On Superhuman Pilots and Emergency Landings

propplane.02022012.jpgToday's Atlantic Wire has a fascinating item about a pilot-and-flight-instructor duo who landed their small plane safely, in Mexico, after its propeller broke off (right). The original YouTube video, from a little more than a year ago, is here; it shows the in-cockpit view when things suddenly became very quiet inside a single-engine Cessna 172, and the pilots glided the plane to a safe landing on an empty road.

The video itself is interesting enough, but there were two extra items I thought worth highlighting. One is the headline on the Atlantic Wire item: "Superhuman Pilot Lands a Plane After Propeller Falls Off." The pilots certainly were level-headed and skillful in doing what they needed to do -- with two very frightened passengers in the rear. But this was "superhuman" only in the sense that everything involving aviation is. Any person who has earned a pilot's certificate has been forced to practice for this kind of emergency countless times. And glider-plane pilots of course land this way after every single flight. [*See update below.]

I mention this because it underscores the difference between what is actually hard / dangerous / problematic in the flying world, and what seems hard or dangerous from the lay perspective. If an engine fails when you're flying, that is never good. But contrary to what most people would assume, it is an immediate, life-threatening emergency only if it happens soon after takeoff, when you are closest to the ground and have the least time to respond. The higher up you are, the better -- because then you have the longest time to set up the plane to descend as slowly as possible, as a glider, and pick out the site you would like to aim for.

Every airplane is designed to glide through the air, rather than simply plummet, if the power is cut. And for each model of airplane, there is a "best glide speed," the airspeed that maximizes its gliding distance without power as it inevitably descends. As a pilot you have to know that by memory (for the plane I fly, it is 88 knots) -- and be prepared, as the first reaction to an engine failure, to configure the plane for that speed. Then you start looking around, as the pilots in Mexico did, for the most promising (flattest, safest, least obstructed) site you can glide to. Every pilot has repeatedly practiced such "power-off forced landings," and been examined on them many times. The stress level in practice is obviously different from the for-real pressure of a propeller actually coming off. In practice or a check ride, the instructor will typically pull the throttle and keep his hand over it, saying "OK, you've got no power, what do you do...?" Then you'll either take the plane all the way to a power-off landing, if you're near an airport, or restore the power when you're close to the ground. In 15 years, I've never had to do a "for real" power-off landing, though I've practiced them often.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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