When A Good Landing Falls Into Your Lap—Brag

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I once made a landing that was so bad the Earth winced. At least that’s what I inferred from the tower when the controller drawled, “Cessna 72A, if able, taxi to parking.” ATC sarcasm is a thin gruel best served cold, but I admit it must’ve turned heads the way the nosewheel shimmied as I approached the fuel pumps, around which every pilot I’d ever known stood in righteous judgment of the worst landing ever. In my defense, none of them were up flying in the viciously calm winds that day. And even if their collective evaluation was warranted, where were they when 45 years later I made the best landing ever? And I don’t mean the best landing that I’ve ever made (a low bar), but the best landing by any pilot, anywhere in anything. And I’m not just bragging. Even though I am. Humbly.

I have little right to preen, because there were no witnesses to my stellar performance, which invokes the tired quantum posit, “If a tree accidentally falls to a good landing and no one notices, does it make a sound?” The answer is, “No.” That’s because this landing—which might as well have been made by a log since I am clueless why it excelled—was smooth and perfectly aligned with the runway. There were no sideloaded tire squeals announcing my arrival, as usually occurs when I’m landing on pavement instead of grass.

We’ve dissected the sod v. pavement dialectic to numbing impasse in previous articles, concluding it’s best relegated to the dustbin of vacuous online chats. But on this day I was landing at Winterset Airport in Madison County, Iowa—setting for the 1995 movie Bridges of Madison County, made famous by Clint Eastwood (a pilot) and Meryl Streep (not a pilot but could easily portray one), sharing a steamy bathtub scene. If you haven’t caught it, imagine accidentally walking in on your parents who forgot you’d moved back home after being furloughed from your first airline job. Now repress that image as we return to the airport and its 3000-foot paved runway.

It’s not that I’m afraid of pavement. It’s simply that after operating from grass strips I’ve noticed my inconsistency at keeping the longitudinal axis parallel to the runway lights. That’s because grass is so forgiving, while I’m so easily distracted. Granted, you’ll sideload the gear whenever landing catawampus, but grass doesn’t get all snitchy about it, doesn’t screech your incompetence the way concrete does.

Where was I … ?

Oh, yeah, on final, focusing my Taekwondo black-belt mind on this asphalt opponent and how an impious north wind would treat my 8.00×6 retreads when … full disclosure, I was never a black belt. Green was as high as I achieved until some eight-year-old snap-kicked my kneecap, dropping me like a green-girded burrito onto the floor. Meanwhile, back in the cockpit, where thoroughly distracted by thoughts of past failures and lingering resentment, I barely felt the right wheel touch.

To paraphrase Tom Hagen in Godfather 2, “it was like I never existed.” The airplane didn’t need me. She knew how to land. Airbus spends millions making their buses run with minimal human interference, but my Champ has been doing so for 74 years. “Help me less,” she murmurs when I’m overcontrolling, “I got this!” In short, I have absolutely no idea why this one landing, among thousands of my inglorious others, went so well. It’s like being called on in class and giving the right answer despite having never read the assignment. At least I imagine it’s like that, because in my academic career I rarely knew the answers but learned early how to circumlocute the questions by using words like circumlocute. That only worked through the third grade. Nuns were on to me afterwards.

But the teachers who suffered my disinterest when I was a kid weren’t pilots and didn’t understand that when I stared out the classroom window at the autumn sky, oblivious to their obsession with unsightly dangling participles, I wasn’t being lazy. OK, maybe a little. Mostly, I was distracted. I just wanted to be up there, where I saw a Beech 18 crawling beneath a thin overcast, its twin radials synced to my kidhood desire to be somewhere beyond that stifling classroom with its foolish adult notion that success is reserved for those who “pay attention.”

In my ATC career I was paid to stare out windows and pay attention to airplanes. Irony noted, it was the perfect job. As a bonus, I witnessed numerous dreadful landings, some disastrous, as in crash/burn without injuries, but most were just silly, as in bounce, bounce … crunch. After the second bounce we’d already lifted the emergency phone to Crash Fire Rescue (CFR), because tower controllers know that Cessnas and Cherokees always break on the third landing attempt when a go-around is in order. NTSB accident reports are littered with bent props after pilots mangled the touchdown and redoubled their efforts to fly that sucker into the ground in subsequent attempts before exceeding logic and runway’s end.

And that circumlocutes us full twist on how to take unearned credit for great landings. Despite having made what the World Air Sports Federation should declare “the best landing ever,” I can’t offer any advice, because chances are it’ll take me another 45 years to figure out what I did right beyond not getting in the airplane’s way. But knowing I might never make another landing that good again, I promise to get back to you if it happens.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Best and worst landing I ever had a role in was my first training flight. Took off with calm winds. On the return we were racing a monsoon storm. Tower cleared us to land with “through the land runway two five right, winds 350 at 17 gusting 29.” Tower wasn’t impressed with our 6 foot drop into the runway. “3GJ, if you’re gonna call that a landing, exit at C9”

  2. Can’t say that I am any good at light plane landings as I have had so few as to not have a track record. My time is almost exclusively in “heavys”. I flew the Classic 747 for 16 years. In that bird, you could ruin a landing by overthinking it. As the radar altimeter talked past “30 feet”, raise the nose 2 degrees, hold it, slowly retard the throttles to idle and accept the results. On those days that the “landing Gods” held you in favor, as you were waiting touchdown, with no other sensation the spoilers would deploy and the aircraft was magically on the ground, no bumps, no bruises. Had a few of those but never enough…

  3. Paul, I’ve discovered the key to perfect landings. Whether in the CallAir Cadet or the Glastar, pavement or grass, just fly the airplane down to a half inch on grass so the blades gently spin up the tires (or three eights of an inch to generate air friction on pavement) and let it drop in from there.

    • You beat me to it. I luckily learned this while flying with a friend in a Diamond Star. He was amazed, and I was cool enough to not shout my amazement at my success. Repeated it several times after as well because with just a bit of throttle and a smooth round out, the slick plane will hang just high enough until you give the throttle a final twist.

  4. While instructing in a J-3 many years ago, I made a perfect landing. It was particularly memorable because it evolved from a really bad approach, which I also made. My student and I were at two thousand feet, practicing stalls. All was going well except for my student’s annoying habit of pulling the throttle back too abruptly, which on one occasion inspired the engine to protest with what appeared to be a gentle cough. On a summer’s day with the clamshell door wide open, communication was difficult at best. I leaned forward toward my student in the front seat and, very loudly, asked her to stop pulling the throttle back so abruptly.
    She turned around in her seat, obviously confused.
    Again, still loudly, I asked her to be gentle with the throttle.
    “Why?” she asked over the roar of the engine and wind entering the cockpit.
    “Because you might kill the engine!” I hoped my simple yet alarming answer would reach her through the roar of the wind and engine.
    “I don’t understand!” Her confusion continued.
    “Don’t do this!” With her hand on the knob, I jerked the throttle back to the stop with an excess of instructive energy and held it until both the roar of the wind and engine lessened, and she could at least hear me. I don’t know why, maybe because my explanation took a bit too long, but even as I spoke, the wooden propeller suddenly slowed and came to a stop, surprisingly proving my point.
    My student was immediately alarmed and informed me in a really loud and worried voice that the propeller had stopped! I kept my cool and told her to hang on as I dropped the nose and accelerated to a speed I was sure would cause the propeller to windmill, but nothing happened. I stuck the nose down even further, and yet the prop was absolutely still, as if frozen in place. Finally, becoming a bit worried, I stood the J-3 on its nose and began kicking the rudder back and forth, trying to get the propeller to windmill, but nothing I did helped; it was hung up on a compression stroke. I couldn’t believe my bad luck because the ground was rapidly approaching , and I needed to move forward to Plan B! In the meantime, my student, calm and apparently resolved to her fate, turned around in her seat and told me to forget it, that the engine wasn’t going to start and that I should pick a field and land. It was too late, there was little or no altitude left to pick a proper field.
    Not to far away was a field of mature oats, which I believed the Cub had little chance of reaching, but I was desperate because we were now beneath the tops of the nearest trees and there was what appeared to be a gravel road ahead of us. I told my student to hold tightly at the very same moment she yelled that there were powerlines straight ahead. I didn’t see the powerlines, but I saw the farm fence directly ahead and aimed the gear at the top strand of wire, in the process slipping deftly beneath the powerlines and dropping into the oats, our flying energy exhausted.
    A few moments later, my student and I crawled from the J-3 and stared at each other, smiling, maybe even laughing, but certainly shaken, maybe even stirred. I was a bit upset with myself for trying to restart the Cub when I should have just picked a field and landed. Indeed, it was probably the worst approach I had ever made, but it was a perfect landing!

  5. Out on my long cross country, student solo to a Class Delta – I was headed for providing the tower with just the fodder you report. Right cross winds were not (and still aren’t) my strong point and the 172 hobby-horsed down the runway as I tried to stick it. As the pitch headed skywards at the end of the second nose over – my CFI’s dimly remembered warning that “the third bounce is a prop strike” filtered through to my right hand and I firewalled the throttle and went around. Tower wearily offered right traffic and I tried again. I greased the next one – positively greased it and pulled off at the first taxiway. Tower asked where I wanted to go and I said “hang on while I deal with a problem”. It’s funny how smoke in the cockpit on final concentrates the mind and gets the plane down smartly……

    (It was a smoldering landing light switch which stopped when I turned it off as part of my post landing checklist and which I identified by the burning sensation in my finger as I flicked it off)

  6. I once did one…once. Also, while as a tower controller at Long Beach many years ago, a J3 was doing some dual instruction, touch and gos on rwy 25L, right in front of the tower. On one arrival for a T & G, as they touched, the J3 did a very tight fast one wing low three sixty on the runway pavement. It stopped its spin around actually perfectly aligned down the runway again. I said, “Hey Piper 23 Zulu, you ok?” He quickly and calmly responded, “We’re just checking for traffic”, the throttle opened and away they flew.

  7. Loved this article! I’m reminded of a couple of landings I made on my last trip. It was a two day trip with a half dozen flights/landings and somewhere in the middle I made one of the best, if not the very best landing I ever pulled off in the 757. It was truly perfect. It was one of those where the first officer would jokingly say, “Have we touched down yet?” But I so wanted to have one like that on my very last landing of my career and sadly I didn’t pull it off. I remember it vividly. I had the cards stacked against me because we were in a stretch 757-300 that flight. This version lands different from the original -200; it’s longer, heavier and prone to tail scrapes if you flare it too much prior to touchdown. And they were dogs compared to the overpowered unstretched version. I didn’t much like flying them. Anyway, that’s my excuse for my very mediocre….really blah…not bad, but certainly not good landing on my retirement flight. C’est la vie.

  8. So; over a long career in lots of airplanes, a few good landings occurred.
    On the DC9 or DC8, if you were just right, the tires would spin up so slowly, that the spoilers would not deploy, and “spoil” your perfect touchdown.
    The 727 was a two out of three aircraft; if you got two good landings, the other kind was waiting for you! The 727 200 was a bare triumph of huge drag over thrust and lift; the -100 on the same wing was better.
    The 330/340, had cylinders that pushed the bogies up to add tail clearance. On landing, those cylinders would suddenly kick over-centre and give (what I termed) bogie slap; which was just another Airbus engineer joke on pilots!
    The 767, and especially the 777 would quite often pay off with a landing where one would be thinking; “I think I feel a wheel touching” whereupon, the spoilers would gently deploy to confirm you had indeed landed; the 777 was my favourite!

  9. I was standing near my flying club dispatch desk when a guy I knew had just got his Private Pilot License walked in from the flight line with his wife and 5 year old boy. He had taken his family for their inaugural flight as a licensed pilot.

    I asked the boy how he liked it. He was enthusiastic and marvelled at seeing his house from the air, but he said the best thing about the flight was the landing when the plane went “bouncy, bouncy, boink”
    The guy turned beet red and everybody tried, mostly successfully, not to laugh.

  10. My best ever landing was 30 + years ago when I was flying a Piper Navajo on a bag run. Nine landings a day was a good way to sharpen my skills. On that memorable landing the wind was calm and the runway was wet.The first indication I had we were on the ground was the airspeed was 70 kts and decreasing. Of course I was alone and it was 0200 ……

  11. Was a pouring rain night at Burbank in ’82 when making an approach to rwy 8.
    It was a 727 & with the standing water, I wanted to hydroplane for a grease job.
    Sure enough, the #1 stew came bursting in the cockpit with terror on her face wondering what was going on as she heard the engines reversing – but upon looking outside, she then say the runway lights!

  12. Best landing, PIC: Wheel landing in a Cessna 140 when I was still a student pilot. Absolutely greased it.
    Worst landing, PIC: Wasn’t actually landing, but after 3 tries in a Cherokee 180 at Apple Valley, CA in a heavy crosswind resulted in a go-around at the last minute, with wife and first child on board, gave up and went over to Victorville. Good decision, we parked across the road from the Roy Rogers museum and thoroughly enjoyed the tour through it.
    Best landing, passenger: Cat III approach to 14L at ORD in a 747 in a blizzard. Absolutely could not feel the touchdown.
    Worst landing, passenger: UA DC-8 flight from BWI to IAD on its way to SEA.

  13. I have been pursuing this for 70 years since soloing a Cub in 1950. I have owned over 30 planes and now fly a Husky taildragger, 2-3 time a week. The challange is a wheel landing in gusty x-winds on pavement. Grass doesn’t count. I have thought of getting a nose dragger for my old age but I am having too much fun. Maybe when I turn 90.

  14. I seems to me that good landings only occur when there is no one else around to observe it. Have passengers onboard or a crowd on the ground and you will mess it up every time.

    One time as a passenger on a Southwest flight, the pilot did an unusually bad landing. As we taxied to the terminal, the flight attendant announced, “please remain seated until Captain Crunch gets us to the gate”.