According to the National Air Traffic Controllers’ Association, the combined number of general aviation (private) and commercial (airline, cargo, and charter) flights happening daily above the United States is more than 70,000 — that’s approximately 100 take-offs and landings every minute of every day nationwide. Those airplanes carry more than 710 million people through our skies every year. If that were a country, it would be the fourth-most populous nation on the planet.
There are myriad aircraft incidents in which law enforcement will have a direct and primary role in the response. In this particular column, I’m not talking about law-enforcement-specific incidents (ranging from the drunk and disorderly passenger all the way up to full-on terrorist highjacking). I’m talking here about when airplanes return to terra firma at locations that are not airports. Notice I did not use the word that rhymes with “trash.” I’m also not talking about when a large commercial airliner comes down — it’s a good bet your agency has SOPs for that (but check your P&Ps to be certain).
No, I’m talking here about incidents involving small, private, single- or twin-engine propeller airplanes that tend to make the five o’clock news every so often.
Unpowered, Unscheduled Landings
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were more than 60 aircraft accidents reported in the United States in June 2011 — roughly two per day on average. Those 60+ incidents were as varied as imaginable...
While executing a go-around on June 1st, a rented Cessna 172R entered a rapid vertical descent and collided with the ground in Wendover (Utah), fatally injuring the pilot and three passengers and substantially damaging the airplane. A nonfatal incident occurred little more than two weeks later and about two hundred miles to the southeast in Mount Pleasant (Utah), when the engine of a Cessna 172P suddenly stopped producing power about 15 minutes after takeoff. The pilot was unable to get the engine restarted, and because there was no suitable terrain near where the airplane lost power, was forced to land in rough, uneven terrain.
If a pilot is doing his or her job, every moment they’re in the air they’re aware of one or two places they might choose to put down should the need arise. This is the aviator’s version of “when/then thinking” and it is as natural as breathing — because it could mean the difference between breathing and not breathing when the plane comes to a stop.
In the event of an engine out — assuming you have enough altitude, visibility, and an aircraft with both wings and reasonably-functional flight control surfaces (elevators, ailerons, rudders, flaps) intact — most skilled pilots will safely make an “unpowered, unscheduled landing” on a stretch of freeway or on an open field. I know this because I’ve done it... (it was just practice, but it was exciting!). Chesley Sullenberger even proved you can safely put down on a stretch of water, although I think ‘Sully’ is that one-in-a-million pilot who might have the skills for that level of success in a “water ditch.”
Airplanes come down on freeways with some regularity because pilots tend to like long, straight stretches of pavement. Airplanes land in grassy fields for similar reasons. Problem is, there are often cars on freeways, and there are frequently rocks and/or tree stumps hidden beneath the tall grass in otherwise open fields. That’s when airplanes tend to become misshapen mounds of metal. Worse, there are plenty of times when no such choices are available (the aforementioned mountains of Utah and the abovementioned Hudson River, for example).
It CAN Happen Here
On April 17, 1987, I was an 18-year-old flight student employed at White Plains Airport (HPN), tasked with gassing up airplanes and doing a variety of other ground-support duties for commercial and corporate jets. Shortly after 1315 hours, I was looking out my kitchen window and washing the dishes from lunch before leaving for my 1430-2300 shift. The skies were low and scuddy — way, way below minimums in my opinion — so I knew I was in for a relatively quiet afternoon.
As I daydreamed about all the minor maintenance duties I was sure to be assigned upon my arrival at work, I heard a very loud cracking sound, followed immediately by a thunderous crash, followed thereafter by a significant fire in my neighbor’s second-floor master bedroom and garage below.
It took a moment to fully realize that I had just witnessed (well, heard) a twin-engine airplane fly into a house less than 100 yards from where I stood. I quickly called 911 and then bolted from my back patio to see if I could help any victims. Immediately upon arrival (I was first on the scene) I found that the pilot had been killed, but that the five people in the house had escaped — one young person had a minor injury.
That Beech 58 — N721WW — had suffered “fuel starvation” while trying to find the airport some seven-plus miles to the southeast, became a sailplane in IFR flight conditions, stalled out, and dropped from the sky. I realized right then and there: “It can happen here, and it can happen to YOU.”
It can happen where you are too.
Preparedness in Anytown, USA
With few exceptions — and there are always exceptions — most law enforcement agencies in America have an airport of some kind located with a 100-mile radius of the PD. In the case of a downed aircraft, you in your squad car may be the very first of first responder on the scene. Now, it’s true that once the big red trucks arrive, those folks are usually the primary parties responsible for working the scene of an aircraft accident, but if you’re first to arrive, you’re going to want to remove people inside who are injured or trapped (if possible, of course), and render First Aid pending the arrival of Fire/EMS.
Obviously, you will need to proceed with caution!
Once you’ve attended to the victim(s), as long as there is no indication of fire or other danger (the airplane is not submerged and/or partially submerged in water, for example), it’s a good idea to try to obtain and preserve a variety of things from the aircraft wreckage for the NTSB investigators:
• Pilot logbooks
• Airmen certificates
• Aircraft documents
• Personal effects
• Aeronautical charts
• Handheld GPS units
If you’re able to interview the pilot, then do so, but don’t forget to get information from passengers as well as witnesses on the ground if practicable. If those interviews are not possible, at least try to note the time and location of the accident, as well as the aircraft registration (that “N” number along the tail), the number of persons aboard, the number and type of injuries/fatalities of persons on the ground, as well as a description of the visible damage to the aircraft and property on the ground. Take pictures and do many of the other things you’d do for a traffic collision.
The NTSB folks may even thank you (don’t hold your breath, but anything’s possible) for your effort.
This is a far from complete list, but it should get you started in the right direction toward greater preparedness. There are a variety of resources from which you can become familiar with the vast number of physical/chemical hazards at an aircraft accident scene, as well as basics on how to operate aircraft emergency exits in order to access victims. You also can get someone from your PD — maybe that person is YOU! — to obtain a copy of the NTSB rules governing law enforcement’s role in crash investigations.
Make sure you have a plan for what to do when an aircraft accident happens in your jurisdiction.