Proficient Pilot: The perfect landing

June 1, 2008

Author Barry Schiff began writing for AOPA Pilot 45 years ago—his first article was published in June 1963.

As I was strolling through one of the display areas at Sun ’n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, in April, someone tapped me on the shoulder.

I spun around to see Steve Kahn of Aviation Media standing behind me. He had his omnipresent video camera and explained that he was producing some footage for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

“Hey, Barry. How would you like to make some on-camera comments about making the perfect landing?”

Normally I am not at a loss for words, but Steve had asked the wrong guy. To me, the perfect landing is one during which no one aboard the airplane can feel the touchdown. There is no way of which I am aware that one can set out to make such a landing at any given time. Yes, we can try desperately to make silky-smooth landings, but the perfect landing, I believe, is an elusive goal, almost as frustrating as searching for the Holy Grail. The perfect landing requires as much luck as it does skill, perhaps more so.

It seems that the more a pilot wants or needs to make a perfect landing, the less likely he is to be successful. I remember vividly how much I wanted to make the perfect landing on the last leg of my TWA retirement flight in 1998.

It was Father’s Day, and my son, Brian, was the first officer. Many of my friends and relatives were in the cabin of that Boeing 757. It was the perfect time for the perfect landing. Everything was going exactly as planned until the moment of truth. Kerplunk! It was not to be.

I have made some perfect landings, but not many. The most memorable occurred at the end of a Lockheed L-1011 flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. A smooth, northeasterly trade was whispering straight down the runway, and Oahu was twinkling in twilight. Neither I nor my first officer or flight engineer knew that we had actually landed until the spoiler handle on the left side of the center pedestal automatically moved aft, a result of the squat switch on the landing gear shifting from air to ground mode. It was such a greaser that I was tempted not to disturb the tranquility of the moment by deploying reverse thrust. No one in the cockpit said a word. No one had to. It was perfect.

And then there are those memorable landings I would rather forget—those teeth-rattling “arrivals,” landings that create dithers in the concrete, depress the elevation of the runway, or register on the Richter scale. I have had my share of those.

It should be obvious that the more landings you make and the more familiar you are with the airplane, the greater is the likelihood of a real greaser.

The probability of a perfect landing is increased somewhat by ensuring that the approach is stabilized during the last 300 to 500 feet of descent. This is safer, too. A stabilized approach means that the airplane is in trim and that heading, airspeed, sink rate, and power require little if any change.

Flaring and power reduction should be done smoothly. The idea is to “fly” the main wheels onto the ground at the lowest possible sink rate such that touchdown occurs slightly before the control wheel (or stick) reaches its aft limit and before there are any suggestions of a stall. You can never make a perfect landing if the nosewheel tire touches before or concurrent with the mains. Ideally, there is enough airspeed left to gently fly the nosewheel onto the ground.

There is something else that you might try: praying. Every landing is a little different, and the combinations of variables (technique, convection currents, wind, et cetera) are infinite.

The aircraft type has a lot to do with it, too. Those who fly a Piper Comanche or any of the Piper Cherokees with Hershey-bar wings have almost no chance of making a perfect landing. Every touchdown in these aircraft is a surprise and rarely gratifying.

Conversely, a pilot has the greatest chance for a greaser when flying an airplane with either long and spongy oleo struts or knee-action (trailing beam) landing gear.

Probably the best hope of achieving touchdown Nirvana is to land a skiplane on fresh powder or a seaplane on smooth (but not glassy) water.

In his bestseller, Fate is the Hunter, author Ernie Gann described how the military pilots of a Consolidated PBY (an amphibious flying boat) inadvertently landed so smoothly on a gradually rising snowfield on the Greenland Ice Cap that the pilots had no clue that they had landed in those whiteout conditions until they discovered a serious decline in airspeed and the inability to change attitude or altitude.

One mistake made by some is attempting to make smooth landings at inappropriate times. When landing on short or contaminated runways, smoothness should not be the goal. Excess flaring eats up too much runway, and gentle touchdowns are most conducive to hydroplaning. The idea is get the airplane on the ground immediately and begin the process of bringing the machine to a halt in timely fashion.

If you make enough landings, you are bound to make some perfect ones, but not very often. Just remember that the harder you work to achieve perfection, the less likely you are to achieve it. Being relaxed and feeling at one with the airplane offers the best hope for success.