If you find yourself in sudden trouble while trundling along on a flight, you may thank your lucky stars that your GPS has a “Go to Nearest Airport” feature that will save your bacon for your next $100 hamburger. But, what if you can’t make it, and your airplane is forcing you to go nowhere but down as soon as you can possibly get there?
When roads, fields – and perhaps lakes or rivers – aren’t presenting themselves as places to put your airplane safely back to earth, there may be one valid place to go that not everyone would think is a survivable option: the trees. Dubious though it may seem, there are plenty of anecdotes of pilots who have put their airplanes deliberately into trees, and survived to fly another day. If it sounds like a trick only Evel Knievel would contemplate, you’re not alone in this thinking. But strangely, it’s not a stunt that has “death wish” as a subtitle. As an “only option,” it may save you, if you’ve got the skill, level-headedness – and horseshoes in your flight bag – to pull it off.
Forced landings into trees can be survivable. If your flight path takes you over nothing but forest for as far as your eyes can see, be prepared for this eventuality if you’ve got to get down. But first, fly as high as you can to best spot a place if you have to get down in a hurry. It’ll not only improve your evaluation of options, it’ll also give you as much time to prepare for the forced landing.
Like any other forced landing, when putting your airplane into trees, fly it all the way until it has come to a stop. Approach the treetops as you would any other chosen landing site: land into the wind, and keep your speed low and controllable. Aim as if landing on the tops of the trees; visualize it as a mattress of leaves. The slower your speed, the softer your impact into your wooded and foliaged runway.
Do the usual pre-landing checks: seatbelts and harnesses tight, and loose objects firmly secured. Replete are the examples of accidents that occupants may have survived had unsecured objects in the cockpit not caused their fatal blows.
Open a door before impact, and shut off the fuel supply. If it’s not the flying objects in the cockpit that will do you in, it’s the breakout of a fire that will.
It goes without saying: don’t aim for a tree straight on. Impacting some very thin and light ones might help dissipate the speed of your controlled crash. But, the emphasis is on “thin and light”: impacting a large trunk will inevitably ensure that the tree gets the better of the crash.
Go for the cushioning of branches and leaves. As best as the precision of your skill can make it happen, aim for between two trees. Let your aircraft’s wings get torn off by their impact with tree trunks as you channel your fuselage between them. This will greatly absorb the forces in the crash, leaving your fuselage as your cell for survival.
The good news is that controlling your aircraft into treetops is evidently as survivable as ditching your aircraft into water. The downside is that evidence suggests that you’re more likely to be injured if you put down into trees than if you put down into water. But at least you’ll have survived.
Of course, if you’ve survived guiding your airplane into treetops, getting down to the ground presents your next challenge. If your fuselage is firmly wedged in the trees, or softly balancing on the branches, you’re left to your own ingenuity to figure out what to do from there. If your airplane takes a vertical drop to the forest floor, be hopeful that more branches on the way down will slow the fall.
Presented with no other option than a forest below, know that putting down into the trees, if well managed, isn’t a lethal manoeuvre. It won’t save your airplane, but that should never matter. Judged right and with a bit of luck, you’ll be walking out of the forest, and hugging the trees on your way out.