Power off landings

There’s a maneuver that I practice regularly and force even my private pilot students to practice, even thought it is not a required maneuver for them. It goes by a number of names. In the commercial PTS, it is called a “power off 180 degree accuracy approach and landing”, some people also call it a simulated engine out landing. Whatever you call it, the goal is simple – to ensure that pilots have the ability to safely and accurately land a plane without power. It’s a maneuver that you will rarely or ever need, but when you do, it could be a lifesaver to be proficient.

I find that many pilots use so much power during their flying of the pattern that they are wholly unprepared for an approach and landing without power. A pilot who doesn’t regularly practice the maneuver is likely to fall into one of two camps:
1) Pilots who will end up way short of the runway, after expecting to fly a normal pattern
2) Pilots who want to make sure they don’t end up short and end up hundreds of feet above the landing threshold
Both are problematic as they indicate an inability to get into a confined emergency landing area.

The Setup

If operating at a towered airport, I ask the tower for a short approach. Being aware of other traffic in, or approaching the pattern, should help you understand whether the tower is likely to grant your request. This tells them you will be flying a shorter than normal pattern, which helps them ensure proper separation. At non-towered airports, I announce an intention to perform a short approach and make sure it won’t cause traffic problems.

Fly a normal pattern on the downwind leg. When abeam your chosen landing point, smoothly but quickly reduce power to idle. I normally use the landing threshold at an airport like EMT that has a good displaced threshold. You can use any point on the runway as a target, but it should allow you safe and legal buffer for your landing.

Staying safe

This is a simulation of an engine out landing. You should ensure that you maintain safe attitude and altitude at all times during the maneuver. I recommend that this be done with a competent and experienced instructor at first.

Executing the maneuver

The pilot should quickly establish an appropriate pitch and trim for best glide. At this point, a rough approximation is better than 20 seconds trying to get the trim exactly right. The pilot should move quickly to a memory checklist of items to try if you had your engine stop at pattern altitude. In a 172, I teach an L pattern flow – fuel selector to Both, mixture rich (or appropriate to altitude), carb heat on, magnetos to both (and then checking L and R if unsuccessful), and primer locked. These two steps should take only a few seconds to complete and you need to continue to fly the plane as you do them. At 1000′ AGL, it is unlikely that looking at a written checklist is appropriate, but that is a personal choice. A note about magnetos – I ask that my students NOT actually move the ignition switch in this simulation. It’s too easy to accidentally turn the engine off in the excitement and and turn a simulated emergency into a more real one.

Now your experience with the glide of your airplane and your visual evaluation of the glide comes into play. I start by executing a gentle turn toward final. I think of initially flying a circular pattern with my landing point at the center of the circle. I attempt to keep the landing point in view as much as possible while turning. If my glide angle to the landing point is too steep, I can widen out my turn a little. If I start to feel I am getting too low an angle, I turn more directly to the runway. I delay the application of flaps until I become more confident of making my landing point. Remember that you have many tools to lose altitude – flaps, slips, gentle s-turns, but no options to level off or gain altitude if this were a real engine out.

Your goal is accuracy, but in terms of which side to err, I must say in a real emergency it would be better to hit trees at the end of my landing area, going 20 kts after a long landing than to hit trees before my landing area at 60kts up in the air.

Complications

With a little practice, most pilots can get to where they have an accuracy of several hundred feet in the aim for touchdown point in light wind conditions. In stronger winds, the challenge is increased. If you were landing with a 20kt headwind, you will be travelling much more quickly downwind, meaning that you will tend to fly further from your landing point if you make no corrections. As you turn toward final, your ground speed will be much lower, generally making your approach angle steeper than normal. This means in high winds you should plan to fly even closer patterns.

Variations

I aim to have the 100′ touch down accuracy prescribed by the commercial pilot PTS (that takes a lot of ongoing practice). When you are getting good accuracy, it’s time to vary things a bit. It’s unlikely that in a real engine out emergency you’ll be obligingly downwind at an airport at a known altitude AGL.

The first variation I try is to fly my normal pattern and go to idle power as I turn from downwind to base. Many pilots will be shocked to find that the patterns they normally fly will not allow them to reach the runway in such a situation. If that’s the case with you, I suggest considering alternatives like tightening up your pattern.

Next, I try idle power earlier in the downwind leg. In some cases with longer runways, you’ll need to aim to land at some point very different than the landing threshold.

For even greater challenge and confidence in the maneuver, have an instructor set you up at different altitudes at unfamiliar airports.

All of these variations will help build the experience and perception that will allow you to make a pinpoint emergency landing should the need ever arise.

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