Acknowledgements:  Thomas P. Turner (Mastery Flight Training, Inc. & Flight Instructor Hall of Fame inductee)

“Freeway motorists captured video of the last seconds of a Piper’s landing on a highway, when the engine quit during an instructional flight near San Diego. The instructor, who reportedly took over the controls “when it was obvious the airplane was not going to make it” to Gillespie Field airport, did a great job of avoiding vehicles, overhead power lines and other obstacles. Motorists were helpful in getting out of the way as well.

As such cases often do, this event caused widespread internet discussion of whether or not to land on a road in the event of single-engine engine failure, or if other options are safer. I submit that, unlike in rural areas with open fields, in the case of major metropolitan areas highways may indeed be the best option.

We talk about the added risk of flight over mountains, over water, and sometimes even over large forests. That discussion almost never includes the quite similar additional hazard of flight over densely populated areas .... If your engine quit over this terrain where would you go? Do you include the lack of emergency landing sites in your risk management decision?

Consider the area near where the Piper went down. There are more emergency landing areas near KSEE than there are in a forest, but only if you consider the highways — far from optimal, but in this case the only real options.

Do you think about the lack of landing sites when planning a flight over densely populated areas? How different is the risk flying over San Diego, or Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, or even over Kansas City or Wichita, than it is flying over the great forests of the Northeast or the upper Midwest?

Just as flight over mountains, open water, or dense forests should prompt consideration of the few emergency landing sites, and perhaps re-routing if possible to remain within gliding range of those few sites available, so too should you think about the lack of options when flying over densely populated areas, and select an altitude and route that keeps you within gliding range of emergency landing options whenever possible.

My point? There is rarely one correct response to an incomplete set of facts. Most of the time I’d say landing on a busy road is not the best option. But seeing the lack of alternatives as the instructor and student would have seen them, I laud them for skilfully carrying out what was probably the only option available to them when the engine quit (whether or not they could have detected engine issues sooner or prevented it altogether will have to wait for the NTSB investigation).

This reinforces how important it is for you to get as much information as possible, and continually evaluate your options before you need to implement your decisions. VFR or IFR, long cross-country or trip around the pattern, take the hazards into account before you decide what’s right for you on that particular flight.

Then, practice similar scenarios. If you ever see a situation where you might have to land on a road, remain current on making short-field obstacle approaches and landings (do so even if you don’t think you’ll ever have to land on a road). 

Hazard management and risk tolerance are very personal things. Whatever you choose to accept, do so because you have the skills and knowledge to do so safely and within the bounds of regulation. Don’t choose to do something very risky out of impatience, or because you failed to evaluate the big picture … or just because someone else on-line said it was a good idea!

Finally, some Pithy Words for Pilots sent by reader Chris Larson:

  • Airspeed, altitude, and awareness. Got to have at least two out of three!

  • Slow & low's a no-no. (re: approaches/final glide)

  • When all else fails, feet pick up the wings. (re: stalls/spins)

  • Altitude = options.

  • Only birds land butt-first!

  • What goes up must come down. Where and how is flexible... unless you procrastinate!

  • Believe the problem first. Ask why later.

  • If it's bothering you, fix it before flying it.

  • No one regrets keeping up to scratch”.


Tony Birth