On Superhuman Pilots and Emergency Landings

By James Fallows

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.

So: well done by the Mexican duo in executing this when it was not just a test. What would really be "superhuman" would be for a pilot without instrument training to fly into a cloud, as JF Kennedy Jr did, and somehow survive without crashing the plane. That's for another day.

CirrusChute1.jpgHere is the other relevant point. The big breakthrough that Cirrus Design brought to aviation in the late 1990s was a built-in parachute for the entire airplane, as shown at right. That is the innovation I described in Free Flight, and its significance is that it gives pilots like those two in Mexico another choice. They had the good fortune of clear weather and an uncrowded road within gliding range. But if it were dark, or cloudy, or over the mountains, or at night, a gliding descent might not have ended as well.

Or over water -- because  hitting the water's surface even at a "slow" landing speech of around 70 knots can be dangerous. Seventy knots is about 80 mph; imagine driving a car off a high bridge at that speed. Recently Dick McGlaughlin, a medical doctor and Cirrus owner who had been flying volunteer service missions to Haiti, had his engine fail while over the water off Andros Island in the Bahamas. He pulled the parachute, landed on the water safely, and with his daughter was picked up unharmed by the Coast Guard.

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Here is an interview with McGlaughlin about the engine failure and descent, at the Cirrus owners' website; a precis, by Cirrus pilot and former Atlantic guest blogger Sanjay Saigal, of McGlaughlin's medical work in Haiti; and an hour-long video of a detailed analysis by Cirrus pilot Rick Beach about the safety record of the parachute. And here's one of several Coast Guard pictures of the McGlaughlins leaving the plane in their raft (which is required on long over-water flights).

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Congrats to the pilots in Mexico last year. Congrats to the McGlaughlins this year, and to the Cirrus and Ballistics Research engineers who created the parachute they relied on. And on reflection, maybe everything about this actually is superhuman.
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* UPDATE
  As several people have written to note, there is indeed a separate question of the structural damage that could be done by a propeller blade ripping off, at very high RPMs. It didn't appear, from the look and sound of the video, that any such damage occurred -- but if it had, it would have created a much more serious emergency. I am talking strictly about the challenge of landing an airplane when the engine power has failed.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/02/on-superhuman-pilots-and-emergency-landings/252435/