Intentional Pucker Factor

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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.

Comments (33)

For a year I kept my airplane hangared at a farm strip while waiting for hangars to open at Greeley or Fort Collins, after Downtown Fort Collins airport was closed. Although that strip is nominally 2800' x 60' grass, at 5350' elevation with power lines at one end, it can be pretty short in the summer, and a crosswind is not unusual. So while the owner and I have no problems with it, I took a private pilot friend in there, whose experience to that time was doing short field and crosswind landings on either a 10,000' x 100' or a 5800' x 100' paved runway, not exactly realistic. His reaction when we landed was "we barely made it" although I did not touch the brakes, and his reaction when we took off a few hours later (DA 8000'+) was the same, although we'd broken ground with nearly 1000' to spare. So that erroneous perception of not enough room to complete the landing or take off, if not practiced, can be pretty daunting. The key is real practice. Crosswind practice has to have crosswinds, short fields need to be short, etc. It's hard to choose Plan A or Plan B without experiencing both plans.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | January 18, 2012 7:54 AM    Report this comment

Good article Paul.
Landing at night in short and unfamiliar fields became my speciality soon after obtaining my licence. I would frequent bars where I knew there would be a Farmer or two and that they would need someone to fly them home. The landings were always at night and into a bush strip a little longer that the POH recommended for landing/take-off length. Farm land is too valuable to have miles and miles of runway. The usual procedure is to overfly the farm house until the Farmer’s Wife gets up and drive to the end of the runway and points the car lights along the runway. Then with a little prodding from the Farmer who made the runway one would turn and land in the short space available. If you were too low the lights would not be seen because it’s behind trees, too high and you could see the ground.
The idea is to overfly the runway to one side and see what you are in for and then round again and land.
The first few time were very scary but I was young and invincible (so I thought) but the point is the more I did it the better I got at it. Remember this is still in the days when radios were not a standard fit in aircraft this was nearly fifty years ago something I would not recommend to anyone today

Posted by: Bruce Savage | January 18, 2012 9:54 AM    Report this comment

No disagreement here that experience is the greatest teacher, but forces other than crosswinds are increasingly playing greater roles to me. Many of us, including me are just flying less from the well known reasons we talk about, and my local area just is not known for much wind when it comes to crosswind practice. But I'm usually very accurate on the experience of density altitude.

I know you're well aware of simulator use in training Paul, but their use to me can be a very helpful tool with things like crosswinds and short/soft fields, etc. Probably best to have the rudder pedals and the latest software too. Personally I found simulator use years ago helped me with keeping the scenarios at least current in my muscle memory and maybe closer to better reaction times.

No denying the real thing for practice is best though.

Posted by: David Miller | January 18, 2012 12:53 PM    Report this comment

Great article. I've been flying for 9 years. But I still get that catch in my throat when I see the windsock pointed across the runway. Then I go ahead and land, and it was dang enjoyable! Works every time.

I fly from a grass airstrip in Asia. Trees, shear, runway grade, everything. The only way to stay proficient is to pull the airplane out of the hangar, load it up, and practice short-soft until you can match the book values in the POH. Then you know you did as well as the original test pilot during certification.

The beer tastes pretty good, after a day of that.

Posted by: Tonet Rivera | January 22, 2012 12:51 AM    Report this comment

One of the best pieces of advice about flight instruction I ever heard:

" want an instructor who will take you places you don't want to go..."

You can be alot more comfortable pulling off an emergency manuver when you've spent an hour performing that same manuver, as a challenging amusement, with an instructor in the right seat. It just changes everything about how one reacts under the pressure of the real thing.

Posted by: ANTHONY NASR | January 24, 2012 5:00 PM    Report this comment

I'd strongly encourage unusual attitude training. I had an instructor introduce me to the world upside down, and it likely saved my life during an inadvertent thunderstorm encounter a few years later.
I'd suggest a 150 aerobat or the like, as it resembles the airplanes many of us fly. I'd wager that most pilots have no idea just how easily a 150 can roll inverted (or how to right the thing without exceeding redline!)

Posted by: Josh Johnson | January 24, 2012 6:39 PM    Report this comment

"They don't get that someone would actually land crosswind intentionally and spend most of an hour doing it."

They get it - they're just pissed that you insist on putting everyone else at higher risk by being the odd man out. Go to an airport with a single runway with a crosswind.

Having said that, I agree in principle that situations beyond ones comfort level (with a *competent* instructor) are highly valuable. Immediately upon completing my private certificate 40+ years ago, went out and did 10 hours of aerobatic dual in a tail dragger - some of the most useful training ever. The inverted flat spins scared the crap out of me at first, but became almost routine after a few hours. Now, flying helicopters, I go to Bell Academy annually for recurrent where we do touchdown autorotations all the time (with instructors who are often doing 5000 of these each yaer) - again highly valuable.

Posted by: R Boswell | January 25, 2012 8:17 PM    Report this comment

I have been flying a Bellanca Viking for about 20 years and have found that if it is treated with respect, it can fly into and out of some pretty small runways. Several years ago, I dropped the airplane at 4B9, a 2200' strip and was to be picked up by my partner, a part-time instructor at a school at our home base, FRG. I was waiting along a row of t-hangers on the taxiway. My ride arrived on downwind in his C-150 (borrowed from the school), and as I watched him, he disappeared behind the hangers...still quite high, halfway down the runway. I ran to where we could see him and he just barely made the turn at the end! He appeared to be quite shaken when he taxied in. On the flight home, he marveled at my ability to land the Viking in small spaces. We figured out that he was unnerved at the appearance of a short runway relative to that of his 6000' home runway and he would become fixated on the departure end. This is where the nose pointed. Once he disciplined himself to watch the touchdown zone, he was fine. and this was an instructor!

Posted by: Steve Tobias | January 26, 2012 3:03 PM    Report this comment

My experience that supports practice of unusual conditions was actually a reverse training. I was on my first IFR training flight in actual IMC. My instructor didn't like the MFD layout of the G1000 and was trying to change it through the various menus. We had just launched and entered the crud climbing to 4000 and when I leveled, I looked over to see what he was so preocupied with. In less than 5 seconds, we were in a right 70 degree bank and 60+ nose down and off the scale +2000 ftm descent (C172 btw.) Recovered, obviously, but have since recreated that upset in practice many times. That practice has cured me of many ills and boosted my confidence 10 fold.

Posted by: Roger Dugan | January 26, 2012 8:54 PM    Report this comment

I'm with you and the guy in the Taylorcraft. Retaining your proficiency and mental agility is critical. It's easier to play follow the leader but managing conflicting circuits is part of the deal, right? I taught myself to to front wheel wheel-stands on my mountain bike as a disciple task and it hugely improved my braking skills. A few faces full of grass is cheaper than a prop strike too!

Posted by: John Hogan | January 27, 2012 9:28 PM    Report this comment

I've been flying LSA for the last three years. In these very light planes I've found I stay on the ground when the winds are up. This might not be very macho, but it does make the flying pretty easy.

If you fly for recreation you have the freedom to not fly when the weather is challenging. I think it is great to be able to handle high crosswinds and short fields all at the same time. (I did plenty of flying in the mid-west where the wind always blows, but that was years ago.) On the other hand, why would you want to press your own envelope and that of the plane when you can reschedule your flight for a nicer day?

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | January 30, 2012 7:08 AM    Report this comment

One more comment.

When flying onto large runways with heavy traffic it is important to pick your touchdown point to accomplish two goals: Avoid wing tip vortices from the heavy jets; and make your turn off just as you slow down enough to make the turn.

This changes the perception of a 10,000 x 300 foot runway to a zone only a few hundred feet long to make the turn-off as quickly as possible.

It only takes a few times of forcing the transport jet behind you to go around to learn it is not appreciated when you taxi your small plane for several minutes down the runway to get to the turn-off.

This all should change your perception of a huge runway into a normal to short one for your purpose.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | January 30, 2012 7:15 AM    Report this comment

The problem with the fly-only-on-nice-days argument is that nice days can turn not so nice, especially with regard to wind. On a handful of occasions, I've sent solo students afield only to have them return in conditions gustier than forecast.

Hate to say it, but if you hide from the skills lurking in the corners of of the envelope, you're setting yourself up to be a victim.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 30, 2012 7:55 AM    Report this comment

Paul B, I didn't mean to disagree with you -- just to offer an alternate point of view on the need for extreme training scenarios.

You might find your decisions on student cross countries to be different if they are flying LSA rather than 172s. In the old days I am sure I managed to land a 150 with cross winds well in excess of 20 knots. This would be just plain impossible in the Tecnam Echo I flew for the last couple of years.

There are always choices for pilots faced with high cross winds. They can try to make the landing and divert to a better runway if necessary.

I'm all for the kind of extreme dual training you call for in the article. On the other hand, I think pilots with shaky skills would be better advised to keep it on the easy side when flying solo.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | January 30, 2012 8:33 AM    Report this comment

Here's what I see. I review about 100 accident reports a month, with R-LOCs being the leading cause. Many--if not most--occur in relatively benign conditions. One I can think of off hand was in a wind of about 9 knots, with only about half that as the crosswind component, if that.

The pilot ran off the runway, acorrss a taxiway and into a line of parked airplanes. Damaged three or four, destroyed his own. No injury. This is just a simple lack of basic skill and possibly lack of proficiency that occurred on a nice day.

I see it in myself, too. I took the Cub up a couple of weeks ago, working on three-pointers. The second one I did was just a god-awful mess. Touched down too fast, too hard, bounced and nearly went sideways. No real wind to speak of.

The thing is, I knew what I was doing and not doing and knew what I needed to do to react. I just didn't. But I believe really skilled pilots are disciplined enough so the likelihood of them doing something like this is much reduced. Maybe not zero, but reduced. They've trained themselves to not sit through a situation where they need to react.

I think it can be trained in, but you need to work at in all sorts of conditions not limited to exceptionally benign circumstances.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 30, 2012 9:21 AM    Report this comment

I hate to say it, but given the cost of flying, I no longer go out there and practice landings much. If I'm on my way home from Seattle and conditions oblige, I'll throw in a couple of extra landings at my home field, but it's not going to happen at the Boeing Field end, I'm always running late (if I weren't, I'd have driven :-) 10 years ago I used to go out just for fun on crosswind days. I'm one of those R-LOC's just waiting to happen. On the plus side, I pretty much know exactly how to do it on my home field, so at least I won't likely embarrass myself in front of people I know . . .

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | January 30, 2012 11:59 AM    Report this comment

A lot of people seem to be unsure in the low-speed end of the envelope just before touchdown because it's such a fleeting moment. At my old field, the hanger was at the far end of a 5000 ft runway, so on calm days (with no traffic) I'd flare at the threshold, add a little power to hold it off in the flare, and basically air-taxi a full mile to the hangar at about 2 ft AGL. After doing this a while, I realized it really sharpened my low-speed handling skills when near the ground. And saved tires too. If the trim and flaps were set just right, I could do this all day effortlessly. Why set down and taxi when you can fly to the hangar :-)

Posted by: A Richie | January 30, 2012 4:36 PM    Report this comment

Paul, Hope you don't mind me telling the story about the day you called me up and said let's go flying. My response "but it's 20 gusting to 30 directly across the runway" (might be exaggerating some but it was windy). "Exactly". We went out and flew. I can tell you I was really working hard to get the airplane on the ground without breaking something. By the time we were done, I was sweating and drained but I found the limits of the airplane and was a much safer pilot for the exercise.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | January 30, 2012 7:49 PM    Report this comment

King school has a great video on crosswind landings where they suggest the wing low approach - aka a sideslip - and how to do it by first learning to 'hover taxi' as mentioned by A Richie. Then pick a crosswind runway and hover taxi while offsetting the plane from the left to the right edge and back to center using slips while keeping the longitudinal axis of the plane parallel with the runway. After a number of those routines a crosswind landing becomes an easy procedure, and taxi is also easier because it encourages increasing the necessary control inputs as the plane slows rather than just give up. Here's a teaser video: kingschools*com/webVideo/videoAsp/PlayVideo*asp?id=39. A rather complete series of teasers are here: kingschools*com/webVideo/VideoArchives*asp

A recent Cardinal crash in Georgia had some wondering why the pilot didn't slip the plane when he arrived high with a dead engine over a cornfield and glided into a treeline, killing three. The ensuing discussion illuminated two things: First, many pilots don't slip: "That's what flaps are for." Second, some don't know how or are afraid of slipping "because it could lead to a spin," which leads to number three: many don't know the difference between a slip and a skid. A likely fourth is: The FAA definition of a forward and side slip is damn confusing when it needn't be. Googling 'forward slip' and 'side-slip' tells me there is a lot of confusion out there, beginning with CFIs.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | January 30, 2012 9:42 PM    Report this comment

continued) I've researched the above topics and have a draft in my head, but want to get some feedback before I prove I'm clueless too.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | January 30, 2012 9:45 PM    Report this comment


Isn't that what authors expect of a CFI when they say: Find an instructor and go test the limits of your skills?" (I suspect most CFIs are attributed magical powers rarely deserved,but why correct beneficial misconceptions eh?) That said, maybe there is some self-preservation to be learned from becoming a CFI or at least an active mentor for another pilot.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | January 30, 2012 10:22 PM    Report this comment

Tom, I'll be happy to give you my internal notion of the slip and skid. I am not a CFI. Just an old pilot.

A skid is what happens when you do an uncoordinated turn where you are applying too much rudder. I suppose this can be converted to a spin if you add a stall to the equation. However, the way I learned to perform a spin is to do the stall first and kick the rudder along with a little power as you enter the stall. This only works to spin to the left in a C-152 with left rudder and the clockwise rotating engine.

A slip is a cross controlled maneuver. You might roll the wings to the right and apply left rudder. This is not a spin configuration. You also need to push the nose down to maintain air speed with the increased drag of flying sideways. Indicated airspeed is not to be trusted in this maneuver.

To do a "Forward" slip for cross wind landing approach I first position the plane on the extended center line of the runway. Then I start a little dance where I use the rudder pedals to keep the nose pointing down the runway and the ailerons and roll position to keep the plane on the extended center line. For me it is a matter if "Disconnecting" the yaw control and roll control to keep the plane on center line and pointing down the runway. As you get closer to the runway the roll and yaw controls will change to adjust for the changing winds. You continue this "Disconnected" control dance all the way to round out and touch down.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | January 30, 2012 11:25 PM    Report this comment

Nuts. First try stripped out my quote. Saying again:

Paul said: "They've trained themselves to not sit through a situation where they need to react."

Isn't that what authors expect of a CFI when they say: Find an instructor and go test the limits of your skills?" (I suspect most CFIs are attributed magical powers rarely deserved,but why correct beneficial misconceptions eh?) That said, maybe there is some self-preservation to be learned from becoming a CFI or at least an active mentor for another pilot.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | January 30, 2012 11:58 PM    Report this comment

Its one thing to train out of your comfort zone, but my PPL checkride ended up that way. I trained at KLGB where 5400 x 150 are the "small" runways. Radar was out on checkride day (no pattern work allowed by the tower), so we went over to KCPM with 3300 x 60 ft. The sight picture was different and I was sweating but did ok (just barely).

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | January 31, 2012 1:37 PM    Report this comment

What's the difference between a forward and side slip, and is either one a yaw?

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | January 31, 2012 1:44 PM    Report this comment

Yaw is the name of the rotation that is similar to the one you control with the steering wheel when driving a car.

I think forward slips are the ones where you keep going toward the runway with your nose aligned with your path of travel. Side slips are ones where you intentionally increase the cross controls beyond that point to quickly lose altitude. In this case your wings will be leaning into the wind and your nose will be pointed in the other direction and hopefully more downward than normal.

Posted by: PAUL MULWITZ | January 31, 2012 1:50 PM    Report this comment

A yaw is rotation around the CG on the vertical axis. I don't think cars do that unless they are in a skid or towing a poorly loaded trailer. Isn't a trailer sway control similar to a yaw damper?

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | January 31, 2012 2:08 PM    Report this comment

There's really no aerodynamic difference between a forward slip and a side slip; they're one in the same. The difference is how the vector is aimed from the resultant drag.

In both, the perceived flight vector is straight, but in the forward slip, it's down the runway--or whatever--with the nose yawed in one direction. In the sideslip, the airplane is actually slipping to the left or right, but with the nose aligned with the runway, thus canceling the crosswind component.

The skid is something else. It's too much rudder or yaw for the commanded rate of turn. A slip is the reverse. Barry Schiff's Proficient Pilot does an elegant job of explaining all this.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 31, 2012 2:40 PM    Report this comment

Paul B: Which one of Barry's books cover the topic?

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | February 2, 2012 7:34 PM    Report this comment

The Proficient Pilot.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 3, 2012 4:50 AM    Report this comment

Paul B: There is a vol I and Vol II but it matters not: They are almost free on amazon, so I'll get both. In the mean time I found that Bill Kerschner's Student pilot flight manual is answering most of my questions.

Posted by: THOMAS M CONNOR | February 3, 2012 12:43 PM    Report this comment

I started learning crosswind landings from my first lesson - no choice, my first 22 hours were at 40I, one grass runway to land the Champ on. A couple weeks ago I had to fly a SODA check with an FAA examiner, and as I brought the C152 in on final with a 16 kt. wind 70 degrees off the runway heading, she asked if maybe it would be better to land on another runway into the wind. I LOVE crosswind landings, they're a challenge and a chance to apply the skills I've worked hard to develop, I was having fun and actually forgot who I was flying with. "We'll be fine", I said as I came in no flaps, transitioning from a crab to a slip at about 15 feet, and put the upwind wheel down gently with the nose right over the center line. It was only during the rollout that I remembered what I was actually there for that day and looked over to see the examiner grinning ear to ear. It's going to cost some money, but I'm going to fly often enough and seek out challenges that will allow me to maintain that level of confidence, if for no other reason than the day I leave in perfect flying conditions and return to an unexpected gust front I want to know I can get myself and my passengers safely back to the hangar.

Posted by: Mark Consigny | February 3, 2012 1:47 PM    Report this comment

In line with the comment of Paul Mulwitz, whenever flying to a “big” airport, routinely selecting your touchdown point on the 10,000 X 200’ runway to minimize taxi and/or hit your desired turnoff not only optimizes traffic flows but hones your perception skills.

Being reasonably confident you can hit the mark accurately under a variety of sight pictures and wind conditions is invaluable.

Posted by: John Wilson | February 5, 2012 3:05 PM    Report this comment

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