Bragging Rights

5,000 landings — all different

September 1, 2007

While sitting in a hotel recently, I was getting my logbook caught up to date, and I had reached the end of the page. While I was totaling up the numbers, I realized that I had made my 5,000th landing — 5,003rd to be exact. I'm not sure why reaching this particular milestone caught my attention, but it did, and while other pilots may have thousands more than I, this is what I have, and it got me to thinking. Now, keep in mind, those landings that I log are only ones that I actually perform (and occasionally mess up). I do not log ones for myself in which I am just an observer. That may or may not be the "proper" way to do it, but I don't really care. It's my log, and in this case, it's my choice to record only the landings that I performed.

So, after averaging one landing for every 90 minutes of flight time, what conclusions have I come to? First of all, I've long realized what my early instructors always told me: Every landing is different. You can make 10 or 20 landings at the same airport on the same day in the same airplane with the same weather, and no two will be exactly alike. Try as we might, there will always be subtle variations in the profile that we try to fly. One final approach might begin a shade high, the next a shade low, the next may find us overshooting the final approach course a few feet, and maybe at long last we get one timed perfectly, where we roll out on final with the centerline and VASI (visual approach slope indicator) lights nailed. But there always seems to be a subtle adjustment or two needed, and those adjustments have some effect on the final outcome, if only to affect our scan and our concentration. If you roll out on final a tad high, you'll unconsciously devote a lot of your scan during the remainder of your approach to your position relative to the glideslope. Likewise, if you roll out flying five or 10 knots fast, you'll concentrate on airspeed the rest of the way.

As for the touchdown, trying to make two of them in a row that are perfectly equal never gets any easier. If anything, it may even get harder, because as you gain more experience and know-how, you try to make all the adjustments and corrections you can based on similar conditions to get that squeak of the wheels we want to hear. A great analogy is a golfer who spends so much time thinking about every little technicality in his swing that he loses sight of the big picture right before he swings. The result is pretty predictable: He tees the ball up, sets his club, and then swings as hard as he can, and the ball goes...about six feet. Maybe seven. The club that gets thrown will have a better chance of scoring par than the ball. If you spend too much time concentrating on every little bit of your landings, you will bounce, skip, spring, and splat like an out-of-control helicopter. This problem is magnified even more when landing at night, since only cargo pilots do more nighttime landings than daytime landings. Sometimes I go a couple of months without doing night landings, and when one comes along, the lack of practice usually shows.

For all the times I've landed, I've gotten pretty good at predicting the quality of the landing as the airplane enters the flare, be it mine or that of the person sitting next to me. The combination of pitch, rate of airspeed decay, wind correction, and gut feeling usually gives me a pretty good barometer to use. But sometimes I find myself way off. There are days when I think that a greaser is in store only to feel a hard thud or even a bounce as we contact the runway. Unfortunately, at the airlines you don't have the opportunity to taxi back for another circuit in the pattern to try to get a good one under your belt before going home. In a Cessna or a Piper, I'll fly several circuits if I have to so I can get one landing that is acceptable before parking the airplane. But sometimes, when I think the airplane is going to leave holes in the runway, something happens in the way of fate (it usually isn't skill) that allows the landing to go from "this is gonna be ugly" to a soft kiss on the ground. Better to just park and walk away from those than to try to get a perfect one in before going home.

Another evolution of my attitude toward landings is that I absolutely love crosswind landings. I can't get enough of them. Like many students, I hated them, as I never felt competent or truly safe when the winds were perpendicular to the runway at more than 10 or 15 knots. For my first 200 hours or so, I didn't so much as land the airplane in a crosswind as I made every effort to avoid destroying it. For a while I was convinced that Cessna had gone with a high-wing design to avoid student damage to wings during crosswind landings. Instead of finesse, I would manhandle the controls like a bull rider trying to stay on the mount.

But the light went on for me one day when I was out practicing for my single-engine commercial certificate in a T-tail Piper Arrow. The T-tail is challenging enough to land already because the stabilator does not have the benefit of the prop wash during the flare. When I returned to the airport on the day in question, the weather had changed, going from calm winds to a 90-degree crosswind at 17 knots, the maximum demonstrated crosswind as stated in the pilot's operating handbook. I flew a longer final than normal, got the airplane configured, and established my crab. The nose was cocked well to the left to compensate for the wind, and in my mind I was thinking only of not doing a three pointer. As I crossed the runway threshold, I kept the power in a little longer than normal, then retarded the throttle, kicked the right rudder to align the nose with the centerline, and dropped the left wing a few degrees. When the airplane was both going straight and pointing straight, I held my breath, froze, held everything in place, and waited. I barely felt the left wheel touch down, and the rest of the airplane gently settled into place with nary a hint of a screeching side skid of the wheels. Even today, more than 10 years later, as I write this, I can feel the adrenaline surge I felt at finally conquering my nemesis that day, realizing only after I had cleared the runway just how nervous I was on the final approach. From that point on, I've had a love affair with crosswinds and the challenges they present.

Time also has made me realize that even if you know the airplane you are flying intimately well, you still can't score a perfect approach every time. My logbook says I've got 5,500 hours of Canadair Regional Jet time, but I still can't tell you the secret to making a good landing when the airplane is lightly loaded. The CRJ is notoriously fickle when it comes to landing at low landing weights. More often than not, it tends to drop on the runway instead of rolling on smoothly. In the summer, when the black rubber tire marks on the runways are hot from the sun, it's even worse, because just as the airplane gets over the runway, the tail lifts into the air, almost like it is fighting your urge to land, and it's easy to float past the touchdown zone. I've become pretty good at adding just a touch of thrust when necessary to avoid losing too much speed, but I still haven't perfected a technique for light-airplane landings. My usual result isn't so much a landing as a blasé arrival.

But after 5,000 landings (and counting), I've discovered three universal truths. The first is that the fun and challenge of a great approach and landing never go away, leaving the pilot feeling much like a surfer looking for the perfect wave. For all the landings I've done, I can specifically recall the details and quality of perhaps two or three dozen. The adage that learning to land is the most difficult part of learning to fly is very true, because it is different every single time, and so on every single landing, you have to do something a little bit different from the last time, from the first landing of your career to the last. On landings, especially, the learning never stops.

The second truth I've accepted is that for all on board, pilots and nonpilots, frequent fliers and first-timers, the landing is the universal barometer for gauging the flight. So often I've had to fly through lousy weather to get to the destination, and I've been able to salvage the ride for a lot of passengers with a nice landing. Alternatively, a smooth ride followed by a pancake leaves a bitter taste in everyone's mouth, including that of members of the crew. Two times I've been in the back of airliners as a passenger when the landings were so bad the crews felt obligated to make an apology on the public address system. The landing is the one part of the flight we all experience together. I've been spared the embarrassment of a public apology, and hope to remain so.

The third truth I've learned is that no matter how great one landing might be (for some of mine I felt justified trying to sell the movie rights), and no matter how bad some might be (overhead bins have been opened with real clankers), you will always try to improve on your best one to make it just a little bit better. We are not smart enough to just walk away and let it go. We are too stubborn to do that. And so we come to the realization that all we can do, like the golfer who hits the 6-foot drive, is keep practicing until the next time we land so softly that we brag about asking the tower to confirm we are on the ground. And then the cycle starts again.

Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a captain on a regional airline.

Memorable Landings

Couch Landing

By Alton K. Marsh, Senior Editor

There had been a lot of training in the same Cessna 150 I used in 1971 for the couch landing. I was a newly minted private pilot but one with four years of preparation. The first solo was in 1966 financed by my job picking up plastic bags that blew out of the Bemis Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. I collected them with a stick that had a nail on the end. There weren't enough bags for me to make it to private pilot. Then came Army service and when I next flew, it was as a lieutenant based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, near Fairbanks. Training on the frustratingly narrow gravel strip was interrupted by reassignment to Washington, D.C., where I gave up flying for a while. So by the time I was on a five-mile final granted by the Titusville, Florida, tower, I had seasoned a bit. My primary instructor, Marty McLaughlin, had been a civilian instructor for the U.S. Air Force so I had an edge over lesser pilots. I held the airplane off as though the tires were filled with nitroglycerin. They didn't chirp on; they began to silently turn. "That was like sitting down on a couch," my passenger said.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Hypoxia Hang-Up

By Julie K. Boatman, Technical Editor

Sometimes your most memorable landing is the most recent one. As I sit here and write, that's true — my last landing was my first in a Cessna 195. Combine a big radial with a tailwheel and there's no doubt that the landing could be exciting. In this case, with a copious amount of help from the experienced guy in the right seat, it all worked out fine. That's one I won't forget anytime soon.

However, a landing that will forever stick in my mind remains the one that taught me a valuable lesson — about hypoxia. I had just moved out to Colorado, and signed up to finish my commercial certificate at the local flight school. First, the instructor suggested, I needed a mountain checkout. So we fired up the Cessna TR182 and headed for the high country. I spent the required time on oxygen while we were above 14,000 feet, but only had the mask on for the minimum amount of time because I thought it made me look funny.

You might guess the rest of the story.

My landing back at Boulder made me look a whole lot funnier than any hospital-green contraption spewing tubes and strapped to my face ever could. After the third bounce — high enough to induce hypoxia again — I finally got it under control, laughing at myself in my befuddled state. Only later did the ramifications of my degraded performance sink in. Now, when I have the option, I like using oxygen at much lower altitudes for the additional mental sharpness it provides.

It gives me a much better shot at a good landing, that's for sure!

E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.

What a Bummer

By Julie Summers Walker, Managing Editor

Unlike most of the editors at AOPA Pilot, I did not come to the job with my pilot's certificate; in fact, I am a 65-hour student pilot in the AOPA Project Pilot program who struggles just like many of our members with coordinating time and money to get my certificate. I've been setting the goal for several years now, and it still is elusive. But I love to fly and have had the opportunity to fly in a variety of aircraft to many places. Landings are always memorable — especially ones like in Tom Haines' Beechcraft Bonanza in Pinehurst, North Carolina, when the crosswind was gusting at 40 mph or in an amphibious seaplane on remote Friday Harbor, Washington. I'm one lucky gal.

But the landing that will forever be etched in my memory took place long before I came to AOPA. My sons' father had taken them to look at the airplanes here at Frederick Municipal Airport at AOPA headquarters in Maryland. I drove out to meet them and, not finding the three of them, asked a man who was preflighting his airplane.

"Want to go flying?" he asked.

"No, thank you. I'm looking for my sons," I replied.

Ten minutes later I'm climbing into the back of an open cockpit Fairchild PT-23

"Should I wear something on my head?" I asked, thinking helmet.

I was handed a soft leather cap.

After circling the airport several times and looking at my hometown from the vantage of 1,000 feet or so, we came in for the landing. Because of the age of the aircraft and the wooden struts, we landed on the grass. Suddenly I was perched high in the air at a dangerous angle, the wooden prop shattered in the ground. We had hit a groundhog hole. The pilot turned to me and said, "Bummer."

Yeah, bummer.

E-mail the author at julie.walker@aopa.org.

Afternoon Winds at Pendleton

By Steven W. Ells, Associate Editor

The landing that I remember best was significant only because for the first time I was actually going to use an airplane to go somewhere — and I was taking along my first nonflying passenger, whom I wanted to impress. Some of this story has already been told in " An Overnight to Remember in Pendleton" (see April 2006 Pilot).

My flight training started at airports near Puget Sound on the western side of Washington's Cascade Mountains. Puget Sound pilots experience windy conditions but these winds are associated with fronts moving through the area. I didn't know that the airport at Pendleton, Oregon, like other airports situated in the high deserts of the western United States, was almost always buffeted by afternoon winds. I remember getting the airport advisory — this was before the days of automated disembodied voices — and thinking that 16 knots of wind was quite a bit. I wanted to make a good landing — it was important to me, but I hadn't expected the winds. As I let down, I also first experienced the lumpy air generated by afternoon thermal activity — bumps that I had never experienced in the cooler air on the west side of the mountains. In spite of my concern about the new conditions, I flew onward, entered the pattern, and bumped around my left turn to base before turning again for final at Runway 25. After getting aligned, I waited, thinking it was taking a long time to get to the runway. I was on the edge of my seat because of the newness of this desert-airport experience, but there were no more surprises. When the runway finally appeared below, I had calmed down enough to gently flare and grease on that 172. That landing gave me the feeling that I had gone from being a pattern pilot to a cross-country king.

E-mail the author at steve.ells@aopa.org.

More Power!

By Thomas A. Horne, Editor at Large

I've had a bunch of what we're so glibly calling "memorable" landings, but one stands out. I was flying a brand-new Cessna Skyhawk across the Atlantic, and one fuel stop was at Narsarsuaq, Greenland. When it's good VFR — which it was this particular day — the drill is to fly at 1,000 feet or so for the 50-some miles up the fjord leading to the airport, then hang a right turn past a cliff, and land. (Don't try this now; they've strung power lines across the fjord.)

The Skyhawk is a slow airplane to begin with, but when I turned at the cliff the airplane seemed to come to a stop. There were ferocious winds blowing down off the glacier. I mean ferocious — 60 knots out of the northeast, with higher gusts. It was turbulent, too, as you might imagine.

But my concern wasn't the turbulence. I was afraid I wouldn't make the runway! During the descent on final to Runway 7 I had to keep adding more and more power. If I slowed to a normal approach speed, I flew backward. It took full power and 100 knots to make the most agonizingly slow progress toward the threshold. I'll bet my groundspeed was 20 knots, if that.

Eventually I arrived over the numbers, the engine still firewalled. The moment I reduced power, the airplane plopped — there's no other word to describe it — onto the runway and instantly came to a stop. The ground roll took maybe 10 feet.

Then my 'Hawk started backing up! Oh no, I thought, I'm going to be blown into the fjord! So it was time to power back up, way up, for the taxi to the ramp. But the ordeal wasn't over quite yet.

It was a relief to arrive at the turnoff for the ramp, which meant I'd have to make a 90-degree right turn for the remainder of the taxi. But as soon as I made the turn the airplane weathervaned into the unrelenting wind. Now it was time for gobs of right brake and, of course, more power to help keep the nose pointed at the ramp. But every time I tried, the airplane turned into the wind. I wasn't going anywhere but upwind or downwind.

Seeing my predicament, three linemen ran out into the gale. One grabbed one strut, one grabbed the other, and the third was back by the tail cone. I'd power up, get on the brake, and start yawing, and then they'd push this way and that to keep me heading toward the ramp. Once there, they made me stay in the airplane until it was tied down.

Although I was glad to be back on the ground, I didn't know I'd be there so long. Those strong winds were spinning off a low-pressure system parked to the south. For the next two days I waited for the winds to die down before launching on the next leg.

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.

Lucky Me

By Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief

As has been said, it's better to be lucky than good. Usually when I'm lucky with one of those "touch the pavement with butterfly legs" landings there's no one else around to admire it. But once, I had a witness. George Braly of General Aviation Modifications Inc. and I were flying a Beech Debonair out of his home field in Ada, Oklahoma. Braly and company had just installed a turbonormalizing system and he allowed me to fly the Beech up to altitude, where we screamed along at something close to 215 knots, as I recall. I had previously confessed to zero hours in the Debonair, but I did have quite a few hours in Bonanzas — a close cousin. Upon returning to Ada, I snuggled that old Deb onto the runway the way a dandelion seed brushes a mud puddle — hardly a ripple. Braly mumbled a congratulatory word. I let him think it was a run-of-the-mill touchdown for me. I hope he never flies with me again to learn the truth.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

Turkey Day

By Machteld A. Smith, Senior Editor

It was Thanksgiving Day. An exquisitely roasted turkey and wonderful family reunion were awaiting us in Cape Cod.

The weather was great, and I was delighted to fly the 2.5-hour trip from Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland. It sure beat a brutal 10-hour trip by car. Early that morning, I had called the FBO at Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Massachusetts, to let them know we would be tying down for a couple of nights. Since it had snowed earlier in the week, I thought it prudent to ask what the field's condition was. "Great, everyone is flying in and out, we'll look forward seeing you," was the FBO manager's response.

I piled my husband and teenage son and daughter in the Bonanza and off we went. As we were handed off from Washington Center to Philadelphia Approach the controllers, probably hungrily looking forward to their own turkey, offered pretty much a direct routing through New York's airspace and across the shores of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Pondering the efficiency of flying versus driving, I couldn't wait to share this experience with our family on the Cape. I tuned in the Hyannis ATIS as we approached our destination. A chill went up my spine. I distinctly heard "caution, ice and snow on runways and taxiways." On a left downwind to Runway 33 I confirmed this phenomenon with trepidation. Holy cow, I had never landed on an ice-and snow-covered runway! The situation had taken me by surprise, but the other traffic, mainly commuters, seemed okay with it. So I trudged along, still somewhat intimidated, trying not to show my anxiety to my passengers. Seeing the snow-covered runway on short final pumped up my adrenalin a notch. I executed a soft-field landing as never before. "Expedite taxi for aircraft following," Tower instructed. I could not. I hope they have forgiven me. After gingerly maneuvering the Bonanza to the ramp, my knees were still knocking.

E-mail the author at machteld.smith@aopa.org.