How To Land a Plane That's Missing Half a Wing

By Brent Rose on at

It's time to talk about the second letter in NASA: Aeronautics. Yes, NASA does mind-blowing things in outer space, but they also want you to get to your family reunion in one piece. NASA is making planes smarter. Smart enough to be flyable even when they're falling apart.

We're all familiar with the term "autopilot," yes? Think of Adaptive Control as a supermegacharged version of that. It's part of what they call Intelligent Avionics at NASA Ames, and it's capable of identifying a problem and correcting for it in a matter of milliseconds—before the pilot even knows something is wrong. As airplanes get more complex, both mechanically and electronically, there's more that can potentially go awry. Adaptive Control is designed to compensate for just about any failure, right down to worst-case scenarios.

As you can see in the above video of my time in an Ames flight simulator, a regular plane is still flyable even if a piece of its tail is broken off; it just takes about ten times more work to keep it stable. So OK, it's entirely possible to keep it in the air—but what about landing? Another story entirely. When a pilot has to constantly compensate for a smashed up tail, landing is exponentially more difficult. I'm not a pilot, but when Adaptive Control was switched on, I could keep the plane level very easily. It was a tad sluggish to turn, but considering it had a chunk of tail missing, it wasn't bad at all.

Wing failure was a whole different ball of extremely dangerous, out of control wax. Losing a wing is pretty much a pilot's worst nightmare, and now I have a visceral understanding of why that is. Even with Adaptive Control on I went into an uncontrollable roll and plunged to my virtual death. Seeing it happen on that gigantic, projected screen and pulling back on the joystick in vain made my heart race every time. Krishna is a much better pilot than I am. When the failure occurred he just turned up the thruster, pulled back on the stick as hard as he could, and the Adaptive Control saved the day. With half a wing missing. Crazy!

It's worth noting that a really, really good pilot may be able to overcome failures like these on his own. In 1983, pilot Zevi Nedavi lost an entire wing while flying his F-15 in a training exercise. He was miraculously able to regain stability and land the plane safely. This, however, is the exception, not the rule. The F-15 has a wide body and a ton of thrust, which helped it compensate. Normally when a wing is lost it's eject or die. Adaptive Control might help raise the percentage of survival.

This is just one of a ton of things NASA Ames is working on in order to improve air safety, but it's certainly the most dramatic. For anybody who's ever flown through some serious turbulence or lived through mechanical failure on a plane, this addition can't come soon enough.

Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. For these couple of weeks we'll be coming at you direct from NASA JPL and NASA Ames, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.

Video shot by Bill Bowles, edited by Woody Jang.