This Eagle Has Landed

True confessions of an honest--maybe too honest--pilot

June 1, 2008

I love landing. It’s my favorite thing to do in an airplane. And yes, while it’s somewhat heartwarming and ego-inspiring to get a standing ovation after a great one, each provides a sense of accomplishment—ranging from God-like comparisons with Chuck Yeager to simply being content that the airplane is still flyable.

To me, the best landing is a first landing. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the first landing—it can simply be the first landing in an airplane I’ve never flown or in an environment I’ve never seen. It’s the anticipation of theoretical meeting practical and rubber meeting runway. We read the book; we saw the movie—now it’s time to go do it.

That first airline landing

Most folks assume that airline pilots have flown the actual airplane before they are allowed to carry passengers. Now, if you’re one of those folks, you should skip the next paragraph so as to keep your illusions intact. By the way, while we’re at it, Bambi’s mother didn’t die; Old Yeller’s fine, and Yoda and Obi-Wan are sharing a pint down at the local interstellar pub.

Now, in the land where Bambi’s motherless, Old Yeller’s in heaven, and Yoda and Obi-Wan can only be seen through a fog—quite often the first landing that an airline pilot has in an airplane is with you on board. True, they’ve got a bunch of landings in the simulator, but trust me, it just isn’t the same.

On my first day in the Boeing 737 we were going to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, a place I’d been many times before in everything from a Cessna 172 to a Bombardier Challenger. I was flying with “Big Bird.” No, not the one from Sesame Street, but one of our check airmen, whose thankless job it was to fly with newbies like me. I think it’s fair to say that, as nicknames go, Big Bird was an involuntary one, but then it’s always the involuntary ones that stick.

Big Bird was a great help, but I was still feeling the pressure. I was coming from a fractional/bizjet operator to an airline, and from a Cessna Citation X to a 737, so nothing felt right. Just preflighting the airplane and setting up the flight deck for departure seemed daunting. And to make matters worse, after doing all that, the airplane broke, so I got to switch airplanes and do it all over again.

After a couple of hours spent contemplating my first airline landing, we started down for the visual approach to Runway 27. Now, you would think that a visual approach over downtown San Diego on a beautiful day would be the easiest thing for a first timer. But, at least in my case, you would be wrong. Doing an ILS in a new jet is actually easier—just follow the flight director, flare before you hit, and hope for the best. A visual approach, on the other hand, while less work procedurally, is actually much harder to fly. There’s usually no flight director guidance and the PAPI can be difficult to see heading into the hazy afternoon sun.

As landing time grew near, Big Bird was talking me through the approach and offering me lots of good pointers. I had everything on track, but it was taking all my cognitive powers to do it. That’s when I discovered that my pea-sized intellect could listen or land, but not both. The more I listened, the less I landed. A moment later, the seismographs went off at Cal Tech. Marc’s here. It was definitely a carrier landing, which seemed fitting since San Diego’s a Navy town.

There are times when pilots have made such a great landing that they can’t wait to get out there in front of the passengers and take their bows. Then there are the other ones, where you contemplate using the escape rope to get out of the flight deck without being seen. Who knew I’d learn how to use the escape rope on my first day?

Landing looong

Wow, I’ve never seen that many runway remaining markers whiz by from two feet off the runway. Is this thing ever going to land? I had been warned not to get fast on approach, yet that’s exactly what I did. And in the Challenger, you float about a thousand miles for every knot you’re fast.

After what seemed like forever, the mains finally hit. Forgetting that I had to fly the nose down to the runway, I let the back-pressure go. Nose drops like a rock. Bang. Since I’d eaten up a lot of runway I used a lot of reverse thrust to slow down. Nose comes back up. What’s up with that? As cool as a wheelie is in a 30,000-pound airplane, strong encouragement from others led me to bring the thrust reversers back to idle. Uh, oh, you’d think I’d learn. There goes the nose again. Bang! Darn! Good thing there are no passengers in the back—fewer witnesses that way. As for the crew, silence can always be bought with free food, at least for a while.

Dutch roll and roll and roll

I love Cessna 310s; they are one of my favorite airplanes and I was really excited that I was getting to use one for my multiengine rating. As we approached Long Beach for my first landing, we reviewed the 310’s landing characteristics and its tendency to Dutch roll on short final. But that’s like trying to tell someone about the Grand Canyon. Words don’t cut it; you’ve got to see it for yourself.

Over the numbers for Runway 25R a wing started to drop a bit. No problem, correct with aileron. The other wing drops, so I correct with more aileron in the opposite direction. And a little more, and a little more. I’m starting to wonder who’s flying the airplane—me, or the airplane. After another few seconds it’s clear—it’s the airplane. We hit on one wheel, we bounce, we hit on another wheel, we bounce, and then we hit on all wheels. Wow, what fun. Don’t feel bad for the airplane, though. It got me back, making me shut down an engine for real during a checkride.

Deathtrap 31B

At our FBO, the Beech Skipper was affectionately known as Deathtrap 31 Bravo. Landing it was like falling off the roof on purpose. When our FBO first took delivery of the airplane and my friend Rob and I went to John Wayne-Orange County Airport in Santa Ana, California, to pick it up, I’d never even heard of a Skipper, let alone seen one.

Approaching Fullerton for my first landing, I got a little slow. No problem, just add power. Gee, that angle of attack’s getting kind of high. More power. More, more. All of it. Uh, oh—this is gonna hurt. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I gained a whole new appreciation for the back side of the power curve. It was one of those landings where the first thing you do is look around to see if anyone was watching.

Ouch

The flare and the touchdown are two important parts of every successful landing and generally should be accomplished in that order. Power off is also good, although its location in the process can vary.

I found out one day while riding in the jumpseat of a Canadair Regional Jet what happens when one completely skips flare in the landing process. Power off, land. No flare anywhere to be seen. It was the first landing where my jaw hurt afterwards and it was so hard I felt bad for the airplane. It was really quiet. The captain, who was the pilot not flying, just said “Wow.” I wasn’t saying a thing—you don’t make fun of the nice people giving you a free ride. The first officer finally broke the ice and simply said the equivalent of “That stunk.” He then confessed that it was his first landing at night in the -700 variant of the airplane and that he didn’t quite have the sight picture down. This was not news. But, hey, at least he owned up to it. If you make a bad landing, own up to it, because after all, everybody already knows it anyway—it’s not like it’s a secret.

Christmas in Ketchikan

I’ve got hundreds of landings in Alaska, but my first real landing was this past Christmas in Ketchikan. The holidays there are full of rain, snow, ice, and wind, all the things that make St. Nick giddy about flying around in his sleigh with the top down.

We had started the day in Juneau and would end there, after a day spent wandering around southeast Alaska with stops in Sitka, Ketchikan, Seattle, Ketchikan, and Sitka. Our first leg to Sitka was no problem, but once there, we sat on the ground for a few hours while the company contemplated letting us take a shot at Ketchikan. Apparently, the flight the night before had made a hard landing in Ketchikan, and the morning flight had cancelled because of high winds. Now, I’m not entirely sure what constitutes a hard landing, but it can’t be good. The airport winds were 35 gusting to 55, with a bit of a crosswind, and were right up against our limits. There was also pretty heavy turbulence on the approach, which was not surprising given the winds.

I spent some time in the cabin chatting with the passengers while we waited for the mother ship to make its decision. I talk to the passengers a lot, because it’s just amazing what you learn from other people, especially in Alaska. The passengers, to a person, all wanted to go. It was Christmas and they had places to be, just as the 100 or so passengers waiting in the terminal at Ketchikan did. Plus, it was actually a nice day in Sitka, so it was hard for them to imagine that it was really that much worse in Ketchikan. However, every airport in southeast Alaska is unique. Flying in, the first thing you notice is that it sits in kind of a venturi, a very narrow channel between two ridge lines that wreak havoc with the winds. Driving in, the first thing you notice is that you can’t drive in, as the airport sits on an island across from the town and is only accessible by seaplane or ferry.

It’s a quick flight from Sitka, only about 25 minutes in a 737. Because of the wind, we were carrying a ton of extra airspeed on the approach. Our target approach airspeed is usually V REF (landing speed) plus half the steady state wind and all of the gust component. With the wind at 35 gusting to 55, the additive was 17.5 plus 20, for 37.5 knots. Normally, we max at a 20-knot additive, but we made it 30 because of the extreme conditions. Speed is our friend.

It was IFR at Ketchikan, which was good because it meant passengers couldn’t see the unusual attitudes of the airplane (or the pilots for that matter) during the approach. It was challenging but the actual landing turned out pretty good. The best part was the ovation we got from the cabin. Passengers in southeast Alaska are great—they know what it’s like and are usually happy just to get where they’re going.

Now, cut to six hours later, coming back through Ketchikan northbound. Same basic approach, same basic winds, same basic speeds. As luck would have it (or not) I was flying again. It was getting near the end of a long day and, while it was way fun the first time, this time not so much.

We broke out above minimums and though it was bumpy, everything seemed OK until we got to about 200 feet—and that’s when the world dropped out from under us. We lost 150 feet and 30 knots just like that. Wind shear is not unusual at Ketchikan— however, I’d never seen anything like that before. We were fast, with speed to give, and the wind shear took every bit of it.

We cobbed the power to counter the airspeed loss and arrest the descent. The landing actually turned out to be surprisingly smooth, more attributable to luck and good planning than landing skill. Taxiing in, I found myself reconsidering my life’s choices. If this was an average day, perhaps I needed to contemplate a new line of work. Not to worry, it was the worst my flight deck compadre had seen in a long, long time as well. I felt better. The landing wasn’t beyond my skills, but it was certainly testing them. That’s when I knew I had my first real landing in Alaska.

The best landing I didn’t make

Finally, perhaps the best first landing I never made was my first as a private pilot. After a harrowing two hours, the examiner told me my checkride was over and that I was a private pilot. Wow, how cool is that? I just sat there with my jaw hanging open. I apparently do that a lot. I was a pilot—if I could just get us back to Orange County alive. Perhaps sensing what my first airline landing would be like more than a decade later, the examiner said, “Why take a chance? Congratulations! My airplane. Gear down and welded, we’re cleared to land.” I just sat there and watched—even I couldn’t screw this up now. I looked toward the horizon and reveled in all of the adventures and excitement to come.

Marc K. Henegar of Bend, Oregon, is a captain for a commercial airline.