Ups and downs

December 1, 2002

Bruce Landsberg, ASF's executive director, still flies regularly—despite reviewing ASF's database.

Millions of words have been written on leaving and returning to the runway. Many pilots, having a modicum of confidence, figure that once they've passed the 100-hour mark they can get up and down without drawing much attention to themselves. But the statistics prove otherwise.

The old saw that says "any landing you can walk away from is a good one" originated nearly 100 years ago when returning to Earth in the same form you left might have been considered an oddity. Applying the same logic, walking away from a takeoff might also describe success. I modestly propose a more stringent definition. A good landing is one where we get to use the aircraft again and it is in the same condition as when it was entrusted to our care. A good takeoff is, well, we'll get to that momentarily.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has been studying these most fundamental maneuvers and there are some surprises. It is seldom acknowledged that just about half of all general aviation accidents, as in 743 accidents in 2000, occurred in the takeoff or landing (TOL) phases of flight. That's two accidents per day, on average. The cost is astronomical in terms of insurance, aircraft downtime, and pilot egos. Fortunately, the loss of life is relatively small, but this is not an endorsement of skill level.

TOL mishaps, barring a mechanical malfunction, are usually skill-deficiency accidents. They involve the basic eye-to-hand-to-foot skills. Judgment-related accidents more commonly involve weather or low-level maneuvering, are frequently fatal, and tend to overwhelm any skill level available. With the exception of dealing with something beyond the aircraft's TOL envelope, everyone should be able to handle the same conditions the aircraft can with some practice. That's not saying you should take it to the limit, for then there is no margin for error.

For its upcoming safety seminar series, ASF created a program on takeoffs and landings and how we might cut the busted-aircraft rate by 15 percent or so. It could make a significant difference in the cost of flying. We went undercover to a large fly-in. One video camera was placed at the arrival end of the active runway looking down the centerline. The other, manned by our intrepid videographer, was placed off to one side where the approach could be viewed, followed by the actual landing and rollout. The camera operator only considered bailing out once. (If you are unable to attend the seminar, a video of the program is available from Sporty's Pilot Shop, and a short video clip is available from ASF online.)

As you might suspect, we found a large number of pilots whose technique was not optimum. In looking at literally hundreds of landings, there were three areas that consistently fluctuated out of limits. First, many pilots thought that since the nosewheel was there, they ought to make use of it. Their whole attitude toward landings was wrong, if you'll pardon the pun. The number of flat, three-point touchdowns was uncountable. There were porpoises, or extreme abuse of steering gear, tires, brakes, landing gear, and firewall attach points.

Next came the speeders. To add a little fun to the proceedings we worked a deal with the local police to set up a radar trap beside the runway to measure the approach speeds just prior to flare. Had the runway been within their jurisdiction, the local traffic court would have been inundated. Most pilots tended to be too fast and get stuck with the resultant float. That made timing the touchdown a bit tricky as energy bled off. While flat attitudes abounded, balloon paybacks were fairly common. In the NFL, hang time on the kickoff is an asset. On landing, anything over a few seconds is converted to runway behind you, a useless commodity.

Finally, the ability to compensate for a very slight crosswind on that particular morning was elusive. Any CFI will tell you that teaching crosswind landings is tough. You can't schedule the right amount of wind when it's needed. As a result, many pilots have only the vaguest idea of how to handle a crosswind. Conceptually, crosswinds are tough to reconcile. We usually tell pilots to level the wings prior to touchdown and to make coordinated turns—as in right yoke, right rudder. With crosswinds, the aileron and rudder are coordinated just opposite from normal and you are supposed to touch down with one wing low. No wonder pilots get confused.

The aircraft tire makers were making money as lots of rubber was scraped off during this Saturday morning. It may have something to do with where those size-13, E-width engineer boots are placed on the rudder pedals. It seems some of us weren't told that the ball of the foot must be on the bottom of the pedal in aircraft equipped with toe brakes. That way, a healthy push can be made as needed without snagging a brake during takeoff or landing. Landing with a locked brake, thinking you're holding rudder for the crosswind, can provide directional-control amusement as well as a flat spot or blown tire.

Takeoffs are an area of concern as well. In 2000 there were 301 takeoff accidents. Loss of directional control was a leading cause. Torque, p-factor, gyroscopic precession, and slipstream effect all conspire left to overcome the right foot. Foot placement on the rudder pedals, again, makes a difference. Looking in the proper place down the runway also helps.

The rotation point is elusive for some and, again, excessive speed is rampant. To some pilots, if V R is 50 knots perhaps 60 would be just a little safer. Tire wear, more runway used, and overworked shimmy dampeners are just some of the side effects. The new definition of a takeoff might be one where the aircraft successfully clears all obstacles, without excess wear and tear on the machine.

Now we come to a high-risk area in any flight—the initial climb. Because of stall anxiety, many of us will climb too flat and accept a much lower initial rate of climb. Once clear of any obstacle, V Y is the target. Getting away from the ground and gaining maneuvering altitude ASAP is essential. Engine failures are not common but when they occur early, the chance of a bad outcome goes up as altitude goes down, particularly in densely populated areas that surround many airports. Of the 301 takeoff accidents, 53 resulted in fatalities but that was from any cause, not just engine failure.

The pilot's operating handbook (POH) is the official source of runway performance data that most of us flying older aircraft are unlikely to match. ASF proposes the 50/50 solution to takeoff and landing distances. Borrowing from the business jet or airline approach, it's best to assume that the pilot or aircraft may not always have a perfect day. Determine the distance that the POH says it will take to clear a 50-foot obstacle on takeoff or landing and add 50 percent. For example, the 50/50 solution says that if piloting an aircraft that uses 1,600 feet to clear the obstacle under ambient conditions, it's prudent to use a runway that is 2,400 feet in length. That provides the margin needed to overcome the performance vagaries of aircraft, ambient conditions, or pilot technique.

While takeoff and landing accidents are serious business, learning to prevent them can be fun. We used Olympic scoring to evaluate the landings in the video. You're invited to join the judging panel when ASF and the FAA team up for a seminar in your area. There's guaranteed to be plenty of discussion regarding technique. Then get with your CFI for a serious brush-up session on takeoffs and landings, and practice in crosswinds. Let's drive down the TOL accidents in the coming year.

Check our Web site or call 800/USA-AOPA (872-2672) for times and locations. Also check out the new Safety Advisor on the Web site.