Explained: Emergency Landings

What alternatives are available to pilots, and what protocols do they adhere to while performing an emergency landing?



April 24, 2023

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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Precautionary landings frequently occur at an aerodrome, although this is not always true. In certain circumstances, landing in a field and accepting some aircraft damage may be preferable to attempting to reach an aerodrome and risking a forced landing on even more hazardous terrain.

A "full emergency" or "local standby" protocol may be implemented depending on the hazard. The difference between them is that the RFFS (Rescue and Firefighting Services) will remain in their normal positions in the latter case. It's worth noting that an emergency declaration does not precede some precautionary landings and, as a result, is not treated as emergency landings.

Image by Giacomo Martucci from Pixabay
Image by Giacomo Martucci from Pixabay


Ditching refers to an emergency landing (forced or precautionary) on water and only applies to land planes. Incidents involving water landings by seaplanes or amphibious aircraft are usually recorded as forced or precautionary landings.


Belly Landing

A belly landing is an emergency landing where the landing gear remains in the "up" position. This is typically caused by equipment failure, such as an inability to extend or lock the landing gear into place.

In certain cases, the pilots may deliberately choose to perform a forced landing with the landing gear up if they believe it will result in a safer outcome, particularly when landing outside an airport. When the landing gear of an aircraft is not extended due to human error, such as the flight crew forgetting to do so, it is commonly called a "gear up landing."


Crash Landing

A crash landing is when the aircraft sustains significant structural damage, such as damage from a hard landing or veering off the runway.

However, not all emergency landings are classified as crash landings - if the aircraft remains intact or sustains only minor damage, using the term "crash landing" would be inaccurate.

According to the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook, a crash landing involves "a landing in which an aircraft is damaged beyond repair."

two pilots flying an airplane
Photo by Kelly L on Pexels.com

Flight Deck Psychology

Now that we've understood the types of emergency landings, let's focus on the psychology of pilots. According to FAA, certain factors restrain pilots from making emergency landings. Below are some factors that may impede a pilot's ability to respond promptly and effectively when confronted with an emergency.

Reluctance to Accept the Emergency

Suppose a pilot is hesitant to accept the gravity of the emergency situation and allows the mind to become paralyzed with the idea that the aircraft will inevitably be on the ground soon, regardless of their actions. In that case, they will be significantly disadvantaged in managing the emergency.

Sometimes, an unconscious desire to delay or avoid the inevitable may hinder a pilot's ability to act appropriately during an emergency.

This may lead to mistakes such as failing to maintain the correct speed, delaying selecting the most appropriate landing area within reach, and general indecision. Furthermore, the pilots may attempt to correct the problem at the expense of maintaining control of the aircraft, which is also problematic.

Desire to Save the Aircraft

A pilot who has undergone training that involved simulated forced landings may be conditioned to expect a safe landing area, leading them to ignore basic airmanship rules when faced with the need to avoid touchdown in terrain where airplane damage is inevitable.

In some situations, a pilot's decision-making process may be influenced by two factors - the pilot's financial interest in the airplane and the assumption that an undamaged aircraft implies no bodily harm.

However, there are times when the pilot should prioritize the safety of the occupants and be willing to sacrifice the airplane.

Concerns About Getting Hurt

In situations of self-preservation, fear plays a critical role. But when fear transforms into panic, it can lead to undesired outcomes.

Pilots who keep calm and are well-versed in the fundamental concepts and procedures tend to fare better in emergencies, as evidenced by survival records. An emergency landing's success is as much a function of the pilot's mental state as its technical abilities.

Photo: Steve Fitzgerald, GFDL 1.2

Scenarios and Procedures

Airlines strictly follow and adhere to procedures given by regulatory bodies, operators, and aircraft manufacturers. Thus, the following scenarios and procedures are presented as a general overview of how to land an aircraft safely.

Photo: Vietravel Airlines

As stated by AN Aviation, during an emergency landing situation, pilots and cabin crew follow procedures for planned and unplanned evacuations on land or water, respectively. The announcements and practices are typically taken directly from a Flight Attendant Manual (FAM).

The cabin crew will typically announce to the passengers, "Ladies and gentlemen, Captain __ has informed me that we need to prepare the cabin for a possible emergency landing. Your crew is fully trained to handle this situation. We have approximately [time] to prepare the cabin for landing, so your undivided attention is very important!"

United Airlines flight 328 experienced a right engine failure shortly after takeoff from Denver International Airport.
United Airlines Flight 328 experienced a right engine failure shortly after takeoff from Denver International Airport. | Photo: Hayden Smith

Engine Failure After Takeoff

In the event of an engine failure, altitude plays a critical role in successfully executing an emergency landing. If the engine fails right after takeoff and before reaching a safe altitude, attempting to return to the departure field is not recommended.

The safer course of action would be to immediately assume the appropriate glide attitude and select a field directly ahead or slightly off to either side of the takeoff path. Choosing to continue straight forward can be challenging, but weighing the difficulties of attempting to turn back is essential.

Continuing straight ahead or making a slight turn allows the pilot more time to establish a safe landing attitude. The landing can be made as slowly as possible while keeping the airplane under control. The procedures for multi-engine aircraft can be different from the techniques mentioned above, including single-engine aircraft.

Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Emergency Descents

An emergency descent is a technique used to descend quickly to a lower altitude or the ground in preparation for an emergency landing. This maneuver is typically necessary for situations such as an uncontrollable fire, sudden cabin depressurization, a medical emergency, or any other circumstance requiring an immediate and rapid descent.

In an emergency situation where an airplane needs to be rapidly descended while still adhering to its structural limitations, the primary goal is to descend the aircraft as quickly as possible.

To achieve this, it is recommended to establish a bank of around 30 to 45 degrees, which helps maintain positive load factors or G-forces on the airplane.

Photo: Runner301, CC BY 2.5

In-Flight Fire

The pilot must take quick and effective action when a fire breaks out during flight. To handle this emergency situation, the pilot must know the specific procedures outlined in the Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM) and Pilots Operating Handbook (POH).

Furthermore, there are different types of in-flight fires, such as engine, electrical, and Cabin fires. All these scenarios require multi-step procedures, and the pilot should possess a sound understanding of the airplane's emergency descent protocols.

For pressurized airplanes, the air system used for pressurization can usually remove smoke from the cabin. However, in case of intense smoke, the pilot may need to perform an emergency descent or depressurize at altitude, provided that oxygen is available for all occupants.

Photo: Francesco Cecchetti/Airways

Flight Control Malfunction

There are two types of flight controls, Primary and Secondary. If primary controls fail, it becomes very difficult or nearly impossible to control the aircraft. However, the failure of secondary controls can also significantly impact aircraft maneuverability and controllability.

The total flap control malfunction, asymmetric 'split' flap condition, elevator control loss, and landing gear failure are some of the situation pilot phases during flight control malfunction cases. The pilot must follow the procedures mentioned in AFM/POH.

Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

System Malfunction

The aircraft has dozens of systems, each dedicated to performing certain types of functions. However, the malfunction in such situations makes it difficult for the pilot to continue their course and needs to make a precautionary or emergency landing. The below-mentioned systems malfunction are just some of the many examples of system failures.

Loss of electrical power can result in the loss of important systems for pilots, which is why it should not be underestimated even in clear visibility conditions during the day. Failures of the electrical system during a flight are often attributed to the generator or alternator. In case of such an event, the aircraft's electrical source usually switches to a battery.

The pitot-static system provides pressure for operating important flight instruments such as the airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator (VSI), and altimeter. The system consists of the impact pressure chamber and lines, as well as the static pressure chamber and lines, which can be obstructed by ice, dirt, or other debris, either partially or fully. Any blockage in the pitot-static system can have a negative impact on the proper functioning of these flight instruments.

By West Australian Newspapers Limited - My collection, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75482678
By West Australian Newspapers Limited - My collection, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75482678

Door Opening In-Flight

Such occurrences of in-flight door opening are nearly impossible on pressurized aircraft. However, it's quite possible on an unpressurized plane.

The accidental opening of a door during a flight is usually not a major safety concern. What matters more is how the pilot reacts when the incident occurs. A door opening in flight can cause sudden loud noises, sustained noise levels, and possibly vibration or buffeting.

If a door opens unexpectedly during takeoff or in-flight, the pilot should follow the following procedures.

  • Focus on flying the airplane if a door opens in flight. In most cases, the airplane's ability to fly is not compromised.
  • If the door opens after takeoff, climb to traffic pattern altitude and make a normal landing.
  • Do not attempt to reach the door by releasing the seat belt and shoulder harness. Leave the door alone and land as soon as possible. Close the door once safely on the ground.
  • Most doors do not stay wide open and may settle partly closed after opening. Avoid slipping towards the door, which may cause it to open wider.
  • Remain calm and try to ignore any unfamiliar noise or vibration. Do not rush to get the airplane on the ground quickly, as this may result in steep turns at low altitudes.
  • Complete all items on the landing checklist.
  • Remember that accidents caused by an open door are rarely due to the open door itself but rather the pilot's distraction or failure to maintain control of the airplane.

Apart from this, various other situations force the pilot to make an emergency landing. According to accident statistics, a pilot lacking training or insufficient skills in attitude instrument flying will lose control of the airplane within approximately 10 minutes after being forced to rely solely on instrument reference.

So it's important that pilots are well trained in both simulation and real-time to phase such emergencies. Now let us see the general procedure for making an emergency landing.

Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

General Emergency Landing Procedure

In case of some in-flight failures, the following emergency landing procedures should be followed:

  • Maintain aircraft control: The pilot must adjust pitch, yaw, and roll to maintain a safe altitude and airspeed, ensuring aircraft control.
  • Declare an emergency: The pilot should inform air traffic control or the nearest airport of the emergency, including their location, altitude, and intentions. This helps in receiving assistance and clearing the airspace.
  • Identify a landing area: The pilot must identify a suitable landing area, such as an airport or clear land, and plan a descent to that area.
  • Conduct pre-landing check: The pilot should verify fuel, flaps, landing gear, and other systems required for a safe landing.
  • Prepare for landing: The pilot must inform passengers about the situation and instruct them on how to prepare for a potential crash landing. The cabin crew should secure the cabin and prepare for impact.
  • Execute the landing: The pilot should aim to land in the identified area while maintaining control of the aircraft. The landing should be made with the least impact and at the lowest possible speed.
  • Evacuate the aircraft: After landing, the pilot and cabin crew should evacuate the aircraft quickly, moving to a safe location away from the aircraft. Passengers should follow the cabin crew's instructions to evacuate quickly and safely.
F-HBIL, an SS A330-200 landing in Paris. Photo: Tony Bordelais/Airways

Key Takeaways

According to AOPA, the primary difference between the three types of emergency landing is the fatality rate associated with each.

Precautionary landings have a fatality rate of 0.06 percent, meaning that if a pilot identifies an engine problem early and conducts a precautionary landing, it is highly probable that they and their passengers will survive. Such landings are common; we often see them reported in the news as emergency landings or diversions.

On the other hand, forced landings have a fatality rate of approximately 10 percent, which is over 1,600 times greater than precautionary landings. Ditchings have the highest fatality rate, at around 20 percent.

The information is intended to improve general knowledge of emergency operations while acknowledging that the manufacturer's recommended emergency procedures should always take priority.

Furthermore, the inability to simulate certain failure modes during training and evaluation can undermine the pilot and lead them to be inflexible for an emergency landing. With the increasing technological advancements in electronic avionics, the safety training and proficiency required to operate these systems must keep up.

Have you ever been caught in an emergency situation? Let us know your experience in the comments on our social media channels.


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