Lesson 21: Practice Forced Landings

Practicing emergency landings is a bit like paying for car insurance. You really hope you’ll never need to use it, but you’re bloody greatful for it if and when the time comes.

I’d be flying with a new instructor today (this’ll be the 4th!) as my schedule meant I couldn’t make it with my usual ones without waiting another week. Thankfully, the PFL lesson is fairly self-contained so it doesn’t matter too much. In fact, as I’ve found when flying for the first time with my other instructors, it’s normally a beneficial experience as I pick up new tips and learn things I hadn’t already been taught.

Before the lesson, we had a fairly lengthy pre-flight briefing talking through what we’d be doing. There are many different ways of executing a forced landing – my learning to fly book has 2 methods, and there are plenty of other ways too. My instructor explained how when doing his PPL he had struggled with field selection during PFLs, and it was only when doing his instructor training that he learnt a method that felt much more intuitive to him. So today we’d be learning that method.

He calls it the seven step method. In the event of an engine failure:

  1. Stay calm, don’t panic and fly the aeroplane! Adjust attitude and trim for best glide speed (73 knots in the Warrior)
  2. Assess the wind direction & turn downwind. Lookout for smoke to give an idea of wind direction, failing that use the most recent wind direction you have been given (eg from the ATIS on departure).
  3. Pick a suitable field (more on choosing a field later) and nominate a 1000ft point.
  4. What’s up – check to see what might be wrong.  Carb heat on, fuel – change tank, check magnetos, check primer is in and locked, throttle open, mixture rich, fuel pump on, check engine t’s and p’s. Obviously at this stage if you can restart the engine then you can continue to fly normally and don’t need to proceed to the next steps.
  5. Maydall call – Mayday x 3, Station you’re calling, Your callsign, Aircraft Type, nature of problem (eg Engine Failure), Attempting Landing in Field, Position, # of POB, Squawk 7700. Eg:  Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Gloucester Approach, G-GFCA is a PA28, Engine Failure, Attempting Landing in Field,  10 miles north west of airfield, 2 POB. Squawk 7700.
  6. Engine shutdown. As we can’t restart the engine, we need to shut it off. Fuel – off, magnetos – off, throttle – closed, mixture – ICO.
  7. Crash checks. Seat belts – tight, door unlatched, passenger safety brief, master switch off.

The beauty of doing it this way (eg turning downwind) is that it makes field selection easier. Whilst flying downwind, you know that any field to your left or right is a potential landing site, as you can turn base and then on to final and be flying in to wind. Landing in to wind is important, as it enables you to land with the slowest possible ground speed.

When you’re confident that you can reach 2/3rds along the designated landing site, extend the first stage of flaps. Extend the second stage of flaps when you’re confident you can make it to 1/3rd along.

This all assumes you’re at a fairly reasonable height – say at or above 2500ft above ground level. If you’re lower than this, you’ll have less time in the air and may not be able to complete all those steps. Only attempt the checks that you have the capacity for. Below this height, to maximise available time, you may be better turning directly base (instead of turning downwind) and limiting your field selection to fields that are in to wind (eg on your left or right – not left and right).

So what makes a suitable landing site? Ideally, it’d be an empty long length of tarmac, in perfect condition, with emergency services located onsite and a well-stocked pub. But if you don’t have an airport in range, you’ll probably be picking a field.

Things to consider when selecting a field include:

  • Size – is it big enough to land and stop safely, allowing a reasonable margin for error?
  • Shape – a wider field is better than a long, narrow one as it gives you a wider range of approach paths
  • Surface – ideally unobstructed, short grass. Avoid tall standing crops. If you have to land in a ploughed field, aim to land parallel to the furrows – not across them
  • Slope – ideally flat
  • Surroundings – clear of power lines, phone cables, obstructions, etc on the approach path. Ideally the under and overshoot areas would make good landing sites too.

After the briefing, I went out and did the A-check and got myself settled in to the plane. A couple of minutes later, we were taxying out to the runway. One thing I learnt today is to move throttle to idle before taking off the parking break. (When parked, we move the throttle to around 1200rpm.) Makes sense when you think about it – something I hadn’t picked up on before.

We were soon up in the air and climbing to 3500ft. During the climb, I initially forgot to do the climb lookout (either by lowering the nose, or moving to the right and back to the left) – something I need to remember for future.

During the first FREDA check, I completely forgot to check for carb icing until I was reminded by my instructor. Duh! 

Apart from that, everything was going well. My instructor demonstrated a PFL and then I had a go at doing one. Here’s a clip of me doing my thing:

We practiced quite a few PFLs at 2500ft as well as some lower level ones, where you really don’t have much time. Selecting a field and running through the steps felt ok to me. The hardest task was trying to explain which field you had picked, whilst surrounded by fields that all pretty much look the same!

When we were happy that I’d practiced enough, we headed back to the airfield. I requested rejoin instructions from about 10nm out, and was told to report again at 3nm. I planned the approach so that I’d arrive at the airfield above the numbers of the active runway, with the runway on the right hand side (it was right hand circuits). After reporting at 3nm, we were transferred from approach to tower and given clearance to descend on the deadside. The next few minutes went pretty quickly – there were 3 aircraft behind us and 2 ahead. At one point, an aircraft requesting rejoin was told the circuit was full and to wait in the overhead. I hadn’t heard that before!

After a stressful couple of minutes (doing lots of lookout and adjusting our track to fit in) we were had landed and were coming to a halt. Tower asked us to report runway vacated (the plane behind was on 1nm final) so we kept our speed up as we continued down the runway waiting for the exit on the left. After turning left (on to runway 18/36) I was about to report vacated, but my instructor corrected me. Even though 22 was the active runway and we had turned off it, we don’t “vacate” the runway until we cross the yellow lines, which using this exit meant after leaving 18/36. Another new one for me. All good learning.

A quick de-brief back in the office and that was it for today. I’ll revise PFLs later on in the course as we get nearer to the final test. Next-up: navigation!

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