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.

Plane lands on a highway. Click image to expand.
A 1940s Cessna 120 is escorted down Interstate 80 in 2006

A curious, if generally underappreciated, feature of a highway or a road is that it sometimes becomes a runway.

While such intersections of aerial and terrestrial transportation are not common, they happen with a scattered frequency you might find surprising. Last month, for example, the pilot of a single-engine Cessna, ferrying a traffic reporter in the predawn prologue to rush hour, made an emergency landing on the not-yet-congested New Jersey Turnpike. (Which exit, as one asks of things New Jersey? Exit 4, near Cherry Hill.) A week later, the pilot of another single-engine plane lost power and landed on a road just off Highway 50 near Sacramento, Calif., striking a car but causing no injuries. And, just last week, another single-engine with mechanical difficulty landed on U.S. Highway 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon, Utah.

There are no hard numbers on annual occurrences of airplane landings on highways or streets, but a troll through the Federal Aviation Administration's incident database shows that there tend to be more than a dozen such events in any given year (that the FAA knows about, at least). The events range in nature and geography. Mechanical difficulty ranks prominently in the causative universe. But pilots running out of fuel ("fuel starvation," as investigators put it), whether owing to unforeseen flight complications or actual negligence, is common, too. One FAA report dryly refers to a plane that "landed on a public street to discharge a passenger." And emergency landings can take place on deserted country roads, residential neighborhoods, or bustling thoroughfares. As the FAA's Les Dorr, after looking through the database himself, put it to me in an e-mail: "Highway landings are rather more frequent than I would have thought."

It's not difficult to imagine why aircraft often end up on the road. First, there is the inevitable condition that some small percentage of the planes in the air will encounter engine trouble. In some of these cases, pilots can limp on to their original destination or find a nearby airport. Then there are the other cases. "Total engine failure imposes surprise destinations," writes William Langeweische in his book Fly by Wire. "If not Charlotte, then some other airport. If not an airport, then an unobstructed highway; or, in descended order, a large flat field, an especially large golf course, a forest, or in the extreme, a lake or a river for ditching close to shore." Suffice it to say there are far more roads than runways.

Second, there is the physical resemblance between roads and runways (indeed, the FAA has tracked cases where pilots mistook one for the other). It is not uncommon for runways to be converted into roads (e.g., "Old Airport Drive"), and, as any taxi driver in Singapore will tell you, the long, straight section of the East Coast Parkway close to the airport, bordered by large potted plants rather than trees, can be converted into an emergency runway. (The tale recalls the old and incorrect story that Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System was built with a proviso that one in every five miles be straight to serve as emergency military landing strips.) In last month's New Jersey landing, the pilot noted that the well-lit Jersey Turnpike was the only thing he could see. The two forms are so similar that in some cases, roads are even used as illicit runways: Consider the notorious case of Matthew E. Duke, the renegade U.S. pilot who was ambushed by Cuban soldiers on a highway outside of Havana, after he'd landed his plane there to pick up Miami-bound anti-Castroites.

Roads present problems, however. As Jerry Eichenberger notes in his book Handling In-Flight Emergencies, "roads look inviting because most of us are used to landing on strips of level pavement." But, he cautions, "highways contain more traps for the unwary than are obvious at first thought." Power lines, for one, running parallel to or across the road. Traffic signs, which planes have been known to hit. And even big, wide freeways have obstacles like overpasses and bridge embankments.

Indeed, while landing a large plane on a highway might seem easier than, say, landing one in the Hudson River, history suggests that's not necessarily so. In the two most significant cases of a commercial aircraft attempting to make an emergency landing on a road, the difficulties came not with the landing itself but with ground obstructions encountered thereafter. In 1971, a Pan International Airline BAC-111 flying from Hamburg, Germany, to Spain made a forced landing on the Kiel-Hamburg autobahn, but 22 passengers were killed when, as one report described it, "the front fuselage section was cut off as a result of an impact with a road bridge."

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).

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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