Ultralight Emergency Landouts
We of the Georgia Sport Flyers Association are blessed with great instructors and safety conscious members. The purpose of this writing is not to teach you something new but to polish the pearls your instructor has gifted you already. It never hurts to review safety procedures.
Because I previously had a little flying time, much of my training with Ben was devoted to ultralight emergency procedures. He had to undo some of my previous thinking. I was used to gliding at a 40:1 glide ratio. This gives a pilot some time (and distance) while making decisions. In an ultralight, at a 7:1 glide ratio, you dont have that luxury. If you lose power you are landing - now. One of the most important things I learned from Ben is to reflexively put the nose down to maintain airspeed. He also amplified the emergency prime rule - Fly The Airplane First . Worry about the radio and lunch later.
Being prepared for such an emergency accomplishes three things. One, it greatly reduces the stress level when the emergency does occur. Two, it helps you make the proper choices in a very limited time span. And lastly, one of Murphys laws state that the more prepared you are for something, the less likely that event will actually occur. Think of this preparation the same as you would aircraft maintenance or preflight. When the blessed event happens, would you rather have a plan of action or thought choking panic? Take the time now, while sitting safely on your favorite reading chair (mine is bolted to the floor), to develop your plan of action.
Your emergency outlanding will most likely be the result of a power loss from mechanical failure. The fan quits spinning. Know your planes best L/D airspeed. Get to that speed immediately. Pushing forward on the stick should be a well rehearsed reflex. Get the nose down. Not just level, but down. Other causes can be a sudden weather change (a topic for another article), flight control failure and SBB (Sudden Bathroom Break). All of these causes, especially the flight control failure, greatly complicate an emergency outlanding.
Preparing for an emergency outlanding begins before you ever get to the airport. Knowing what types of fields are in your area is essential. Also pay attention to the time of growing season. Has the soil just been tilled? Are the crops young and short or mature and tall? Soy versus corn? A healthy corn crop looks smooth and level from altitude but is absolutely unlandable. Tobacco is unlandable. A freshly turned field may be a little rough but hides nothing. The next time you are driving thru the countryside, take a little detour to some fields. Do this seasonally. It will also make you appreciate farmers more.
The contour of the field is as important as any crop. What looks like a smooth, level field at altitude becomes a sloping, rutted roller coaster up close. This is where a little practice comes in handy. Try choosing a likely, but unknown, field from 2000 feet then fly down and assess it from 50 feet. Please watch for wires. As a matter of practice watch for wires, towers, crop, slope and other aircraft. Do not harass homeowners doing this.
In a real emergency landing you may have to land on sloping terrain. A short field landing technique should be used no matter how long the field. Get down, get stopped. Do not land downhill. It is preferable to land downwind and uphill than upwind and downhill. A downhill landing will only get you an intimate view of the far trees and fence. A steep uphill landing requires extra speed and flying very close to the ground before flairing up the slope. The ground roll will be very short. A side slope presents unique problems. You may have to S-turn creatively to match the terrain keeping your wings parallel to the ground underneath you. And then once you are on the ground, and rolling, you have to turn with the slope. Imagine yourself riding a bicycle in a giant tube. Then, just before stopping, using up your last bit of energy you will want to turn across the slope to prevent your plane from rolling downhill.
Pay attention to your cruise altitude. For instance, if you are flying to Etowah Bend from Cartersville, the first five or six miles are littered with plenty of landable fields. The last 3 or four miles, however, are sparse. I am comfortable at 1300 ft for the first part but climb to 1500 or 1800 ft for the last. And there are still some parts of that flight when I am uncomfortable. As I get more time on the Phantom my anxiety is reduced, but thats just false security. Flying hour after hour without so much as a burp from the engine doesnt guarantee uninterrupted power.
The wind will not always be to your favor. I do not envy my taildragger friends who might have to land downwind over tall obstructions into an unknown short field. Whew. I get sweaty just thinking about it. The wind that changes your heading at 2000 feet will not be the same wind swirling over the trees. Just when you turn final with very little extra speed, and you think you can relax, you have to remain on your toes. The flows and eddies will be different than at Cartersville, Etowah Bend and Rhodes. Know your wind direction on the ground.
The approach. At some point, depending on available fields, you must commit to a field. This is a good time to tighten your straps and say a prayer. Fly as close to a normal pattern as altitude permits. Especially a square base leg. This provides your best chance to judge wind, slope and obstacles. Use a little extra airspeed. You can use slip if you need to descend a little faster. Once you have turned final you cannot change your mind and choose another field. Even if your field has obstacles, you are aware of them and have already planned for them. You simply do not have a chance to evaluate a new field.
Lets look at an example. You are cruising home after the big rally. Daydreaming about your landing contest trophy when you notice on your instrument scan that your altitude is lower than it should be and your RPMs are at 4500 RPM at full throttle. You are descending. Well thats not right , you think. After a moment of confusion your puckerometer surges. But its not pegged because you already know you are at a safe altitude and can easily make it to several attractive fields below. First thing? Nose down, best speed. And you know the direction of the wind. This is merely an inconvenience. Not something to take lightly of course. No landing is to be performed nonchalantly. Your training kicks in. And since you have practiced it, and have a plan, its not a mind numbing terrifying situation. You use your altitude and best glide speed to extend your time aloft as you evaluate your choices. Field size, orientation and terrain run thru your mind. Then crop and obstructions. Check your airspeed. You circle your best choice, if you have the altitude, confirming all your information and getting a feeling for wind. Then you do a nice standard pattern. Check your airspeed. A square base leg gives you the opportunity to check the wind and look for unseen obstacles, especially on the approach end. On final, check your airspeed, you should be looking for obstacles and checking your airspeed. Wheels touch the ground but you are not done yet. Keep your nosewheel light but get stopped. This field is an unknown. There may be all sorts of dangers lurking in the crop. Finally you bounce to a stop. You and your aircraft are intact.
There. Youve done it. You may now get out and do your celebration dance, pat yourself on the back or kiss Mother Earth. You deserve it. Smell the crop. Check your underwear. Then secure your plane. Is the ignition off? Is the fuel off? Is there fuel in it? If you simply ran out of fuel - dont tell anybody about it. We will never, ever, let you forget about it. Make up a lie. And practice it before someone comes to pick you up.
In the preceding example our power loss was gradual. Power loss may be sudden or an unnoticed loss of RPM. The gradual loss is the more insidious. It can delay your decision to commit to an outlanding until you are too low and have passed several good sites. Make your go / no go decision at the highest altitude possible. Dont let yourself get so low you run out of options.
If your engine is going away use the power as long as possible to reach a safe field. Only when your safety is ensured should you consider shutting off, or saving, the engine.
Power loss on takeoff emergencies are another subject to be explored later. The only thing I will say here is Get The Nose Down Fast and Fly The Plane First . Ill bet Ben has these two phrases tattooed somewhere.
Do not concern yourself much with crop damage. If there is a viable crop in your field you will stop before doing much damage. But in reality, most farmers are so proud that their beautiful field saved your bacon they dismiss your minor trespass. Remember; do as little damage retrieving your plane as you can. If you buy insurance it should cover this sort of thing. A farmer can not hold a certificated plane that has landed on his property. I am not sure about our ultralights but he must at least protect your property. If there is any sort of conflict call a Sheriff immediately.
If all else fails and you are faced with the unpleasant task of landing on an unlandable surface, such as water, corn, tobacco or trees, do so with control. This is called ditching . Many pilots think they will just skip along softly on top of the water or corn stalks. But you wont. Your landing gear will get snatched out and your nose will be driven down flipping you over on your back. You want to ditch with the least amount of speed, or energy, as possible. You want to stall, or plop , onto the surface. There is some debate about how to control crash into trees. Some will teach you to aim right between two trees and let your aircraft absorb the energy. If the situation calls for it do so confidently. And in control. For water landing (ditching) Ben suggested shallow water, close to the shore, and sticking one wheel into the water causing a sort of ground loop. This maneuver dissipates energy well and helps to protect both pilot and plane.
If you have a Ballistic Recovery System type parachute now, as you read this, is the time to ponder when you will use it. Know the limitations of your specific rig. How long does it take to deploy? What is the descent rate with your big fat ultralight hanging under it? Would you rather land normally or use the chute ? Repacking cost should not be any concern. Repacking cost about the same as one physical therapy session. I have heard of out of date chutes deploying just fine but, if I had one, I would know my repack date and the condition of my rig. This (BRS) is another subject worth exploring further.
Finally, practice. Practice makes perfect. And perfect is the way I want to handle my emergency landing. Not that we need much of an excuse to fly. But practicing emergencies is a great excuse. And I would log my practice sessions.
I dont know if these random thoughts polished the pearls or muddied the waters. Its good if you disagree with some of it. That means you have given it some thought. I do know, however, that not one of these thoughts are my very own. I must give credit to my instructors and several writers. I hope this helps someone.