Mishaps with two small planes this week in Salt Lake County point out that surviving a crash landing outweighs any penalties the pilot may face once on the ground.
Pilots are forbidden from landing planes on public roads outside of an emergency, but the rules change when the aircraft is in trouble and can't reach an airport, said Seattle-based Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mitch Barker.Either the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board investigates flying accidents, especially those that bring an airplane down away from a designated airport or air strip.
On Monday, flight instructor Jennifer Wilson and a student were practicing "slow flight" at 1,500 feet when the engine stalled, prompting Wilson to bring the plane down in a plowed field in South Jordan. Neither the instructor nor the student was injured, but the plane was damaged when it nosed into the dirt.
Wednesday, pilot Brett Fitzgerald took off from a private airstrip at his home in Draper and was forced to crash-land on I-15 nearby when the plane's engine stalled shortly after takeoff.
Fitzgerald's quick maneuvering enabled him to bring the plane down in between cars on southbound I-15 near the Utah State Prison. Fitzgerald was injured and the plane was crippled in the emergency landing, but the only damage on the ground was a chip the size of a dinner plate in the concrete where the plane hit the road.
Barker said circumstances on the ground are taken into consideration in the investigation of any kind of flying mishap. "But the FAA doesn't go after people who are in an emergency and take whatever steps they can to save their lives," he said. "In an emergency, pilots needn't worry about penalties."
Injuries or damage on the ground caused by a crash or crash landing is most likely to be settled through civil proceedings and not as a result of citations or penalties from law enforcement officials, Barker said.
Learning emergency procedures is a primary part of a pilot's training. "Good pilots are always thinking about what would happen if something went wrong right now."
Common sense tells a pilot that to steer a crippled plane to the clearest landing space possible and to head for an airport if there is time. "We wouldn't look with a great deal of favor on somebody dropping out of the sky and landing on the road if they don't have to. That's not what roads are for - that's what airports are for," Barker said.
But there is no hard and fast rule in an emergency. "There is some overlap, some flexibility."
The NTSB plans to investigate both of this week's emergency landings. The Utah Highway Patrol conducted an initial accident investigation in the Wednesday crash landing, but its investigation was concluded without any citations being contemplated and all information gathered is being turned over to the FAA, said UHP spokesman Gary Whitney.