How to land a plane on a highway.

How we get from here to there.
March 12 2010 11:34 AM

When Planes Land on Highways

The ins and outs of a surprisingly frequent phenomenon.

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In the second case, in 1977 a storm-damaged Southern Airways DC-9-31 made an emergency landing on a section of rural highway in Georgia. The transcript of the pilots' communications with air traffic control, included in the National Transportation Safety Board report, provides a chilling testimony to the decision-making triage, weighed out in clipped, tense tones, that goes on in such a situation. After the pilots report engine failure, the controller tells them they are approximately 17 miles west of a landing strip at Dobbins. "I don't know whether we can make that or not," the pilot replies. "Uh, is there any airport between our position and Dobbins." The transcript omits an answer, but the pilot's reply tells all: "I thought so." And then comes the urgent, but measured, search for a highway. (The pilot rejects a suggestion from his co-pilot to "get the next clear open field.") One is found, and the pilot asks whether it's straight. It is not. "We'll have to take it." The last words are a flurry of commands; the warning, "there's a car ahead"; a woman's voice saying "bend down and grab your ankles"; and a final "I got it." While the landing was technically successful—"right on the yellow line," wrote the New York Times—the plane struck a variety of ground obstacles: first trees, then utility poles, then an embankment. A house and a gas station were destroyed. Sixty-three people on the plane (including the pilots) and nine on the ground were killed. There were 22 survivors.

Fortunately, however, most highway landings occur without injuries or fatalities. (Indeed, I was rather grimly struck, looking through the FAA database, that aviation-related fatalities on highways mostly seemed to involve skydivers.) Often the biggest problem with highway landings is the subsequent rubbernecking traffic they create. Which brings me to the other major hurdle planes face when landing on a highway: cars. It is not unheard of for planes to strike cars (in this celebrated case in South Africa, the car actually saved the plane), but in most cases, planes seem to land without incident. In Handling In-Flight Emergencies, Eichenberger notes a running argument among pilots about whether it is better to land with or against the flow of traffic. He votes for "with," arguing that a landing plane is traveling only slightly faster than typical highway speeds. "As a driver, I would rather have an airplane drift over my car going the same direction about 20 mph or so faster instead of one coming straight at me with a combined closing speed of at least 120 mph," he writes. For pilots, as for any driver entering a highway, finding a sufficient gap in the flow of traffic is key, but drivers often seem to be able to accommodate the plane. (It doesn't always go so smoothly: In 1952, the New York Times reported on a rather curious highway landing, in Utah: "The landing was perfect, but Mr. Wardle couldn't bring the plane to a stop until the motorist atop whose car he had settled pulled over to the side of the road.")

There is some speculation online about whether it is in fact legal to land on something like an interstate highway. When I posed this question to the FAA's Dorr, he noted, "Once a pilot declares an emergency, all rules become secondary to landing the aircraft safely. If that means putting down on a highway, that's fine; there will, however, be an investigation. One of the goals of the investigation would be to determine if the pilot took the correct action by landing on the highway, or were there other, better alternatives." An unforeseen fuel-line problem will be treated more charitably by investigators than the woes of someone who forgot to fill up (which might, Dorr notes, lead to a loss or suspension of the pilot's license).

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Rather less clear are the moral questions that swirl around such actions. While one could arguably make allowances for, say, a commercial pilot with a full plane who risks landing on a highway with a few cars in an effort to save many lives, what about a solo pilot who attempts a landing on a crowded highway rather than a corn field? Such ethical conundrums—which feel a bit like airborne versions of the classic "trolley dilemma"—are, however, more easily argued on the ground than in a cockpit full of ringing warnings and shrinking options.

In the end, drivers shouldn't spend too much time preparing themselves to encounter a traffic hazard from above. Instead, they should console themselves with the fact that no pilot intends to touch down on Highway 61, and that pilots, for the most part, are well-trained and conscientious, arguably more so than the average driver. As a New Jersey highway spokesman said of the turnpike landing: "The plane landed, he taxied it over to the shoulder. We can't even get motorists to do that when they break down."

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.