable sites are less obvious, but they are there, although certainly less obvious than a Kansas cornfield. I agree that altitude is your friend, especially when there are fewer obvious sites. But it’s a lot easier to pick a suitable site if you’ve been looking for it as you fly along, than to have to find it after something goes haywire.


  4. I am a Texan and went to college at the Univ. of Texas at El Paso. There were two fellows that came there from Pennsylvania. They rode out from Pennsylvania on the bus to El Paso and were awe struck at the distances between towns and even ranch houses. They said that the environment they were used to seeing in Pennsylvania was a house at least every mile. Unless you live in this kind of wide open country, you will probably be in for a shock of a walk if you have to make an emergency landing. Following a road might be better and even then you might have a wait.

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