Measure of Skill

Landing Proficiency

March 1, 1997

Getting down safely and in style

Fair or not, pilots and passengers alike assign tremendous importance to landings — especially the events surrounding the touchdown. A flight's takeoff and en route phases may have been perfectly planned and executed, but if the landing's a bouncer or a crabbed slam-in, the pilot's in the doghouse. He's a lousy pilot. Can't land worth a damn. Hard on the nerves, back, and landing gear. The word will get around.

Landings send important safety messages. Because the necessary corrections and judgments are so critical during landings, any lapses in skill will quickly reveal themselves. Jokes aside, remember that the landing phase is heavily represented in accident statistics — especially when it comes to taildragger airplanes.

A recent AOPA Air Safety Foundation safety review of weather-related accidents showed that 20 percent of taildragger accidents were caused by botched crosswind landings. A huge number of accidents involving tricycle-gear airplanes are also caused by pilot shortcomings — most of them occurring in gusty or crosswind conditions, on summer weekends, and in beautiful VFR weather.

The importance of SOP

It's vital to have a procedural sequence firmly in mind before entering the airport traffic pattern. You should know what actions you'll perform on each leg of the pattern. Most important, you should learn to cultivate a detached, yet alert awareness of your progress. Be constantly questioning yourself: Am I too fast for this leg? Too slow? Too high? Too far away from the runway? Too close? Is there traffic in the pattern? If so, where? Have I made the appropriate radio calls? This kind of self-examination helps you to develop higher standards and tolerate fewer errors in skill or judgment. But few textbooks — and not enough instructors — emphasize it. There's enough learning by trial and error as it is. SOPs (standard operating procedures) give you benchmarks to measure your progress and your safety.

Target Values

This goes hand in hand with SOPs. Targets help you to set the airplane up for each leg of the traffic pattern and free you to divide your attention between flying the airplane, looking for traffic, and judging your speed, distance, and altitude with respect to ground references on or near the airport environment.

Go stabilized

You've heard it before: Good landings are the result of good approaches. It's true. On final, you want to be flying at a constant target airspeed, constant target descent rate, and constant target power setting. This way, you're on a stabilized flight path to the touchdown point — a point, by the way, that should be within the first third of the runway's length. All that remains for you to do is concentrate on any wind corrections, check for any deviations from the stabilized profile, and reduce power.

Chasing airspeed excursions with large, rapid throttle and/or elevator movements is definitely a bad idea. That's a sign that you're behind the airplane and not in step with the SOP progression. Through superhuman effort, you might be able to save the approach and make a decent touchdown, but it's not likely. Performing a go-around is the safest move.

Line up, speed, ball, flaps, hook, gear...

That's the chant that naval aviators are taught to recite as they come in for a carrier approach. Line up refers to alignment of the airplane with the extended runway centerline. Speed is obvious but also is a reminder to use power as needed to keep the ball (a VASI-type glide path guidance device) in the proper illumination. Flaps, hook (the tailhook), and gear also have direct applications to our civilian lightplane flying, in that they are reminders to maintain the proper approach configuration.

Not one step but three ...

That's how you should think about the moments just before the wheels touch the runway.

Roundout. Here, you're anywhere from 10 feet (lighter, slower airplanes) to 50 feet (heavier, faster airplanes) above the ground, at your target airspeed for prevailing conditions, and all set up for an arrival at your designated spot. The roundout is a process of arresting the airplane's descent rate. It also begins to bleed off any excess airspeed.

Flare. Now you're just a few feet above the runway. Make sure that the throttle is closed (if it hasn't been by now) and raise the nose to the stall attitude. This is where flight instructors often urge students to "hold it off." Airspeed bleeds away, but this is not a bad thing under non-gusty — or even light crosswind — conditions. You're into ground effect now, so stall speed is artificially lower.

Touchdown. The stall horn is blowing; the wheels touch the runway; you use aileron to prevent any crosswind-induced drift and rudder to prevent the airplane from weathervaning into the wind. After landing, use proper control deflections to prevent any upsets while taxiing in high-wind conditions.

In gusty conditions ...

Make a power-on approach so that there's an extra margin above a stall if wind shear causes a large drop in airspeed. Add one half the gust factor to your normal approach airspeed for additional stall protection and control responsiveness. For example, if the wind is 15 gusting to 25 knots, add 5 knots to your normal speed. Be prepared for a go-around if you bust any of your targets or SOPs or if anything just doesn't seem right.

Crosswinds as spinach

Like spinach, you may not like it, but practicing takeoffs and landings in strong crosswinds is good for you. Rusty pilots caught by a rising wind face the highest risk of a wind-related landing accident. About 48 percent of all the weather-related accidents between 1982 and 1993 involved wind, and half of them were caused by pilots losing control while landing in gusting or crosswind conditions. Practice is the antidote.

Crab-and-slip or slip?

A recent AOPA Pilot article (See "Technique: Defeating the Crosswind," August 1996 Pilot) showed that most instructors teach the crab-and-slip method of performing crosswind landings. With the crab-and-slip method, you have to be fast. You enter the flare crabbed into the wind. Just before touchdown, you have to kick out the crab with rudder pressure, then drop a wing to prevent any drift from the runway centerline. If you're too late, you'll hear the sound of rubber burning off the tires.

The slip method involves lowering the upwind wing to correct for drift and applying opposite rudder to prevent turning or weathervaning. These control pressures can be held into the touchdown, with the upwind gear touching down first. Use rudder as required to maintain flight path in the air and ground track on the runway.

You'd better be good ...

... if you're landing a tailwheel airplane in rowdy crosswind conditions. Because the center of gravity is aft of the main gear, a tailwheel airplane is not directionally stable on the ground. That's code for "it wants swap ends on you." There's a critical time after touchdown when control effectiveness lessens; and the need for rapid, full deflection of the rudder may suddenly arise. If you're slow, it'll ground loop.

Bottom line

Set SOPs, learn your airplane's target speeds and configurations, and practice with an instructor in strong crosswind conditions. You may never be known for your consistently graceful landings, but if you can handle a windsock-tearing wind, you're light years ahead of many other pilots, and a whole lot safer.

Meet the bouncer

Don't you just hate it when you think you have landed, then find yourself 10 feet up, wondering what happened? Well, you bounced. You bounced because: (a) you were too fast when you landed, and you basically skipped off the runway; (b) your descent rate was much too high because you didn't flare soon enough, fast enough, or both (a) and (b).

Whatcha gonna do? One of two things:

  • Bite the bullet and go around. Apply full power immediately, establish a positive rate of climb, and climb away for another try. It's probably the safest option, particularly if you're trying to land on a short runway.
  • Apply a small amount of power at the top of the bounce — enough to prevent airspeed decay and to let the airplane descend to the runway with enough elevator effectiveness to flare a second time. If you have to make pitch adjustments, make them small. Whatever you do, don't flare aggressively — if at all — for the second "landing." Just hold that burst of power to cushion the descent. If you start "pumping" the elevator in an attempt to reestablish a new flare, you could bounce again. And again. And again. Until you've run out of airspeed and runway. And ideas.

Practice bounced landings with a good instructor to hone your bounce recoveries. You've probably done them before, but it may have been a while.

Targets for a fixed-gear single of less than 200 hp

  • Enter pattern at 85 knots, one notch of flaps, and 800 feet to 1,000 feet agl. This means about 1,800 to 1,900 rpm in level flight. Keep the runway at a point midway between the wing tip and fuselage.
  • Abeam the landing runway's numbers, reduce power to 1,600 or 1,700 rpm. Extend flaps to the second increment.
  • Turn base when the approach end of the runway is 45 degrees behind you.
  • Turn final. Adjust power on final to maintain 65 to 75 knots; descend at 500 to 600 fpm. Select full flaps when assured of making the runway. Go to 1.3 VSO, or about 65 knots, approaching short final — assuming tame winds.
  • Plan final approach so as to close the throttle as the main gear touch down. Maintain directional control and gradually commence braking through rollout.

Obviously, the above are rough guidelines and not substitutes for information supplied by your airplane's POH or a proficient instructor. But those targets are close, and with practice targets for any airplane can be developed.

For further reading:

The following articles on this Web site provide additional information regarding this month's "Measure of Skill."