Harrison goes off-airport – and does it well!

blog bigHarrison 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!!!!


  1. Great symbiotic relationship.

    I think we should encourage more golf courses to be built at the departure end of airports for the high concentration of doctors that will follow.

  2. Harrison Ford goes off airport and survives. With all that green out front, and a small aircraft, the impulse to turn back shouldn’t have been all that hard to supress. Harrison is the coolest movie star and a fine pilot, but let’s save the worship stuff until we hear from the man himself. If there is a lesson here, he’ll tell us.

  3. I did not have an engine failure at takeoff, but my engine stopped runing when I made my turn to base. It was in an untowered airport and unfortunately, I had to extend my downwind due to departing traffic. I just hit an embankment at the approach end of the runway. Nothing happened to me, but my great friend was declared a loss. My question is airplane set up. I had debated myself for a long time if I did it right or not. Do you clean the plane? I had gears down and had just dropped my flaps and set the trim. I decided to stay like that to land as slow as possible and used my angle of attack indicator to avoid stalling. To avoid stalling I did not try to stretch my glide. I was a little short. The same in take off. If you are doing a flap down takeoff and your engine fails. Do you clean the plane or it is better to leave the plane undisturbed and just fly it?

  4. Your article was spot on dealing with low altitude emergencies. I’ve been in law enforcement and aviation most of my adult life. From 36 years of training in dynamic situations including 10 years in SWAT the primary key to successful outcomes is mental preparedness. Early in my law enforcement career my training officers would always ask me question like, “What will you do if there is a robbery in progress, when you walk into that restaurant?” They were training me to be mentally prepared prior to entering, to reduce the time of a delayed response. In 36 years of law enforcement I’ve never walked into a restaurant with a robbery in progress, but I still think about it before entering. Old (good) habits are hard to break. As a flight instructor I teach my students to verbalize the engine failure drill immediately before takeoff. Once the brain excepts the possibility that engines fail and the procedure to handle the emergency, the response time is reduced. In 28 years of flying in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska I have never experienced an engine failure, but I still verbalize the engine failure drill before each takeoff. The only thing remaining is experience in off airport operations. In your article you eluded to Harrison Ford’s experience in the backcountry and how it may have played a role in a survivable landing. That is an important element in successful outcomes landing off airport. A pilot who has never landed off pavement may have more difficulty managing a landing in a confined area. In northwestern Colorado we have the luxury of some short narrow BLM strips I use for training pilots to manage off-airport emergencies and pilots who want to expand the utility of their pilot privileges for Backcountry adventures. Visually from the air, these strips look like a two track four wheeler trail, but safe to use. After a pilot makes a few landing, they gain some confidence they can manage other off-airport landings. As pilots we can read about how to do off-airport landings, but you will never have the same confidence without practice and experience in the same environment. In my website: I quote a well know Alaskan bush pilot and floatplane instructor about emergencies. He states, “You don’t rise to the occasion. You rise to the level of your training, practice and experience.”

  5. I have not lost an engine on take off, but I did lose an engine 11 years ago this month at low altitude. I had been practicing commercial maneuvers in my newly purchased airplane and was heading back to the airport, when the oil pressure started dropping. I reduced power, thinking I had perhaps overheated the engine, although neither the CHT nor oil temp gauges showed that. I headed toward the airport at that low power setting and was at less than 1000′ AGL when the prop sped up. I pulled the throttle all the way back, but in seconds there was a horrible clanking and shaking and oil smoke in the cabin. By then I was at about 800′ AGL, I spotted what I thought would be a good road to land on, and so I set up a close downwind for it. I dropped 20 flaps, but as I looked more closely at the road, I could see that power poles were too close on the far side, and I’d likely catch a wing. I looked to the right, and that field looked pretty lumpy. I looked to the left, and that field looked pretty good, so I turned toward it–but by then I had lost enough altitude that I didn’t think I’d clear the power lines.

    I wasn’t taught this part, but to get over the power lines, I dropped the nose to point at the power lines, raised the flaps to speed up, pulled back over the power lines, then immediately dropped the nose and full flaps. I landed in the field with no damage other than some minor cracking of the wheel pants due to the vibration of the tires on the field.

    Except for the dive and reduction of flaps to speed up to get over the power lines, everything else I did was because it was exactly what my first instructor some 31 years earlier had taught me, over and over, usually twice per lesson but once 6 times. Every time I complained about his over-emphasis on engine out exercises, he would say “Someday you’ll thank me, Cary.” As Bob Del Valle quoted at the end of his post, “You don’t rise to the occasion. You rise to the level of your training, practice and experience.” Or as I used to tell students, you can’t learn to do it unless you do it.

    I was trained well, and only 2 months earlier, I had had an insurance check out which included an engine out practice to a landing. Over the years, I’ve landed at many short airstrips which required landing on a specific spot. All of that made the difference between a successful off-field landing and a crash.

  6. I like his movies too but Ford has been flying for just over 6 years and this is his third accident. In the circumstances the Harrison Ford Legend Award is a bit laughable. If GA really needs an icon maybe we should look for someone with a little more experience.

  7. It has turned out to be a mechanical problem with the carb that caused Ford’s engine failure.

    As for the quote in the article…”Feather a controllable pitch prop”….most single engine controllable pitch props do not feather. Full coarse pitch might be a better term to use.

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