Editorial: Ford Demonstrates ‘The Right Stuff’

Editorial: Ford Demonstrates ‘The Right Stuff’


By now, just about everyone has heard about Harrison Ford’s emergency landing, and subsequent injuries, accompanied by an almost obligatory non-pilot plea for him to curtail his flying activities in the future. Star Wars co-star Mark Hamill sent out a tweet that read: “Glad to hear Harrison is doing well. Get well soon. May all his future flights be green-screen!” I, on the other hand, would have been more shocked if Ford hadn’t survived this accident — as the one-time celebrity spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association, Ford is a highly experienced, exceptionally devoted, and meticulous general aviation pilot, who, as most who fly with him explain, goes above and beyond the FAA standards to maintain high levels of proficiency with the aircraft he flies.

We won’t know exactly what occurred in this accident until the NTSB’s final report is generated, which (thank the Maker) will include Harrison Ford’s own input, but it appears he either lost engine power, or encountered a total engine failure shortly after takeoff. As a pilot of General Aviation aircraft since 2008, with commercial ratings in both single and multi-engine aircraft, I’ve practiced quite a number of engine failure emergencies while under the tutelage of competent flight instructors — during the takeoff roll, upon lift-off, while out over practice zones at altitude, coming in for landings, and in flight simulators. Many of these scenarios are introduced very early in a student pilot’s training, as one must conduct their first solo flight approximately half-way through their initial training, generally with only 20 hours of flying under their belt. By the time one matriculates into commercial pilot training, the same competency must be demonstrated while operating more complicated aircraft, and with greater precision. No credible FAA designated examiner will certify a pilot without demonstrating mastery of these skills (when it comes to multi-engine aircraft, part of the exam requires single-engine operation with one engine turned off, then successfully restarting while in the air).

The average person’s fear of flying notwithstanding, complacency is far more dangerous than the actual airplane. The key to safe flying is to maintain that same level of proficiency long after the checkride, as the flight portion of the formal exam is called. Since modern airplane engines are considerably reliable, and heavily regulated by federal guidelines, it’s highly unlikely that they actually fail while in flight — which means that in the unlikely event it does occur, it can really take an unsuspecting pilot by surprise, and they waste critical time simply processing their situation, before falling back on their training.

This was not the case on Thursday afternoon over the skies of Santa Monica, California, as Harrison Ford encountered his emergency while departing Santa Monica Municipal Airport in a vintage Ryan ST-3KR. A calm and collected Ford called Santa Monica Tower, declaring an emergency after what appears to be either a loss of power, or an engine failure.

If one listens to the Air-Traffic Control broadcasts over at LiveATC.net, at about 22:19 Zulu (which is about 2:19 p.m. Pacific Time), Santa Monica Tower cleared Ford for takeoff, with the call sign Ryan 53178. As another Cessna (call sign Cessna 6 Sierra Papa) was given a landing clearance for Runway 21 two minutes later, Ford comes back on the frequency with engine failure report and a request for immediate landing. The tower, shortening his call sign as Ryan 178 (standard procedure), clears him for Runway 21, and then Ford tells him he’ll have to come in on Runway 3 instead (the same runway, but in the opposite direction). The tower then gives him that clearance. You’ll hear the Cessna pilot chime in aborting his clearance, and asking the tower what he should do. The Tower asks him to fly “right 360s,” which basically means to fly around in a circle using right turns at his present position, like a holding pattern, until further notice. The tower then calls emergency crews on the ground to make sure they’re ready. While tower and the ground units wait for additional radio calls from Ford, which don’t come, eventually one calls the tower to see if they know his present location. The tower responds that he didn’t make the airport, but rather landed short “near the VOR.” A VOR is a radio direction beacon that allows for aerial navigation. Airports sometimes have them on the campus, and the Santa Monica VOR is located just off to the side of Runway 3 (see diagram). Essentially, Ford didn’t make it that far, as he landed on the golf course just to the side of that part of the airport.


A bit of context for this situation: If a single engine plane has a failure upon takeoff, we’re always taught to locate the best possible landing spot straight ahead. From the beginning of training for in-flight emergencies, pilots are taught to aviate, navigate, and then communicate the emergency — in that order. Planes can glide without power, but gliding capabilities are limited by a number of factors, most importantly speed and altitude. When a plane turns, it generates a lot of drag, which reduces its capacity to generate lift, making it more likely to lose its flying abilities (stall) and simply fall to the ground when you don’t have an engine generating power. If an airplane is relatively high (1,000′ or more above the ground), a pilot has time to turn toward a landing spot and set up for a forced landing without losing preferred airspeed or too much altitude. An engine failure on takeoff doesn’t afford one the altitude and time to do that successfully, yet too many pilots — out of a sense of panic or inexperience in most cases — try to turn back toward the airport and end up stalling, falling, and killing themselves. This is why it’s called the “impossible turn” by flight instructors. You need at least 700 ft. to 1,000 ft. of altitude to complete a turn back in the opposite direction, landing successfully on or near the departure airport, without power.

In Ford’s case, however, he is surrounded by Santa Monica’s dense neighborhoods, so there really isn’t a safe place to glide straight ahead. He had to turn back toward the golf course in order to ensure no one on the ground would be injured or killed with him coming down. I’m sure as part of his pre-flight, that was his plan for taking off in that direction in the event of an emergency, because there’s little to no time to think about what to do once the emergency begins. So, without all the facts, but given the end result, what he did is a textbook perfect emergency landing given the conditions he faced.

Contact Adjua at adjua_adama@coffeewithkenobi.com and on Twitter @Adjua_Adama

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  1. Melinda
    March 7, 2015 at 13:08 Reply

    Excellent article, Adjua! 🙂 Even as an experienced student pilot (I’ve clocked many an hour in a Cessna — more than what is needed to solo for that first time 😉 — but have yet to do so 😉 ) I found this informative and a great read! I certainly have enjoyed reading your posts here at CWK. Welcome to the family! 🙂

    1. Adjua Adama
      March 7, 2015 at 16:22 Reply

      Oh, thank you. Don’t worry, you’ll solo when the time is right. Keep at it.

  2. Analysis: NTSB Finds Faulty Carburetor to be the Cause of Harrison Ford’s March Accident | Coffee With Kenobi
    August 7, 2015 at 12:00 Reply

    […] that Ford’s mitigation of a reported engine failure appeared to be nothing less than stellar (Adama, 2015). I also stated that the cause of the forced landing wouldn’t be verified until after the […]

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I am a high school history teacher with a Master's in Technology Use in Education, and I have also spent time teaching CompTIA A+ and Network+ courses to high school students. Recently, for five years, I coordinated my school's AVID chapter, training students for the rigors of college. I am also a commercial-rated and instrument-rated pilot, for single and multi-engine aircraft, and I have been flying since 2008. Presently, I am working on flight instructor ratings in my spare time. Finally, I am a fitness enthusiast and a former teenage division bodybuilder. I've been conditioning since age 7, and I also hold a dan ranking in Yoseikan Aikido and Kobudo.

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