Intentional Pucker Factor
If there's anything inarguable in aviation it's this: The number one cause of accidents is loss of control on the runway, or what we call R-LOCs in our accident reporting. To be more accurate, R-LOCs are actually the result, the cause is some other factor related to the fact that pilots sometimes have a hard time landing airplanes. This has always been true, but it seems worse now than ever. If that's actually the case and not just a misperception, lack of flight activity is probably the culprit.
So how do you acquire the underlying skills to inoculate yourself against runway prangs or at least keep the skills fresh? We all know the answer. As an instructor, I've always subscribed to the theory that the more you test yourself in trying conditions, the better your skills will be when you face those conditions for real. It's too bad that more pilots don't do this, although a few do. The other day I was taxiing out for takeoff while a Taylorcraft, working the crosswind runway in a pretty stiff wind, did the one-wheel trick down the entire length of the runway, before recovering into a perfect wheelie for the last turnoff. "Show off," I said over the CTAF. He laughed, but what he was doing was both a pure celebration of skill and the kind of proficiency flying we should all do.
Our own inbred culture tends to discourage this sometimes. More than once I've been in the crosswind pattern only to have others on the CTAF point out the active runway is into the wind. They don't get that someone would actually land crosswind intentionally and spend most of an hour doing it. Some people will get downright snooty about it, but I try to ignore them, while adjusting my pattern to avoid a dead-ass tie at the intersection. The pilots who complain the loudest are probably the ones most likely to end up in a ditch.
The challenge in doing this sort of envelope expansion, so to speak, is to avoid having the cure be worse than the disease. The thing about risky training scenarios is that they can snap from benign practice to bent metal in the blink of an eye. An example is a night flight I took with my student, Jordan, last week. Returning to the airport and just entering the pattern, he asked what to do if the engine quit at that point. "Let's find out," I said, and had him pull the throttle to idle.
The only realistic play was a tight turn to line up on runway 31 with a touchdown well past the midpoint and with a slight quartering tailwind. It would require a fairly steep bank, at night, involving momentary loss of sight of the runway, then a careful judgment on whether we could land on the remaining runway without smoking the tires or overrunning. Pretty edgy stuff.
While he was setting all this up, I briefed him on the two principle risks: One was to avoid loading up the wings during the turns and the other was to avoid target fixation and not try to complete a full-stop without enough runway. I told him to take it right down into the flare and then he could decide if he could make the landing or go around.
When we lined up off an angled final, the sight picture was all red runway lights—the last 1000-foot markers. It looked impossibly too short. This is one of the trickiest visual judgments a pilot has to make, because it's all about speed and distance with constantly changing variables. You have to accurately estimate not where you are, but where you'll be. So I suggested we make the go around Plan A, the landing Plan B.
Most of us have had the experience of rolling toward the end of a runway and thinking…I'll never make this. Then, somewhere in the flare, the sight picture instantly changes and you realize you can make it with room to spare. And that's what we did. It didn't even require braking.
So the essential skill is to be able to make that switch without fixating on trying to force a plan that's simply not going to work. The people who do that are R-LOC victims; the ones who don't are less likely to have a tour through the tules. But you won't have that judgment unless you've seen it before so a little risk now is worth it to avoid a big risk—and maybe an accident—later.