The possibility of an off-field landing is present on virtually every cross-country soaring flight, even when flying in a self-launching glider. If the engine or power system fails and there is no airport within gliding range, an off-field landing may be inevitable. It should be noted that many glider pilots not flying cross-country have faced the necessity of performing an off-field landing. Causes of off-field landings while soaring in the vicinity of the launching airport, include rapid weather deterioration, a significant change in wind direction, unanticipated amounts of sinking air, disorientation, lack of situational awareness, tow failures, and other emergencies requiring an off-field landing. In these situations, it usually is safer to make a precautionary off-field landing than it is to attempt a low, straight-in approach to the airport. If the glide back to the airport comes up short for any reason, the landing is likely to be poorly executed and may result in damage to the glider or injury to the pilot.
On cross-country soaring flights, off-field landings are not usually considered emergency landings. As a matter of fact, they are expected and are considered while preparing for flight. On the other hand, if equipment failure leads to the necessity of performing an off-field landing, then the landing can be characterized or described as an emergency landing. Whatever the reason for the off-field landing, each glider pilot must be prepared at all times to plan and execute the landing safely.
Unlike airport landings, no off-field landing is entirely routine. An extra measure of care must be undertaken to achieve a safe outcome. The basic ingredients for a successful off-field landing are awareness of wind direction, wind strength at the surface, and approach path obstacles. The glider pilot must be able to identify suitable landing areas, have the discipline to select a suitable landing area while height remains to allow sufficient time to perform a safe approach and landing, and the ability to make consistently accurate landings in the glider type being flown.
These basic ingredients for a successful off-field landing can be summarized as follows:
- Recognizing the possibility of imminent off-field landing.
- Selecting a suitable area, then a suitable landing field within that area.
- Planning the approach with wind, obstacles, and local terrain in mind.
- Executing the approach, land, and then stopping the glider as soon as possible.
- Attempting to contact ground crew and notifying them of off-field landing location.
The most common off-field landing planning failure is denial. The pilot, understandably eager to continue the flight and return to an airport, is often reluctant to initiate planning for an off-field landing because, in the pilot’s mind, to do so probably results in such a landing. It would be better, the pilot thinks, to concentrate on continuing the flight and finding a way to climb back up and fly away. The danger of this false optimism is that there is little or no time to plan an off-field landing if the attempt to climb away does not succeed. It is much safer to thoroughly understand the techniques of planning an off-field landing and to be prepared for the occurrence at any time.
Wind awareness, knowing wind direction and intensity, is key when planning an off-field landing. Flying downwind offers a greater geographical area to search than flying upwind. The tailwind during downwind cruise results in a greater range; a headwind during upwind cruise reduces the range. Wind awareness is also essential to planning the orientation and direction of the landing approach. Visualize the wind flowing over and around the intended landing area. Remember that the area downwind of hills, buildings, and other obstructions will probably be turbulent at low altitude. Also, be aware that landing into wind shortens landing rolls.
Decision heights are altitudes at which pilots take critical steps in the off-field landing process. If the terrain below is suitable for landing, select a general area no lower than 2,000 feet above ground level (AGL). Select the intended landing field no lower than 1,500 feet AGL. At 1,000 feet AGL, commit to flying the approach and landing off field. If the terrain below is not acceptable for an off-field landing, the best course of action is to move immediately toward more suitable terrain.
For many pilots, there is a strong temptation during the off-field landing process to select a landing location based primarily on the ease of glider retrieval. The convenience of an easy retrieval is of little consequence if the landing site is unsuitable and results in damage to the glider or injury to the pilot. Select the landing site with safety as the highest priority. During an off-field landing approach, the precise elevation of the landing site is usually unavailable to the pilot. This renders the altimeter more or less useless. Fly the approach and assess the progress by recognizing and maintaining the angle that puts the glider at the intended landing spot safely. If landing into a strong headwind, the approach angle is steep. If headwind is light or nonexistent, the approach angle is shallower unless landing over an obstacle. When landing with a tailwind (due to slope or one-way entry into the selected field due to terrain or obstacles), the angle is shallower. Remember to clear each visible obstacle with safe altitude, clearing any poles and wires by a safe margin. Always keep in mind that from the air, wires are basically invisible until they are right in front of you, whereas towers are visible from a distance. Any time there are two supporting structures (telephone poles) it is safe to assume that there are wires connecting them.
Select a field of adequate length and, if possible, one with no visible slope. Any slope that is visible from the air is likely to be steep. Slope can often be assessed by the color of the land. High spots often are lighter in color than low spots because soil moisture tends to collect in low spots, darkening the color of the soil. If level landing areas are not available and the landing must be made on a slope, it is better to land uphill than downhill. Even a slight downhill grade during landing flare allows the glider to float prior to touchdown, which may result in collision with objects on the far end of the selected field.
Knowledge of local vegetation and crops is also very useful. Tall crops are generally more dangerous to land in than low crops. Know the colors of local seasonal vegetation to help identify crops and other vegetation from the air. Without exception, avoid discontinuities such as lines or crop changes. Discontinuities usually exist because a fence, ditch, irrigation pipe, or some other obstacle to machinery or cultivation is present. Other obstacles may be present in the vicinity of the chosen field. Trees and buildings are easy to spot, but power and telephone lines and poles are more difficult to see from pattern altitude. Take a careful look around to find them. Assume every pole is connected by wire to every other pole. Also assume that every pole is connected by wire to every building, and that every building is connected by wire to every other building. Plan the approach to overfly the wires that may be present, even if you cannot see them. The more visible the landing area is during the approach, the fewer unpleasant surprises there are likely to be.
The recommended approach procedure is to fly the following legs in the pattern:
- Crosswind leg on the downwind side of the field
- Upwind leg
- Crosswind leg on the upwind side of the field
- Downwind leg
- Base leg
- Final approach
This approach procedure provides the opportunity to see the intended landing area from all sides. Use every opportunity while flying this approach to inspect the landing area and look for obstacles or other hazards. [Figure 8-18]
Landing over an obstacle or a wire requires skill and vigilance. The first goal in landing over an obstacle is to clear the obstacle! Next, consider how the obstacle affects the length of landing area that is actually going to be available for touchdown, roll out, and stopping the glider. If an obstacle is 50 feet high, the first 500 feet or so of the landing area needs to be overflown during the descent to flare and land. If the field selected has obstacles on the final approach path, remember that the field must be long enough to accommodate the descent to flare altitude after clearing the obstacle.
Hold the glider off during the flare and touch down at the lowest safe speed manageable. After touchdown, use the wheel brake immediately and vigorously to stop the glider as soon as possible. Aggressive braking helps prevent collision with small stakes, ditches, rocks, or other obstacles that cannot easily be seen, especially if the vegetation in the field is tall.