A Soft Spot for Soft Fields

Landing tips for splendor in the grass

November 1, 1992

Few experiences in aviation are as fun and nostalgic as flying out of a grass strip. There's just something about a grass airfield that appeals directly to the goggles-and-helmet fantasy of flying harbored secretly in the breast of every pilot.

If you're lucky, you may have learned to fly at an airport with a grass runway, in which case every landing was a soft-field landing. But if you've yet to try out your soft-field technique on a field that's actually soft, why not make an excursion to your nearest grass strip on an upcoming flight?

The basic techniques of landing — whether it's on a long, paved runway; a grass field; or a gravel bar — remain constant. The axiom that a stable approach usually leads to a good landing, for example, applies to arrivals on any runway surface. But bringing your airplane to earth on a soft field, like any other variable introduced into your flying, does require some specialized techniques.

Take a look at your pilot's operating handbook for procedures specific to your airplane, but the general idea is to land as slowly as possible and to keep the nosewheel off the runway for as long as possible. This counters the major soft-field bugaboo — the tendency of the nosewheel to dig in on a soft landing surface, with results that can be unpleasant.

Most POHs call for full flaps and the use of little or no power on a soft-field landing. Plan to touch down on the main wheels, and use elevator to hold the nosewheel off as long as possible, then lower it gently. And remember to avoid braking, which puts downward pressure on the nosewheel.

If you're flying an airplane with conventional, or taildragger, landing gear, all the better. Most tailwheel airplanes are at home on grass. Nosing over and striking the propeller is the danger on very soft fields in tailwheel airplanes. The concern about the nosewheel digging in is eliminated, of course, and taildraggers generally behave better on grass than on pavement. Remember to stay off the brakes, though.

Once down, your work isn't over. Remember, too, to hold full aft yoke or stick when taxiing on grass. Watch for holes and rocks, and keep it rolling. On a soggy surface, don't stop fully — even for your runup — or you might get stuck. And be careful where you do the runup; there may be gravel or small stones that could get picked up by the prop.

For takeoff, all the same principles apply. Use full aft yoke to get the nosewheel up as soon as possible. In a tailwheel airplane, get the tail up as soon as you can to reduce drag. And remember that it will take a lot longer to get off the ground on wet grass than on dry grass.

Unlike paved runways, which usually can be assumed to be pretty much level, firm, and straight, grass fields come in all shapes and sizes. Some may be sloping or tiered. They may have certain rough spots, and the condition of the landing surface usually changes throughout the year. Many aren't usable at all during certain soggy or snowy months.

Grass airfields also can be pretty hard to find sometimes. There's a terrific grass field not far from our Frederick, Maryland, home base that I like to visit whenever I'm up motoring in the Champ, Cub, or Decathlon. I've been to Hanover (Pennsylvania) Airport at least a dozen times, but darned if I don't have a tough time finding the place every time I go there. Part of the problem is that Hanover, like all grass fields, is constantly changing, depending upon the season and how much rainfall there's been lately. It also tends to blend right in with its surroundings: farms predominated by rectangular fields that look exactly like Hanover's runways. The moral, I suppose, is to study the chart even more carefully than usual before visiting an unfamiliar grass field. Allow yourself a little extra time — and fuel — to pick the green runway out of the green background. Sometimes the only way to do it is to see which one of the "farms" below happens to have airplanes on it.

If you are unfamiliar with a particular grass strip, check any information available on it in advance such as that in the Airport/Facility Directory and AOPA's Aviation USA. Talk to other pilots who have been there, and call ahead if possible to find out about the current field condition. If the airfield is nearby, you might even want to visit it by car first to survey the situation. When you fly in for the first time, you may wish to "drag the field," or overfly the runway, to assess the conditions before committing yourself to landing. And if you're nervous, take an instructor along for your first foray onto the turf.

Although it can require some extra care, operating out of grass fields is an opportunity to do some fun flying that usually affords a way to meet other pilots who appreciate the "grass roots" of aviation. It's an experience no pilot should miss.