How to execute a forced landing: A student pilot experience (Part 1)

Contributed by Learn to Fly student Howard Lau.

The man who sent me on my first solo flight in Hong Kong is full of wisdom and has a sense of humour in the cockpit. He shared the following flying experience on Cessna 152 with me, which I wanted to share with you now as a case study full of tips that will guide you on how to execute a forced landing.

On the 26th of February, like any other Sunday, I was sitting in the flight operation office in Hong Kong. Little did I know, out there in the Tolo Harbour, a Cessna 152 was about to be at the centre of a whirlwind adventure involving a forced landing.

OUTSIDE IN TOLO HARBOUR, AT ABOUT 2800 FEET

At the time, we were doing some pre-examination exercises for students, and we had just turned around towards the Shek Kong Airfield. The engine suddenly ran rough, so I pulled the carb heat out and went full throttle, but it did not change the situation. I was thinking, “Is this my lucky day? Alternatively, a bad day?”. But really, you don’t have time to think or even pray.

A DECISION HAS TO BE MADE IN AROUND TEN SECONDS

I had three options.

  • Go back to Shek Kong, but in that case, I would fly over Tai Po and many buildings.
  • Fly over to the dam wall (of the Plover Cove Reservoir), but it was 11.30 am on a Sunday which means many people were there.
  • Fly towards Three Fathoms Cove.

I thought of those three options and discarded the first two options as they were too populated. Either way, today was the day for learning how to execute a forced landing.

WHEN YOU ARE AT THAT HEIGHT YOU WILL HAVE LESS THAN TWO MINUTES BEFORE GROUND IMPACT.

I was thinking, “if I drag on too much or if I drag on too long, I wouldn’t have the altitude to execute my approach.” At this point, I still didn’t want to believe that I had to do a forced landing, and I always wanted to revive the engine and glide back into the airfield. I asked ATC for approval to climb above the vertical limit, and they said, “Sure, no problem.”

HE GOT A DENIAL SIGNAL. THEREFORE, HE NEEDED TO EXECUTE A FORCED LANDING.

The rule of the thumb here is to get a plan and stick with it. If you keep switching and your aircraft keeps descending, you will eventually be forced to land ahead, which usually does not go well at all.

SO HOW DID HE MANAGE TO LAND ON THE TREES OF THE GOLF COURSE WITHOUT INJURIES?

MOREOVER, WHY THE TREES?

I was trained to approach a field with an escape route to overshoot and go around in case something miraculously happens to the engine. The most important thing is that you have a technique to slow down. I can do S-turns to bleed off the height and shorten the landing distance, and side-slipping helps as well.

I was at 70 knots, nowhere near 60, and I was out of options at the time. If I dived the aircraft into the golf course, I would gather up speed, which may result in a tumble and getting wet. I spotted a relatively flat spot in the trees. I went for it. With full flaps, I hit the trees at around 45 knots, close to the minimum controllable airspeed.

Intentionally, I aimed between two branches so the wings would hopefully lessen the impact and it did. The left-wing was broken off, but we walked away unhurt.

Head to Part 2 to see the lessons learnt from this forced landing case study.