Pilotage

Arrival time

May 1, 1995

How's this for irony: The toughest task in flying is to quit flying, to land.

Landings are the great equalizer of aircraft and pilots. No matter the size or sophistication of the flying machine — taildragger, business jet, helicopter, airliner, hot air balloon, ultralight, hang glider, dirigible, or space shuttle orbiter — it eventually has to land, and a pilot has to make it happen. A bad landing can sour an otherwise excellent flight. A really good landing goes a long way toward rescuing a poor flight. Even long-suffering passengers wedged in the middle seats in the coach class of a fully loaded Boeing 747 nearing the end of an exhausting intercontinental trip will hold their breaths in anticipation of the touchdown. Will it be smooth, or will the pilot bounce the thing? A greaser may well send them smiling on the jetway.

Photographers talk about the decisive moment, about squeezing the shutter release at the very instant an event or emotion peaks. Time it perfectly and you've got the story in a single picture. It takes training, practice, and a discerning eye to recognize and act on the decisive moment. Landings are the decisive moment in flying. And, like photography, there probably is as much art in getting it right as there is science.

For reasons I am attempting to discern, I am on a roll. Maybe I should say rollout. My landings have been consistently good for awhile now, and that is unusual. I hope this doesn't come across as braggadocio. I'm only trying to figure out why things have been going so well when, in the past, the one thing about my landings I could consistently count on was their inconsistency.

These days when I turn from base to final, I usually see the top light on the VASI system to the left of the runway glow red and the bottom light white. That makes my heart glow, because it means the airplane is on the correct glide path and I'm off to a pretty fair start at making a good landing.

Speed control has been pretty good, too. Sometimes the speed is a tad fast rolling out on final approach; but before crossing the airport boundary fence, I've nailed it down to the proper value for the airplane and conditions.

Finally, and most important, the touchdowns have been satisfyingly smooth. I am not making this up, either; I have witnesses, passengers, who will testify on my behalf — I think.

Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that I am in silent competition with my pal Doug. The first time we flew together with him in the left seat was in my airplane, and the landing was masterful. Before touching down, the tires on the main gear legs seemed to tickle the runway, like barely brushing your hand over someone's skin. It was as if he arrested the sink rate a fraction of an inch above the surface so that the friction of the air squeezed between the wheels and the runway caused the tires to spin a little, which made the touchdown that much smoother. Now, I'm hyping his ability somewhat, but you get the idea. He set the standard — in my airplane, no less — and now I'm having to measure up to it each time I fly.

So, peer pressure probably has a lot to do with my hot streak. It has made me think harder about technique, and the application of successful technique is what comes before any and all good landings. Luck plays no part unless you define luck as the subconscious or inadvertent use of successful technique.

I think of landings as unfolding in two major phases. First, the preliminaries: the traffic pattern and the final approach. Second, the touchdown. Technique for the preliminary phase is all about hitting the sweet spot — a specific pitch attitude and power setting that yields the perfect airspeed for whatever segment of the pattern or approach I'm flying. It's not always the same pitch, power, and airspeed combination, because conditions are not always the same. The airplane may be very heavy or very light, a faster airplane may be behind or a slower one in front, or the wind could be gusting or shifting. The object is not to try to replicate the same target attitude, power setting, and airspeed on every approach, but to find and maintain the combination that works best for that moment and those conditions.

I know when I've hit the sweet spot, because the airplane seems to slip into a groove. It just feels right — in perfect trim, stable, and ready for me to handle any surprises. With the airplane under precise control I can read and respond to the conditions. How is the wind affecting my track over the ground? Is the airplane descending on the correct glide path? Am I on target for the desired touchdown zone? If I'm not right where I want to be I can easily compensate by adding or subtracting a bit of power to slow or increase the sink rate, yawing left or right to account for a crosswind, and withholding or adding flaps, depending on altitude and wind.

If everything — airspeed, altitude, descent rate, and ground track — is as it should be crossing the fence, then I'm able to devote full concentration to waiting for and recognizing the decisive moment, the exact right time to touch down. It's probably foolish to put so much emphasis on making a super-smooth touchdown, especially if I've flown a doggone nice approach up to that point. But, image is everything these days, and the image most people have of a good landing is a smooth touchdown.

So, my whole being is focused on timing the flare, feeling the speed bleed off, and remembering to check peripheral cues (the most difficult part for me) to track the centerline and judge altitude. If I've got it wired, I know when to relax back pressure on the yoke ever so slightly to allow the airplane to settle softly to earth just as the stall warning begins to warble. Ahhhhhh, that was a good one.

It sounds so easy, and lately it has been relatively so. But I am under no illusions. All hot streaks eventually grow cold. It may start with a mis-timed flare, a too-weak crosswind correction, or a too- confident attitude, but whatever brings it on, my time in the no-can-land zone is coming. I just hope Doug gets there first.