Saturday, August 13, 2005

How to Land an Airplane

Someone did a Google search on that topic and found this blog. Some airplanes are equipped with internet access, but I'm going to assume the searcher was preparing in advance, and not in desperate need of the information. It's too late now, as that was a few weeks ago.

Just in case, let me present a quick step-by-step primer. Remember a good landing is one you can walk away from. (It's a great landing if the airplane is reusable).

1. Find a suitable landing site

The best place to land is an airport. If you have any problems, prefer the airport with the best weather, the longest, widest runways and the most extensive emergency services. If you haven't got an airport, choose the longest, flattest, hardest surface available, without obstructions.

2. Tell them you're coming

Tune the radio to 121.50 and announce your intentions. Use plain English (or your local language) not pilot speak. Something like "My name is Albert and I have an emergency because I have never landed an airplane before," will get a lot of people's attention. Tell them to the best of your knowledge where you are, what sort of airplane you are flying, how many people on board, and exactly where you plan to land. If you happen to know your flight number (it might be on your boarding card, or on a post-it note on the dashboard, because pilots can never remember it either) or the callsign of the airplane, that would help a lot. ATC will line up all the firetrucks for you and move others out of your way. They can also help you find an airport. Don't let them distract you from your primary task of landing. If they tell you to do something you can't do, refuse.

3. Prepare the cabin

Stow all baggage. Have people remove items like eyeglasses and sharp jewellery from their person and aggressively tighten their seatbelts. Review evacuation procedures. Try to keep the passenger alertness level above complacency but below panic.

4. Configure the airplane for landing

You need to slow down to a suitable approach speed. Too fast makes it hard to land, too slow makes it hard to fly, so you want to make an effort here. The air traffic controllers may be able to help you out. Maybe there's a TOLD card on the dashboard, or a placard listing approach speeds at different weights. Pull back the throttle(s). You'll hear the engine sound decrease, and the airplane will start to descend. Pull back on the yoke a bit to stop it descending and it will slow down instead. See if you can find a thumb switch on the yoke, or a vertically mounted trim wheel somewhere in the cockpit so you don't have to use a lot of strength to pull back. You'll also want the gear and flaps down. There are particular speeds at which these things should be deployed, but wrinkled flaps and torn gear doors are tolerable. The gear handle looks like a little wheel and the flap handle like a spatula. They should also be labelled. As a rough approximation, put the gear down with the airspeed indication at six o'clock and put half the flaps down, then slow to a speed at about the four o'clock position. Once you're happy with the speed, adjust the power so that the airplane is descending at a rate that will bring it to the runway and the ground at the same time.

5. Align with the runway

Bank the airplane towards the runway and then level the wings when you're pointing straight at it. Keep the wings level. You can do a bit of steering with the rudder pedals to keep the nose pointed straight ahead. Keep it straight. If it looks like you are going to land before the runway, increase the power. If it looks like you will go too far, pull the power back further and put down more flaps. Keep the airplane pointed at the runway.

6. Flare

When you get so close to the ground that you're afraid the nosewheel is about to crash into it, reduce the power to nothing and pull back on the yoke to level out. Don't pull the nose way up, just level out. The longer you can hold the airplane level with the power at idle, the slower the airplane will be going when it hits the ground. Slow is good, especially if you have no experience braking or steering on the ground. You both steer and brake with your feet on most airplanes as you are slowing down, but if you've never done it before, chances are you'll overdo it and go off the runway. Don't do anything too hastily, and remember the firetrucks are right behind you.

Good luck, and be cautioned: this website is no substitute for a good flight instructor. Aviatrix takes no responsibility for results.

I'd love to know how far off this advice is for your airplane.


david said...

I don't think it's too bad, aside from the idea of making course corrections using the rudder on short final. That might be OK for tiny changes of a degree or two, but I'm not sure that a screaming 1970's disaster-movie-type passenger-cum-pilot would know the distinction, so it sounds like a recipe for a spin.

Also, if it's a big jet, won't you use a tiller for ground steering instead of the pedals?

John said...

Not bad advice, given the situation. There are series of books entitled "The Worst Case Sceniario" that provide instructions for all sorts of weird emergencies, like escaping from a car that's sinking in a lake and landing a plane. You description is pretty close to the one they provide.

I'd Just add one more step - Exit the aircraft and don't let the emergency vehicles run you over.

Anonymous said...

I might add in something about the stall warning, e.g. "If you pull back too much a horn will start to beep or the yoke will start to shake, in which case you should stop pulling back so hard." On the off chance that someone who reads this today actually has to land a plane someday and actually remembers such a trivial tidbit.

Otherwise, I thought it was a good, generalized description. I like how you gave the 4 and 6 o'clock position examples in relation to dropping the flaps and gear.

Aviatrix said...

Good point on rudder steering and the stall horn/shaker. Overcontrolling is bad news with the rudder or the ailerons.

I thought about mentioning the steering tiller, but decided that oversteering the nosewheel at landing speeds was potentially very dangerous, while if the airplane is still on the runway by the time the rudder loses effectiveness on the rollout, it will probably be going straight enough.

I would certainly expect the hypothetical hero to abandon the airplane on the runway. Taxiing to the gate can be the hardest part of the flight.

Oshawapilot said...

I'm curious if a completely aviation illiterate layperson could ever accomplish this.

Before I started training, I thought myself to be pretty capable when it came to planes. It didn't take long to realize that this wasn't exactly the case, and that I had alot to learn...and I've been flying Flight Simulator for 20+ years before I started training (FWTW), my father was a pilot, and I've always been aviation literate.

Could "Joe Businessman" off the street ever really accomplish landing a commercial jet (or even a small commuter) in real life?

I don't know. I'd be curious to find out if this has ever happened in real life...?

Curious you should write about it, as just today I listened to a clueless talk-radio host chat about the same thing. "How hard could it be, they do it in the movies all the time!".

Scary thing was that he was dead serious.

An interesting writeup though.

Aviatrix said...

I don't know. One forgets how much one knows, and how long it took to learn when assessing the ease of a task. I landed a heavy jet simulator with one engine and multiple automation failures using the same skills and technique as I flew little airplanes.

Don't put Joe Businessman in the pilot's seat, though. Go back to economy class and get Joe Farmer or Jane Truckdriver.

Anoynmous said...

I suspect most people would land too fast, not knowing to maintain the proper attitude. Controlling altitude with the throttle and speed with the elevators is not entirely intuitive.

Watching people playing with flight simulators at a museum some years ago, I noticed that nearly everyone was trying to aim the nose of the airplane down towards the airport throughout the entire process. Those who reached the runway almost always ran off the end before stopping, and those who eventually obeyed the instructions to pull up almost always stalled and crashed short. One person who landed beautifully was obviously an experienced pilot -- he told his companion that he kept wanting to reach for the flap handle.

Aviatrix said...

Yes, anoynmous, I agree. That's one of the dimensions in which I don't expect them to stay on the runway. I was trying to get the airplane to a reasonable speed in step four, but it's true that instinct might bring on the "point the nose at the runway" technique. There's also an "oh my god here comes the ground" reaction that makes non-pilots start to flare way too early.

With a bit of luck the two would cancel each other out and the excess airspeed on final would be lost in the early flare. On a runway whose clearway ploughs through a perimeter fence onto open plains with no ravines.

Then there's the "engage autoland and prepare the cabin" technique.

DPH said...

I don't know if anyone will actually read this, but I had the opportunity to fly a couple cycles in a full motion 737-700 series sim,

- I currently have no pilot license, but would be considered aviation literate, and a bit obsessive. I do hang-glide a little, so real flying is not entirely foreign to me.

- I have flown my PC sim with a joystick and rudder pedals, so I was familiar with ground steering with the pedals.

- I have also jump seated 737-200 and 700 series planes so I was fairly familiar with the control layout. (prior to 9-11)

Conditions --> essentially zero wind. 1 cycle daytime, 1 nighttime, obviously no stress of the situation, no dealing with radios, or any other issues.

Result --> no crashes, first landing half on runway and half off (hard on landing gear and likely would have caused some problems if it had been real).

Second was better, but I landed halfway down runway 34 in CYYC, if it had been a shorter field I would have been in trouble.

Conclusion --> Despite the fact that I have WAY more experience than a typical Businessman pilot, including familiarity with SOP of the aircraft in question, I still would likely have crashed, but at least I would have done it in the airfield so maybe the emergency response would have helped.


Anonymous said...

TV show Mythbusters just did a special on whether someone with no experience could land a commercial plane. They used a flight simulator in NASA, and attempted to land with no help whatsoever. Of course, they crashed shortly after (mainly due to speed and stalls).

They did a second run through, but this time, Air Traffic Control was giving them directions. Every participant was able to safely put the plane in the center of the runway successfully.

They also added that no passenger in the history of aviation has had to land a plan. There simply hasn't been a case where both the pilot and co-pilot have been out of commision and nobody else to fly the plane. They also shared that most newer airplanes have auto-pilots that can safely land the plane, and configuration with very simple as well.

Anonymous said...

Well, this may already be known by now, by the one who wondered if anyone, a passenger, has ever landed a plane, like in the movies, due to the pilots being hurt or sick or god forbid dead. NO, this has never happened in aviation history, its all Hollywood made up stories. On the show Mythbusters, they did see if an average Joe could land, and they were able to, but it was in a simulator. They explained that if it were to happen, that an experianced pilot could possibly talk you down, and it worked, but again it WAS in a simulator. I'm in the process of getting my private certificate and its not the easiest thing to do, landing, we all know there are many factors to concider, but the explaination sounded fairly good. But, there's nothing like actually doing it!

Amano said...

Probably good advice; however, for someone trying to land in an emergency, the probably wouldn't know what half of the controls are. I think i would definitely crash.

Leigh said...

I need to do research for a story idea i am working on for school. I have a small jet - think Air Force One. Everyone on board is out cold - or nearly so. There are several smaller aircraft following. Is it possible to get someone else on board, or get it into some kind of controlled crash externally? I realize this sounds like a Harrison Ford fantasy type of story line, but I'd love to be able to take my story from this angle with some way of showing potential legitimacy. So, is there any way to rescue if not the plane than at least a passenger? thanks.

Aviatrix said...

Leigh, the aircraft that usually carries the president and is termed Air Force One is what used to be called a jumbo jet--a Boeing 747. Google Payne Stewart. Is that the kind of small jet you are thinking of?

What I would recommend for your scenario is for the jet to fly until it runs out of fuel. If the autopilot was flying, it would try to maintain altitude. This would cause speed to bleed off, but you can say that it was programmed to automatically disconnect when the speed decayed below a certain value. This would leave the airplane descending at that low speed. Now if you put smooth terrain ahead of it, or have it ditch in relatively calm water, you can have your people on board be okay and your following people rescue them. There's no fuel so it won't burn and the fuel tanks are full of air so that will help it float.

There are real life accounts of airplanes whose crew bailed out and landed on their own, even without autopilots keeping them straight, and accidental landings on level snowy terrain when the crew couldn't see and didn't know they were too low.

e-mail me if you have more questions.

Heatblizzard said...

If you have Flight Simulator you can practice this without actually dying and you need to only spend about 50-100 for a decent joystick with throttle controls!

Flight Gear is a good open sourced freeware one if you don't want to pay tons of cash as Microsoft's Flight Simulator got dumbed down after Fight Sim X Gold Edition came out.

The new one by Microsoft is just called *Microsoft Flight* and it's more of a game then a simulator plus you can only fly in a few places since they will release scenery one at a time.

I am not sure if scenery is free or payware either for the new Microsoft Flight.