It’s happened again, as we all knew it would. Somewhere, not long ago, somebody found themselves facing a difficult challenge. An off-airport landing was in the cards. Despite all the training, all the planning, all the best wishes of those involved, there just wasn’t a good place to go.
We’ve been taught all our lives to protect our belongings. “Take care of your toys,” mom called after us from our earliest days. An expression that eventually morphed into, “I guess we just can’t have nice things,” because kids will, as kids do, break things.
Somewhere in the back of our heads is a voice telling us that protecting the airplane is important. And it is. But it’s not the most important thing on our short list, which is getting shorter by the moment as we glide downhill to an aiming point that’s not nearly big enough to get this valuable piece of equipment to slide into undamaged.
The airplane clears the first obstacles. It impacts the surface on the mains. But the surface is rough and far too short. The nosewheel settles, bounces, and catches in a rut. The prop hits the dirt and digs in, grinding to a halt. The engine stops, yet the airplane continues to slide through the tall, wet grass. Brakes are of little use, but a sapling slaps the right wing, leaving a considerable dent as it dissipates energy. The left wing crunches into a more substantial tree, crumpling, bending to the applied force. The nose bangs into a fencepost, followed by what’s left of the wings. The airplane comes to a stop. It’s a wreck.
The pilot and passengers climb out. Shaken and bruised, but without serious injury.
This is where the guilt and shame begins to settle in. The pilot worries about an investigation. He or she begins to second guess their decisions. The airplane is a mess.
All is lost, or so the pilot may think. In truth, all is well, relatively speaking. The humans are all intact. They have the ability to walk away. They’re all going home to their families.
This is when the pilot should be doing a happy dance. Well, maybe not a happy dance, but at least they shouldn’t be racked with anguish in the belief they did something horribly wrong or fell short in some way. They protected the passengers, which is the primary job of the PIC.
This is why we have insurance. Airplanes can be fixed or replaced. People, not so much. If this should ever happen to you, be proud. You came through in a pinch. What feels like a failure is actually a success story. Go ahead and shake those bent metal blues as quickly as you can. This situation, as unpleasant as it may appear to be, is a win. Everybody survived. Yay!
There is historical precedence for this line of thinking.
Years ago I interviewed a gentleman who had flown left seat in B-17s during World War II. He told me a story about how his airplane was hit with flak and beset by fighters shortly after making their bomb run over a Nazi-controlled city. He lost an engine, then another, then a third. As he considered his situation, he realized his options were limited. Getting home was out of the question. Holding altitude was no longer possible. With his heart in his throat he realized he and his crew were going to go down in enemy territory.
There was no emergency landing field in his view that was big enough to handle a B-17. So he did the best he could and put the bomber down on a hillside. The airplane was on the wrong side of the lines. Uncle Sam wasn’t going to get this ship back. Its flying days were over.
He got his crew out and took stock of the situation. Everyone was healthy. They were banged up, scared, and facing a group of villagers their unit had just dropped explosive devices on. But they were alive.
Their best option wasn’t good, but it came to pass. Nazi soldiers arrived on the scene, took the pilot and crew into custody, and marched them directly through the town they’d just bombed. They marched to a transportation hub where they could move on to their ultimate destination – a prisoner of war camp.
The war was over for 10 young men who’d just experienced a truly harrowing final flight. Yet the pilot told me that even then, as enemy soldiers marched them to prison, as an angry mob threw insults and debris their way, he was thankful that he’d managed to get his crippled airplane on the ground without losing anyone or suffering serious injuries.
A squeaker of a landing on a long, paved runway is more often than not our preference. But there may be a time when that option is off the table. All we’re left with is the best of several poor choices.
When that situation develops — and it never will for most of us — but should the worst happen and you find yourself having to do what you trained for, remember the true story of a bomber crew slogging through the mud and rubble of a bombed out Yugoslavian town, and their ability to look on the bright side.
As PIC your job is not to save the airplane. Your goal is to secure the safety of your passengers and crew. If you’ve done that, you’re winning.
If you manage to do that without bending the airplane, so much the better. But either way, don’t beat yourself up. The best you can do is the best you can do. And that’s all any of us can ask.