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(article) Off-Airport Landings

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Although they aren't ranked in order of frequency, the ninth item on the FAA's Top 10 list of contributors to pilot-error accidents is "selection of unsuitable terrain". This cause category can apply to planned landings on unimproved surfaces, precautionary landings for weather or other reasons, and unplanned landings that result from engine or other in-flight failures.


The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) tells us:


In the event of an off-airport landing, pilots have used a number of different visual cues to gain reference. Use whatever you must to create the contrast you need. Natural references seem to work best (trees, rocks, snow ribs, etc.)


  1. Over flight. Pass over the intended landing spot at a safe but slow airspeed, at a safe but low altitude-this gives you the best view of surface conditions.
  2. Use of markers. Any sort of items on the ground or dropped to the ground that delineate the landing zone.
    Weighted flags. Again, to outline the area of intended use.
    Smoke bombs.
    Any colored rags.
    Dye markers.
    Kool-aid. Oh, yeah.
    Trees or tree branches.


Dropping items from the aircraft to use as reference points should be used as a visual aid only and not as a primary landing reference. Unless your marker is biodegradable, be sure to retrieve it after landing. Never put yourself in a position where no visual references exist.


Abort landing if blowing snow obscures your reference. Make your decisions early. Don't assume you can pick up a lost reference point when you get closer.


Exercise extreme caution when flying from sunlight into shade. Physical awareness may tell you that you are flying straight but you may actually be in a spiral dive with centrifugal force pressing against you. Having no visual references enhances this illusion. Just because you have a good visual reference does not mean that it's safe to continue. There may be snow-covered terrain not visible in the direction that you are traveling. Getting caught in a no visual reference situation can be fatal.


Watch! The wind


When picking a landing area don't forget to gauge the direction and strength of surface winds. Look for:


Motion of trees, branches or large shrubs.


Blowing dust or debris on or near the surface.


Waves on nearby ponds or lakes.


Animals, especially livestock. Cattle tend to turn so their faces are away from the wind; if wind speeds are great (and it's cold outside) cows usually lie down.


Aero-tip of the day: Look closely at surface conditions and wind characteristics before choosing an off-airport landing surface.



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