All About Autorotation
When a helicopter engine quits, the aircraft "autorotates": The rotor blades spin freely in the wind. Using a combination of the cyclic control stick, the collective, which controls the pitch of the blades, and the pedals controlling the tail rotor, a pilot can alter the speed of the spinning blades, and by increasing their pitch, somewhat slow the descent for what is hoped will be a soft landing. Roger Stradley, a 62,000-hour commercial pilot who has done a little of everything in aviation—charters, flying and repairing helicopters, aerial agricultural work, firefighting, gliding, flight instruction—says the only time he lost an engine was in a Bell 47 Super G helicopter while doing a magazine photo shoot in the mountains near Big Sky, Montana. He managed to autorotate the Bell onto a highway leading up a mountain canyon, but no sooner had he set down when he saw a propane truck coming at him. "I thought we were goners," Stradley says. But the truck cab just missed the cockpit, and the helicopter blades glanced off the top of the rounded tank. "I was more afraid of telling my wife what happened than of going to the Great Hereafter," he adds.
A Most Unusual Autorotation
Vintage aircraft specialist Andrew King was making a fourth test flight of a rare 1932 Pitcairn PA-18 Autogiro in July 2008 when at 2,000 feet and a mile from the New Castle, Ohio airfield, the fuel pump quit. King was especially well suited to handle the situation. He had trained on a gyroplane, which operates on the same aerodynamic principles as the Autogiro, and had consulted with, among others, the late Steve Pitcairn, son of the aircraft's builder, Harold Pitcairn, and the late Johnny Miller, then 101, who last flew that very aircraft in 1939. Still, King had to determine the flight characteristics of the Pitcairn pretty much by feel. Being close to the airport, "I was in a good spot, relatively speaking," he says. He pitched the nose for what he guessed was the best glide speed and headed for the airfield. The rotor on an Autogiro spins freely, always in autorotation, with the spinning rotor providing lift. With the engine out, the drag produced by the aircraft's 40-foot-diameter blade made for a very steep descent, King says. When he got to the airfield, at an altitude of 800 feet, King pulled the control wheel all the way back. Unlike an airplane, King says, with the Autogiro "you can't stall it; you can't spin it, which was the whole safety concept" underlying its design. The Autogiro simply "dropped like a parachute." At about 200 feet, King pushed the stick forward a bit and made a normal landing and rollout of 50 feet.
A Harrowing Deadstick Landing
Air National Guard Captain Chris H. Rose was the fourth in a flight of four F-16s, at 13,000 feet, returning to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., in June 1996 from a training mission at a North Carolina bombing range. When he pushed the throttle forward, he heard a loud bang. "I didn't know what it was, but it didn't sound good," he later told a National Guard reporter. "Then the vibration started. The distortion was incredible. The whole airplane was buzzing." Rose immediately turned toward the Elizabeth City Coast Guard air station, but he was above a layer of clouds and could not see the base. His fellow pilots helped direct him, and at 6,000 feet Rose broke out of the clouds and saw the runway. He had to jettison two fuel tanks, empty but still heavy, and he feared they might hit a house in the neighborhoods below (they landed harmlessly in a back yard). Like Piché, he crossed the runway threshold 80 mph faster than usual and used the emergency braking system, taking most of the 7,200-foot runway to stop. Rose's feat won him the Koren Kolligian Jr. Trophy, an Air Force award for meritorious handling of an inflight emergency, and today the cockpit-camera video of his ordeal is a big hit on YouTube.
The Ultimate in Energy Management
The space shuttle's approach to landing begins at 400,000 feet over the Pacific, when the orbiter reenters the discernable atmosphere. At 50,000 feet, about 25 miles from the runway, the flight commander takes control. The orbiter rolls out on final approach at 10,000 feet, eight miles from the runway, at 320 mph in a steep descent with the nose as much as 19 degrees below horizontal, at a descent rate 20 times that of an airliner. At 80 feet, the commander begins to flare, bringing the nose up to slow the descent rate and crossing the threshold at some 220 mph. After touchdown, the drag chute deploys, and the orbiter uses about 8,000 feet to coast to a stop. Time elapsed since the commander took control: about five minutes.
How to Make a Deadstick Landing
William Kershner, author of many volumes on flight instruction, notes in The Student Pilot's Flight Manual: "As one instructor put it, ‘hit the softest, cheapest thing in the area as slowly as possible,' which pretty well covers it."
Tom LeCompte's story on vertigo, "The Disorient Express" (Aug./Sept. 2008), won a 2009 Aerospace Journalist of the Year award.