Explained: Emergency Landings

Explained: Emergency Landings

DALLAS – Suppose you’re aboard a plane when it becomes apparent that there’s a problem. It could be a sudden jolt or the smell of smoke that alerts you. The captain then comes to the loudspeaker to declare that the plane is making an emergency landing.

On this same week, a United Airlines (UA) flight was forced into an emergency landing after a cockpit window reportedly “popped open” in mid-air while a bird strike forced an American Airlines (AA) flight to also perform an emergency landing.

What happens afterward? What alternatives are available to pilots, and what protocols do they adhere to while performing an emergency landing? And what factors might compel a pilot to make such a decision?

Several situations can require an emergency landing, but we must first understand the types, factors, and, ultimately, the procedures for landing safely during emergencies.

Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways
AA Boeing 737 | Photo: Daniel Gorun/Airways

Types of Emergency Landings

“Emergency landing” is a broad term for abnormal touchdown situations in aircraft. Other words are often employed to specify particular aspects of the event. FAA widely categorizes it into three types, while some handbooks and publications, such as Skybary, are more detailed.

It’s worth noting that occasionally multiple terms may be utilized, while in other instances, a different term may be applicable, but the scenario won’t be categorized as an emergency landing. Some related terms are provided below.

PK-GIJ Garuda Indonesia (Ayo Pakai Masker Livery) Boeing B777-300ER WIMM KNO
PK-GIJ Garuda Indonesia (Ayo Pakai Masker Livery) Boeing B777-300ER WIMM KNO | Photo: Wilbert Tana/Airways

Forced Landing

A forced landing is a circumstance where an aircraft must land unavoidably, often regardless of the terrain. An example of this is when a plane is forced to land due to fuel depletion or the failure of all engines.

Typically, a forced landing is also deemed an emergency landing as the underlying cause of the condition is frequently a compelling reason for announcing an emergency, such as an uncontrollable fire or smoke onboard, a single-engine aircraft engine failure, significant structural damage, and so on.

Nonetheless, there are scenarios where a forced landing has not been deemed an emergency, such as when an aircraft is compelled to use a specific aerodrome due to military interception. Furthermore, many instances occur where an emergency is declared, but the crew opts to proceed with the flight to a more appropriate aerodrome.

American Airlines N167AN Airbus A321
American Airlines N167AN Airbus A321 | Photo: Saul Hannibal/Airways

Precautionary Landing

A precautionary landing occurs when it is still feasible to continue flying, but it is deemed unwise due to a risk determined by the flight crew.

A technical issue that is not severe enough to warrant a “Mayday” declaration, such as navigation system degradation or the loss of system redundancy, is a typical situation that necessitates a precautionary landing. However, the aircraft’s standard operating procedures may advise landing at the closest appropriate aerodrome.

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Feature Image: Atlas Air – Boeing 747-400F – N508KZ (perspective). Photo: Julian Schöpfer/Airways

Aircraft maintenance engineering graduate and Aviation enthusiast with more than four years of experience in running a successful aviation startup.

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