Airplane Glide to Landings

Q: If a large commercial jet loses engine power, can it glide to a landing, or is it pretty much all over?

All commercial airplanes — jets and turboprops alike — are certified to fly, and even climb after takeoff, following an engine failure. But if all the engines were to somehow stop working? Yes, the airplane can certainly glide to a landing. In fact the glide performance of a large jet is no worse than the glide performance of, say, a small Cessna. It needs to perform this maneuver at a higher speed, but the ratio of altitude lost to distance covered is roughly the same. And while it may surprise you, it’s not the least bit uncommon for jets to descend at what a pilot would call “idle thrust.” That is, the engines are run back to a zero-power condition. They are still operating, but in a way that basically produces no power. A glide, no different than your scenario above.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.