Emergency landing

Emergency landing

An emergency landing is an unplanned landing made by an aircraft in response to a crisis which either interferes with the operation of the aircraft or involves sudden medical emergencies necessitating diversion to the nearest airport.

Types of emergency landings

There are several different types of emergency landings for powered aircraft: planned landing or unplanned landing

  • Forced landing, the aircraft is forced to make a landing due to technical problems, medical problems or weather conditions. Landing as soon as possible is a priority, no matter where. A forced landing may be necessary even if the aircraft is still flyable. This can arise to either facilitate emergency medical or police assistance or get the aircraft on the ground before a major system failure occurs which would force a crash landing or ditch situation.
  • Precautionary landing, may result from a planned landing at a location about which information is limited, from unanticipated changes during the flight, or from abnormal or even emergency situations. The sooner a pilot locates and inspects a potential landing site, the less the chance of additional limitations being imposed by worsening aircraft conditions, deteriorating weather, or other factors.
  • Crash landing, is caused by the failure of or damage to vital systems such as engines, hydraulics, or landing gear, and so a landing must be attempted where a runway is needed but none is available. The pilot is essentially trying to get the aircraft on the ground in a way which minimizes the possibility of injury or death to the people aboard.
  • Ditching, is the same as a crash landing only on water. After the disabled aircraft makes contact with the surface of the water, the aircraft will typically sink if it is not designed to float.


During a forced landing, fixed-wing aircraft glide, while a rotary winged aircraft (helicopter) autorotates to the ground by trading altitude for airspeed to maintain control. Pilots often practice "simulated forced landings", in which an engine failure is simulated and the pilot has to get the aircraft on the ground safely, by selecting a landing area and then gliding the aircraft at its best gliding speed.

If there is a suitable landing spot within the aircraft's gliding or autorotation distance, an unplanned landing will often result in no injuries or significant damage to the aircraft, since powered aircraft generally use little or no power when they are landing. Light aircraft can often land safely on fields, roads, or gravel river banks (or on the water, if they are float-equipped); but medium and heavy aircraft generally require long, prepared runway surfaces because of their heavier weight and higher landing speeds. Glider pilots routinely land away from their base and so most cross-country pilots are in current practice.

UAV forced landing research

Over the past few years there has been a new research area emerging focussed on enabling UAVs to perform a forced landing totally autonomously. This research was started in 2003 and numerous results published since.

Notable examples of emergency landings

Large airliners have multiple engines and redundant systems, so forced landings are extremely rare for them, but some notable ones have occurred. The most famous example is the Gimli Glider, an Air Canada Boeing 767 that ran out of fuel and glided to a safe landing in Gimli, Manitoba, Canada on July 23 1983. On June 1982, British Airways Flight 9, a Boeing 747 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Perth lost power in all four engines, three of which subsequently recovered, eventually diverting to Jakarta. On April 28, 1988, Aloha Airlines Flight 243 experienced an explosive decompression mid-flight, forcing an emergency landing at the Kahului Airport with only one casualty, flight attendant Clarabell "C.B." Lansing. More recently, Air Transat Flight 236 ran out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean on August 24 2001 and made a successful forced landing in the Azores.

A less successful crash landing involved Southern Airways Flight 242 on April 4 1977. The DC-9 lost both of its engines due to hail and heavy rain in a thunderstorm and, unable to glide to an airport, made a forced landing on a highway near New Hope, Georgia, United States. The plane made a hard landing and was still carrying a large amount of fuel, so it burst into flames, killing the majority of the passengers and several people on the ground.

Airliners frequently make emergency landings, and almost all of them are uneventful. However because of their inherent uncertain nature, they can quickly become crash landings or worse. Some notable instances include Swissair Flight 111, which crashed near Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on September 2 1998 while dumping fuel in preparation for a precautionary landing due to fire; United Airlines Flight 232, which broke up while landing at Sioux City, Iowa, U.S.A. on July 19 1989; and Air Canada Flight 797, which burned after landing at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on June 2 1983 after a fire started in the cabin.

On January 17 2008, British Airways Flight 38, a Boeing 777 made an emergency landing at London Heathrow Airport, England. The plane came down too early and passed just a few hundred feet over the houses before the runway. The plane crash landed and skidded, eventually stopping just on the runway, creating a large, visible skid mark for some 400m before the runway. Thirteen people sustained minor injuries as the plane collapsed after the front landing gear came off.

Emergency water landings

Seven intentional passenger (cargo) airliner ditchings have been documented. These figures are for intentional water ditchings, usually as a result of in-flight fuel depletion, rather than an accidental overshoot of landing runway into a body of water. The following figures show survival rates for passengers and crew:

  • Tuninter Air, Flt. 1153, August 6, 2005, of the coast of Sicily, 39 occupants, 23 survivors, 59% survival rate
  • Aeroflot Tupolev 124 ditching in Neva river, October, 1963, 52 occupants, 52 survivors, narrowly missed a tugboat which sped to plane, cast a line and towed it to shallow waters, where the occupants were deboarded onto tug. 100% survival rate
  • ALM DC9, May 2, 1970, the Caribbean, 63 occupants, 40 survivors, 63% survival rate
  • Ethiopian Air Lines 767, November 23, 1996, off the Comoros Islands, 175 occupants, 45 survivors, 26% survival rate
  • Miami Air Lease Convair CV-340, December 4, 2004, Mall lake, Florida, 2 occupants, 2 survivors, 100% survival rate
  • Northwest Orient Airlines Flt. 2, Boeing Stratocruiser, April 2, 1956, ditched in the 430 feet Puget Sound, 38 passengers, all survived the ditching but 5 could not recover the freezing waters, 87% survival rate.
  • Pan Am Flt. 943 Boeing Stratocruiser "Sovereign of the Skies", October 16, 1956, in the Pacific between Honolulu and San Francisco, 30 passengers and crew, 30 survivors, 100% survival rate

Though not a passenger plane, still relevant - Columbian AF C 130 Hercules, October 1982, en route between the Azores and Bermuda stayed afloat for two days.

Until now, there has never been an instance of a passenger plane water ditching in which there have not been any survivors.

See also


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