Despite the skill level developed in other operations, making perfect landings can be elusive for many pilots. It's sad but true: A pilot can fly smoothly around thunderstorms, never see the ground for hours, and break out after a perfectly-flown ILS only to have some difficulty in the landing and his passengers will come away doubting his abilities. What are the elements of a perfect landing? What about when ATC throws you a curve or two? AVweb's Howard Fried tackles these and other elements of the perfect landing. How many have you mastered?
March 12, 2000
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
reader who requested that I discuss making perfect landings, with animation, no
less prompted this column.
In a perfect world it would be easy to consistently make those neat landings
in which our passengers, as we are rolling out after a real greaser, look around
and exclaim, "When did we land?" However, I don't live in a perfect
world, and I doubt if you do either. In my world conditions of wind and traffic
dictate that each approach and landing shall be different from the last one, so
applying a set procedure of initial power reduction at a specific point on the
downwind, extending approach flaps at a specific point, turning base at a
specific point, another power reduction, more flap, etc. does not work. At a
tower-controlled airport we must be flexible so that we are prepared and able to
respond to instructions such as, "Make short approach cleared to
land," or "Extend your downwind I'll call your base." And at
non-towered airports the wind and traffic control our activity in the pattern.
It is also important to note that a good landing starts with a good pattern.
Everybody enjoys hearing his/her passengers say, as they are rolling down the
runway after a perfect landing, "When did we land?" They've looked
around, and discovered they were on the ground without ever feeling the
touchdown. I know I enjoy this, and I'm sure you do too.
over 50 years I've been listening to the argument as to which controls what.
Does the elevator control airspeed or altitude, or does the throttle? Obviously
there is an overlapping function and either or both control either or both. I
demonstrate this by taking the pilot who claims that the elevator controls
airspeed out for a takeoff, line up on the runway and furiously start pumping
the yoke back and forth. When asked what I'm doing, I reply, "I'm trying to
get up enough airspeed to take off."
Okay then, power must control airspeed and the elevator must control
altitude. We then go up to a nice, safe altitude and I reduce the power to idle
and ask the pilot to honk back on the yoke and climb. He does this and we climb
for a bit, after which we run out of poop and start to sink. Of course you can
cheat and use an Angle of Attack (AOA) Indicator instead of relying on the
Now back to the landing approach. In this situation, if you want to make a
good landing (under visual conditions), you must use the throttle to control
altitude (sink rate) and the elevator (yoke) to control airspeed. From the time
you make the initial power reduction on downwind until you start the flare, you
keep glancing from the airspeed indicator to the runway and back, and you are
constantly asking yourself, "Am I high, low, or just right?" Of
course, finding the answer to this question is easy when the approach is to a
runway with VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) lights or a similar visual
aid, but it is not difficult once we become skillful at judging our angle of
descent as we make each turn from downwind to base to final, and then throughout
the final approach.
Then comes the flare, or round out. The object, of course, is to run out of
airspeed and altitude simultaneously. We must strive to be going just as slowly
as we possibly can at the moment of touchdown. The way this is accomplished is
to put the airplane just where you want it an inch or two above the runway,
and hold it there, by taking the slack out of the stick, or yoke. As the speed
bleeds off, the elevator control will tend to become loose in the pilot's hand.
The object here is to maintain a steady backpressure on the stick or yoke. Too
much pressure and we will trade off airspeed for altitude and zoom up, resulting
in having the flying machine drop down onto the runway from three or more feet
(or, perhaps, resulting in a go-around). Not enough pressure and the airplane
will do a one-wheel landing on the nose wheel, possibly even crumpling up the
front end of the airplane. As you know, neither of these situations is a
desirable result. Both can be extremely embarrassing, or even worse, damaging to
the metal or even the human body.
back to the idea of going as slowly as you possibly can at the moment of
touchdown, remember, you can go slower with power than without it, so sometimes
it behooves us to keep just a tad of power throughout the flare, and at the
instant of touchdown, kill it all off. And while we're on the subject of killing
off all the power at the moment of touchdown, there's something else that I do:
I retract the flaps as soon as the wheels kiss the ground. I know there is a
school of thought that says a pilot should not retract the flaps until the
runway is cleared for fear of inadvertently retracting the landing gear instead
of the flaps, but I feel that if a person can't tell the difference between a
flap handle (usually shaped like a flap) from a gear knob (invariably shaped
like a wheel), he or she shouldn't be flying in the first place. The advantage
of retracting the flaps right away is that it plasters the airplane firmly on
the ground by spilling off the excess lift produced by extended flaps. This
prevents any excess speed from enabling the airplane to skip down the runway.
Throughout the flare, not only are motor skills involved (coordination of
hand, foot, and eye), but judgment as well. And to acquire these skills it takes
practice and lots of it. As with any motor skill, perfecting a landing requires
repetition and drill, repetition and drill, and more repetition and drill until
it becomes "second nature." As a general rule, the larger and heavier
the airplane, the easier it is to make smooth landings. Wheel landings in a
taildragger are particularly difficult to get used to because it goes against
the grain to push the stick or yoke forward when the mains touch the ground.
Students are taught to hold the stick or yoke firmly back to prevent the
airplane from taking off again, to keep it stalled. Judgment comes into play in
knowing just when and where to start holding the airplane off the ground with
back pressure, and here again practice and repetition are required, more
repetition and drill until the point is reached at which the pilot can tell
exactly where the airplane is with respect to mother earth that point an inch
or two above the runway. To do this one must sight along the edge of the runway
quite a way in front of the airplane. Looking straight down fails to give the
No matter how the trip is flown, the non-pilot passengers always judge the
pilot's performance by the landing at the end of the trip. And the "airport
bums" that hang around the airport and observe the arrivals always have
some comment regarding every landing they observe. It is a fact of life. Have
you not noticed this? A pilot can be a hero and bring an airplane in through the
nastiest weather imaginable, but if he/she botches the landing he or she is
thought of as a poor excuse for a pilot. It may not be right, but that's just
how it is. And this principle applies to the air carrier pilot as well as one
piloting a J-3 Cub.
(whoever "they" are) say that after a long trip the landing is not
likely to be a good one, and I've found this to be true. Perhaps it is fatigue,
perhaps the result of boredom, or merely having several hours pass without
having the perspective that one gets when close to mother earth, but I know my
own landings are not quite as smooth after a long (more than two hours) leg.
Some airplanes, of course, are easier to land well than others. The Piper
PA-32/34 series of airplanes are particularly difficult to land smoothly unless
they are loaded to gross. With two heavyweights in the front seats and the rest
of the airplane empty, these particular models are right at the very front end
of their center-of-gravity envelope (if not slightly out forward). Unless loaded
to gross and in the middle or aft portion of the envelope, the only way to land
these models smoothly is to carry a bit of power right through the touchdown. On
the other hand, all Cessnas and the PA-28 Pipers with the tapered wings and a
stabilator on the fuselage (Warrior IIs, Archer IIs and Arrow IIIs, for example)
are so easy to land smoothly that anyone should be able to consistently
"grease 'em on." The same always cannot always be said of Pipers with
the constant chord (Hershey Bar) wing.
paraphrase Gertrude Stein*, a landing is a landing is a
landing. In one respect they are all the same you want to run out of lift and
altitude simultaneously. However, conditions frequently dictate that they be
accomplished differently one from another. Many pilots seem to have quite a bit
of trouble with the "dreaded" crosswind landing. This is no doubt a
result of improper rudder usage. For most light airplanes the forward slip is
the recommended technique as opposed to the crab method. It is really very
simple. The pilot, on turning final, should lower the upwind wing and apply
whatever opposite rudder is required to track straight down the centerline of
the runway and do nothing else. The airplane will touch down on the upwind wheel
first, followed by the other two wheels and continue to roll straight down the
runway. The upwind wing should still be kept low, and Voila!, the task is
accomplished. What could be easier? The pilot's eye and mind should be kept on
the objective, and he or she should do whatever is necessary to reach that
same principle of thinking in terms of the objective applies to the soft-field
landing. Here we are faced with getting the airplane down on a surface covered
with slush, or mud glue, if you will. Our objective here is to avoid a sudden
stop and possibly nosing the airplane over or at least damaging its front end.
In order to do this the airplane must be going as slowly as it possibly can at
the moment of touchdown, and the nose must be held up out of the mud until the
airplane is almost stopped. Remember what I pointed out earlier? It can be made
to go slower with power than without it. For practicing this maneuver, we are
hypothesizing an infinitely long landing surface, covered with some kind of
sticky substance. By carrying a bit of power through the touchdown, and then
holding the elevator control (yoke or stick) back to force the tail down, we
hold the nosewheel up out of the mud.
Once again, when we are confronted with the necessity of getting down in
something other than the usual situation, if we keep the objective in mind and
then do whatever we have to do to make it come out right at the end, the problem
will solve itself. In this case we have a nice, flat, smooth surface, but one
that is substantially shorter than what we are used to. The objective, of
course, is to get on the ground and stopped before running off the end or into
something. The dear old FAA puts one of their imaginary 50-foot obstacles on the
approach (I've personally never seen one of these 50-foot obstacles 85-foot
tree lines, yes; 50-foot anything, no).
Here again we must be going slowly (good idea practice slow flight at
minimum controllable airspeed, or "cheat" by using an AOA Indicator)
as we encounter mother earth. This maneuver can be accomplished by mushing
steeply down, with some degree of power, flaring abruptly, spilling off the lift
by retracting the flaps and applying heavy braking. Here's a tip: just prior to
touchdown retract the flaps! You will stall the airplane onto the ground and
come to a quick stop.
By understanding these basic techniques and practicing, practicing,
practicing, you can make the outcome of all of your landings safe, predictable
and smooth. Try it, you'll like it!
wonderful family is Stein
There's Gert, there's Ep, and their's Ein
Gert's verses are punk, Ep's statues are junk
And nobody understands Ein.
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