On Low Tide

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By Anna Serbinenko, In Flight USA, February 2015

When I was a student pilot, we were strictly banned from any “off-airport” landings. 

Editor’s comment:  The “precautionary landing,” is not a topic that is directly addressed in the FAA Practical Test Standard. A diversion to an alternate airport is part of testing scenarios, but the concept of simple getting the airplane on the ground, perhaps not at an airport, is seldom taught and certainly not tested.  It is tragic that accidents which occur every year could have been avoided if the PIC had simply accepted the fact that continued flight was not possible. In many cases, a landing on a suitable surface could have safety prevented continuing flight into worsening weather conditions or a power off landing caused by fuel exhaustion or mechanical difficulties.  

It is interesting to note that our Canadian neighbors face the potential of off-airport landings head on, especially if flying with Anna Serbinenko, a class 1 airplane and class 1 aerobatic instructor. Anna is also the only female aerobatic performer in Canada. Her passion for flying lifts her away from the daily routine into the sky with a three-dimensional freedom called "Sky Dancing".  Anna flies with the Canadian Flight Centre.  Established in 1979 and now in two locations, Boundary Bay, Vancouver, BC and Kamloops, BC CFC has trained more than 3000 pilots from over 20 countries. Graduates of Canadian Flight Centre are currently working at airlines around the world. Today, under Anna’s leadership, CFC trains “from tail wheel to turbine,” with a big variety of courses and aircraft.  Special programs are now being offered to U.S. Pilots that include the techniques and skill described in Anna’s latest contribution to In Flight USA. For more about Anna and her airshow schedule: visit www.annaserbinenko.com.   For beach landing experience and training in BC contact Canadian Flight Centre www.cfc.aero, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 604 946 7744.

One last note, you MUST visit this area of the world, just north of Seattle.  It is SPECTACULAR! 

On Low Tide

Anna Serbinenko

When I was a student pilot, we were strictly banned from any “off-airport” landings. On one hand, now that I am a flight instructor, I can sympathize more than ever with the school’s mistrust of a student pilots’ common sense decision making skills, and the paranoia about the insurance. On the other hand, I cannot possibly think of endorsing a commercial pilot who has never landed in anything less than 2000’+ long paved level runways. They are simply not fit for commercial pilot duties.

In the Canadian airplane pilot syllabus, there’s an exercise called Precautionary Landing. A typical scenario used to motivate the student is “what do you do if you are low on fuel” or “if you have a sick passenger on board”. Fuel management issue aside (what was so difficult about landing at the last airport you passed and put a few gallons in the tanks?), why on earth would you land with a sick person on board in the middle of no-where, instead of heading to the nearest airport to get qualified medical help?  But what if there is no airport close by, a real issue in rural Canada (most of the country), or weather blocks access to an alternate airport?

The precautionary landing can be used much more often than just for the flight test purposes. In fact, Canadian CARs expect the pilot to execute one, should continuing the trip becomes unsafe, be it for a mechanical issue, weather coming down faster than forecast or simply if you are not sure of the condition of the runway at your destination. Like the U.S. FAR’s, the Canadian CAR’s require the pilot in command to exercise emergency authority and do whatever is necessary to prevent endangerment of passengers and of persons on the ground.  If that means an off-airport landing, so be it.

When flying with the Canadian Flight Centre in beautiful British Columbia, we teach precautionary landings on a daily basis. Hope Airport is a registered airport, with a grass runway, often featuring soft conditions after BC’s liquid sunshine embellishes the region. Harrison Mills Golf Course is an airplane friendly place with a short gravel strip, but we need to make sure curious golfers vacate the landing surface. Unimproved back country or island strips like Tipella or North Pender Island present a challenge of the unknown. And then, of course, is our favourite off-airport training scenario, the ocean beach landing.  Several beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island are long and straight enough for landing an airplane. Even though it might seem very tempting to try it yourself, please-please-please get proper training from an experienced instructor before attempting beach landings. Even after having done multiple beach fly-in picnics, I’ve had situations that got my adrenaline up. 

So first of all, consider the choice of aircraft. If you have no more than one person coming with you, a little tail dragger like a Citabria is the best option. It handles potential rough surface better than a tricycle plane, offers good visibility and is great fun to fly. If two people come with you, a Cessna 172 or 182, or similar machine is your plane. I would not go for a beach landing with a fully loaded 172 with four people in it.

Timing is everything. Not only is good weather important for your flight, but you must also make sure that you have a suitable landing surface when the tides are low. Familiarize yourself with the tides schedule. There could be only half a dozen suitable days in a month. Low tides in the evenings are no good. In the unlikely event of being stuck on the beach, you want to have a fair chance of being rescued the same day, and not to make camp amongst coyotes and bears (welcome to Canada!). A non-tidal surface is usually too rough for landing and covered with debris and logs. Even tundra tires won’t help with large obstacles.

In Canada, we file a detailed flight plan, and stay in contact with ATC as long as possible. We advise Canadian ATC of our intentions before descending for landing where you will most likely lose radio contact. We also tell ATC of our intended length of time on the beach, and our expected time of the next radio contact with them when airborne again. They can call rescue if they don’t hear from us as expected. In our neck of the woods, you usually have about an hour to an hour and a half for the picnic or a cross-island hike through the rainforest, before the tide comes up again.  Keep in mind that U.S. Flight Service and ATC may not be as familiar with this sort of service as Canadian ATC, so make sure a trusted source at your departure point is in on the adventure just in case you do not return on time.  Always be prepared for an overnight stay, with clothes, shelter, waterproof matches and bear bangs, should events not work out as planned. You do not want to be on a bears dinning menu! 

Wind can be hard to determine. Usual indications like smoke are usually not there, cloud movement is not necessarily an indication of the surface winds, and the ocean water movements are not primarily wind driven. Tall pine trees hardly give away the direction of the wind. A reliable method of determining the wind direction could be the drift. Find a landmark, fly right over it at about 1000’ (low enough to assume the wind is the same as on the surface), and do a full 360 degrees level, standard rate 1, turn. Note which way you drifted and it will show you where the wind is coming from and how strong it is. When making the final decision on the direction of landing, consider obstacles. Sometimes you have to accept a couple knots tailwind to avoid having to clear 300’ tall trees on final. 

To check the surface length, you can either estimate visually or time it. Just eye balling might work somewhere where there is a comparison such as buildings, fields grid, etc. In the wild, it can be misleading. For timing, some flight manuals advise to extend flaps, fly at 60 kts, and “time the field”. Each second at 60 kts equals 100 ft. of field length. Nice suggestion, but forget about timing the field at 60 kts!  Be it on the beach or a grass farmer’s field, why would you want to be low and slow?  Isn’t that something we’ve always been taught to avoid? It’s even worse: low, slow and not even paying attention to flying, because you are trying to do some sort of a field check. However, nothing bad will happen if you do your low pass at 80 kts, time it and then each second is more than 100’ of field length. Using 80 kts will get you an approximate landing area length with a built in 30% margin!

As you are doing a precautionary landing and inspecting the surface, the textbook “low pass” at 500’ AGL is not going to cut it anymore. There is no reliable way of telling a log from algae at that altitude. For thorough inspection you might have to go as low as ground effect to make a land/no-land decision, and pick the best distance from water to the touch down point where the surface is the hardest. Too wet – you get stuck. Too dry – and you flip over. Keep in mind that the best spot for landing is not necessarily the best spot for parking for the next hour. Anticipate the change.  Be sure to practice this “low pass” maneuver with a qualified CFI over a long, hard surface runway, before your try it for real.

There are several islands in the area with beaches suitable for landing within reach of CFC’s training area. We don’t try to land on all of them in one trip. Some are so far apart that you would hardly have time to fly from one to the other while tide conditions are suitable. Instead, we pick one or two close by, and enjoy the journey. We do mountain flying to and from our beach landings (lots of fascinating terrain in the Vancouver area), checking out the humongous Martin Mars water bombers in Sproat Lake and if you are lucky, we catch a great view of whales playing in the Pacific. This is an experience of a lifetime that nature graciously offers to those who dare to spread the wings.  Oh yes, don’t forget to rinse off the salt residues that you will surely find on your plane after a beach landing!

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