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Can a big airliner perform an emergency landing on a public highway?

Posted March 29, 2018

Flying has a good reputation in terms of safety – it is one of the safest ways to travel. However you only need one accident to get scared for life. What if something will break? What if the plane will have to make an emergency landing? What if there will be nowhere to land? Can a big airliner land on some highway or some other wide road?

Planes are just too heavy and too big for highways. Image credit: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia

Let’s imagine that you are quietly sitting in your seat when something in your plane goes very wrong. The pane is broken, pilots declare an emergency and immediately start looking for a place to land. Depending on the altitude, pilots have several minutes to select the best option and, of course, air traffic controller is there to help. Air traffic control centre would immediately inform the crew about all the possible options, but the captain would have to select which one is best for his plane. Ground crew would be notified too and would wait for the plane with an emergency. But what if there is no airport close enough?

A big airliner cannot land on a simple highway. The truth of the matter is that the wingspan of a Boeing 737 is almost 36 meters. It is hard to imagine a long straight piece of highway, which doesn’t have any light posts, signs, petrol stations and other obstacles within those 36 meters. Furthermore, Boeing 737 may weigh as much as 80 tons when performing and emergency landing. Would a conventional highway structure hold up to such an impact? Well, unlikely. On the other hand, no one would care about the damaged asphalt if a plane needed to land.

While it is unlikely that an airliner would ever choose to land on a highway, sometimes there is simply no other choice. Southern Airways Flight 242 is a famous example of what happens when a big airplane tries to land on a public road. DC-9-31 is actually not that big of a plane by today’s standards. Flight 242 encountered problems at altitude of approximately 4.3 km – the plane flew straight in to hail clouds. Giant pieces of ice broke the front window and eventually killed both of the engines. Pilots had to maintain the airplane gliding while air traffic controller came up with a couple of options where the plane can land. Neither of them were close enough and pilots took a hard decision. They saw a straight piece of a road and decided to perform an emergency landing there.

It was a messy landing. One of the wings hit a petrol station, the other one – other buildings and trees. 61 passengers and both of the pilots were killed, together with 9 people that were on the ground. However, 22 passengers and flight attendants were lucky to survive.

Some of the highways are actually designed to be used as an emergency runways. During the Cold War a lot of these secret airfields were incorporated into the designs of new highways in Germany, Poland, Sweden and other countries. The idea was that airfields are going to become primary targets during a war, but highway strips would survive.

These areas don’t have that many signs and typically feature some other different infrastructure made to accommodate military activity. However, it still takes one or two hours to prepare these strips for air traffic, so it would not be a good option for an airplane during an emergency.

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