On January 15, 2009, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger glided and ditched an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River, midway between Manhattan and New Jersey, following an unlucky encounter with a flock of geese which resulted in dual-engine failure. This emergency landing remains one of the most incredible aviation stories in recent history and was dubbed the miracle on the Hudson by David Paterson, the governor of New York at the time. The movie Sully is based on this miraculous real-life event.
Emergency landing situations – such as that described above – are rare and may occur for different reasons, including: Total Loss of Thrust (TLOT), onboard fire, structural damage, or hydraulic failure. The onboard automation of large commercial aircraft offers limited assistance in these situations.
The Flight Management System (FMS), for example, provides a list of nearby airports; however, it is up to the pilots to select the most suitable landing site and fly towards it, whilst avoiding hazardous weather, high terrain, and other obstacles along the way. Taking timely decisions in an emergency scenario such as this is prone to human error which reduces the chances of a safe landing.
The Site Selection and Trajectory Generation for Emergency Landings of Commercial Aircraft (STELA) project aims to address the challenges described above by developing a system to assist the flight crew in emergency landing situations due to TLOT. First, the proposed system will identify potential landing sites – both airfield and off-airfield sites – and rank them on the basis of various risk factors such as: prevailing weather conditions; distance to the landing site; complexity of the emergency landing trajectory; and the physical characteristics of the landing site. Then, the landing site options will be presented to the crew who will select the most favourable site. This will ensure that the pilots are kept in the loop.
Once the landing site is selected, the system will generate a feasible trajectory that will allow the aircraft to glide efficiently and safely towards the selected landing site. This trajectory will be either flown by the pilots themselves or programmed directly into the onboard automation. The proposed system will therefore help pilots to react more quickly to such situations – where literally every second counts – and give them more time to communicate with Air Traffic Control.
The STELA project is 30 months long and is being led by Dr Ing. Jason Gauci from the Institute of Aerospace Technologies, in collaboration with Dr Ing. Brian Zammit from the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering and QuAero Ltd., a local aviation consultancy company. A post-doc researcher – Dr Ahsan Rahman – is also working on the project.
The authors of this article would like to acknowledge the project: “Setting up of transdisciplinary research and knowledge exchange (TRAKE) complex at the University of Malta (ERDF.01.124)” which is being co-financed through the European Union through the European Regional Development Fund 2014 – 2020.