Eye of Experience #25:
Making Perfect Landings

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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?

Eye Of ExperienceA 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.

What Does What?

Angle of attackFor 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 airspeed indicator.

Final Approach And Landing

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.

View video of a base leg (MPEG file, 160Kb)

View video of a final approach (MPEG file, 610 Kb)

As you can see, these videos were made on a gusty day.

Flare And Touchdown

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.

Final approachGetting 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 required perspective.

Being Graded

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.

Judging landings at OSHThey (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.

Problem Landings

Crosswind ...

Shortly after a soft field landingTo 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 objective.

... Soft Field ...

On final for a short field landingThe 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.

... Short Field

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!

* A 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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