Deadstick Landings | History | Air & Space Magazine
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Deadstick Landings

Brace for impact! Unless you’re the pilot!

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It's a bit of a mystery how the aeronautical lexicon came to include "deadstick." When the engine goes dead, the control stick remains effective. The word emerged from Britain's Royal Air Force during World War I, so one guess is that in the era of wooden propellers, an engine failure reduced the propeller's usefulness to that of a dead stick.

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During the war, engine reliability was so poor that pilot recruits had to prepare for the likelihood—not just the possibility—that an engine would quit. They were taught to land within a 150-foot-diameter circle with the engine off. Today, engines are so reliable that most pilots will never have to make a forced landing; nevertheless, in flight training, engine-out procedures are still standard. To prevent a simulated emergency from turning into a real one should the engine fail to restart, instructors simply pull the throttle to idle and direct students to set up an approach to a suitable landing site, then add power before touching tires to ground.

Still, deadstick landings do happen. If an aircraft loses power, a useful number to know is the aircraft's glide ratio: the ratio of horizontal distance traveled to vertical distance descended. Say, for instance, a paper airplane travels 30 feet for every five feet it falls. Its glide ratio—30 divided by 5—is 6.

Modern glider: 70
Hang glider: 15
Boeing 767: 12
Space shuttle orbiter during approach: 4.5
Human body: 1
 

Least Graceful Deadstick Landing
Agricultural pilot Boyd Morgan was flying over pasture land along a ridge near his home in Belgrade, Montana, in 1982 when the engine on his Cessna Husky quit. Barely 20 feet off the ground, Morgan didn't have a lot of options. Pushing the nose down to preserve airspeed, he headed straight for the trees, aiming for a spot between them so that the wings, rather than the cockpit, would bear the brunt of the impact. Then the wind shifted. The airplane stalled and cartwheeled. Morgan ended up upside down about six feet off the ground, hanging by his shoulder straps. He got his seat belt unfastened, but as he fell through the open cockpit door, the door handle caught his pants, pulling them around his ankles. Other than a wrecked airplane and injured dignity, Morgan came away relatively unscathed. "It wasn't funny then," he says, "but I can laugh about it now."

Most Graceful Deadstick Landing
The legendary Bob Hoover designed an entire airshow routine around a deadstick landing. Adapting a training exhibition he did for pilots learning to fly the twin-engine Lockheed P-38, Hoover flew a twin-engine Rockwell Shrike Commander, a business aircraft never designed for aerobatics, in a performance that culminated with a low-level, high-speed pass in which he shut down both engines; did a loop, an eight-point hesitation roll, and a 180-degree turn; "danced" the Shrike down the runway, touching the left landing gear to the pavement and then the right; and finally coasted to a stop at show center. Hoover called it the energy management maneuver—converting potential energy (altitude) to kinetic energy (airspeed) and back—and dedicated it to another Rockwell product, the space shuttle, which also glides to a landing without power.

Best Ditching
(Deadstick Landing on Water)
The most famous example in recent years: After a US Airways Airbus A320's engines ingested Canada geese and shut down last January, Chesley Sullenberger and copilot Jeffrey Skiles set the aircraft down in New York City's Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew members evacuated onto the wings and were quickly retrieved by watercraft.

Most Embarrassing Ditching
In February 1994, Alan Clark took off in his twin-engine Piper Seneca from Springfield, Kentucky, bound for Crossville, Tennessee, a hop of less than an hour. Clark awoke five hours later, in the dark and over water. He radioed a mayday, reporting that he was running out of fuel. Air Force and Coast Guard aircraft patrolling the Gulf of Mexico found Clark 210 miles south of Panama City, Florida, and led him toward the closest airport. Clark was about 70 miles west of St. Petersburg when both engines quit from fuel exhaustion. Clark ditched the airplane, and a Coast Guard helicopter plucked him from the water, uninjured. In its summary report, the National Transportation Safety Board cited "the pilot's physiological condition (failure to remain awake)" as a significant contribution to the accident. The airplane sank and was not recovered.

Most Frequent Deadstick Landings
For glider pilots, every landing is deadstick. Like Bob Hoover (a glider pilot himself), glider pilots also employ energy management to stay aloft. But even without the advantage of a glider's light weight and high glide ratio, any airplane with sufficient altitude should be able to glide to a safe landing.

Deadstick Landing That Saved the Most Lives
Due to a leak in a fuel line to the right engine, Air Transat Flight 236, an Airbus A330 carrying 306 people from Toronto, Canada, to Lisbon, Portugal, in August 2001, ran out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean. After discovering that fuel was low, captain Robert Piché declared an emergency and diverted to Lajes Air Base in the Azores, but at 39,000 feet and 150 miles out, the right engine quit. Thirteen minutes later, the left engine followed suit. Relying on a ram air turbine to supply limited power to hydraulic and electrical systems, Piché guided the airliner to the runway. Crossing the runway threshold at 230 mph, 70 mph faster than recommended, the airplane used three-quarters of the 10,000 feet of concrete to bounce, then screech to a halt. Fourteen passengers and two crew members were injured during the evacuation. Piché's reward: partial blame for, among other things, not recognizing the problem sooner.

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