Rule #1 in aviation, as recounted to me by my first flight instructor: Don’t hit anything.
Rule #2, of course, is If you have to hit something, pick the softest object you can find and hit it as gently as possible while going as slowly as possible.
It turns out that both of these rules are surprisingly applicable to the art of making good off-airport emergency landings.
First, I should distinguish between a forced landing (one in which you have no choice, usually because the engine has quit) and a precautionary landing. The latter are undertaken when something is wrong and you need to get on the ground ASAP, but where the issue isn’t yet a full-blown emergency such as an in-flight fire or a dead powerplant.
Forced landings are where rule #2 really comes into effect. There are really only two tasks in conducting a successful forced landing. First you find someplace to land, and then you land there. This, of course, obscures much of the real complexity of getting the job done, but it’s easy to let the other tasks you have to perform along the way overshadow these two major requirements.
What’s a good place to land? Well, it has to be within range of your aircraft, and ideally it will be a nice, flat, unoccupied, soft surface with no obstacles or bumps. The odds of finding something like that varies greatly according to where you are. For example, in the area around the Palo Alto airport, you have water to the east, with marshes and power lines to the immediate north and south of the runway, in a heavily urbanized area. On the other hand, out of Madison County Executive you have lots of nice soft farm fields. One key trick is to always be looking around while en route and thinking “OK, if I needed to land, where’s a good spot?” This is both a good habit and a fun game to play, especially in unfamiliar terrain.
“…then you land there” is the more challenging part. During my primary training, one of my major obstacles was my lack of airspeed discipline. Each airplane has a characteristic best-glide speed: maintain that speed and you will get the maximum forward motion per foot of vertical descent. If you go slower or faster than that speed, you’ll get less gliding distance. While your instinctive reaction might be to look around for a landing site, the very first thing you should do is grab the trim wheel, get some nose-up trim in place to reduce the control force required, and slow the airplane to its best-glide speed. Do that and then you’ll have more time to find an ideal landing spot. You have to use that time to do other things, like run through the emergency landing checklist, call Mayday, and so on, but those are all optional… maintaining the best-glide speed is not.
The other problem I had was my approach to the selected landing spot. Ideally you want to pick a spot and arrive abreast of it at about 1000′ above the terrain. In the diagram below, you want to be at the position labeled “2”. At that point, you’re in exactly the same position you’d be in if you were performing a normal landing, and one of the things you practice all the time is power-off landings from exactly that position. For some reason, though, it just didn’t sink in that I needed to approach the landing spot as though I were entering a traffic pattern; I was perpetually too close to, or too far away from, my selected landing spot.
airport traffic pattern; diagram courtesy http://www.cfidarren.com
Why it took me so long to figure out, I don’t know. Once my instructor pointed that out to me, though, my emergency landings improved about 1000%. That’s what I would describe as the secret, at least for me: pick a spot and then navigate to it, at best-glide speed, just as though I was planning a landing on an ordinary runway. Doing that made all the difference in the world. Now I just have to keep following rule #1 and I’ll be in good shape!