Ending a flight right

August 1, 2010

Tom HainesWith the nighttime curfew for Colorado’s Aspen-Pitkin County Airport looming, the crew of the Gulfstream III undoubtedly felt pressure to make the landing into the terrain-challenged field. A domineering passenger on the charter flight, as well as his dozen guests on board, were heading from Los Angeles to a party in Aspen. The fact that it was dusk with snow and instrument conditions in the valley didn’t matter to the passenger. He was insistent that a landing be made; he didn’t want to be late for his party.

He ended up late, very late, because the airplane crashed—killing all on board—in a steep left bank about 2,400 feet short of the Runway 15 threshold, 300 feet to the west of the runway centerline and 100 feet above the runway threshold elevation. It was 34 minutes after official sunset. The NTSB determined that the big business jet was never properly stabilized on the approach nor was the airplane configured properly for landing.

We like to think of the runway as a safe place. Before takeoff, we’ve not yet assumed the risk of flight. Upon landing, the in-flight risk is behind us. How hard can it be to taxi to the ramp? That’s a rhetorical question. That strip of pavement, grass, gravel, water or other landing surface may seem safe, but its improper use leads to more accidents than any other thing in aviation. According to AOPA Air Safety Foundation data, some 70 percent of accidents occur in the takeoff or landing phases. The data break the stats into various categories within the takeoff and landing phase: Takeoff/initial climb; approach; landing; go-around. Landings alone make up half of those accidents.

There are few certainties in life, aside from death, taxes, and for pilots, landings. As former AOPA President John L. Baker was fond of saying, “We’ve never left one up there yet.” You will land. The question is where and in what fashion.

I made many flights with longtime aviation author and former editor in chief of this magazine, Richard Collins. Stabilized on the approach, gear and flaps down, he would often subtly sigh and mumble, “All that’s left to do is land.” The understatement was his own way of mentally preparing himself for the challenge of the next few seconds—of transitioning a couple of tons of aluminum, systems, gear, and flesh from three-dimensional transportation to two-dimensional movement; from airborne to ground bound; from 100 knots to zero.

The usual culprit in the abysmal landing statistics is not the airplane. Powerplant and airplane system problems (landing gear, tires, brakes) contribute only about 14 percent of the accidents. The weak link in the chain is the one looking back at you from the mirror. In the period from 1999 to 2009, we pilots pranged more than one airplane a day in landing accidents—3,760 landing accidents in the decade, according to ASF.

A sure way to generate mail around here is to write about landing techniques. Surprisingly, most of the mail is not regarding any controversies around technique (although those controversies certainly exist). Instead, the technique articles generate requests for more details and additional information—and from all types of pilots. This is not an issue faced only by new pilots. Pilots of all experience levels seem to have questions about best landing methods. The accident statistics support that notion, too. Pilots with commercial or airline transport certificates contribute more than a third of all landing accidents.

Editor at Large Tom Horne, a CFII, is our in-house advocate for landing articles. He’s written many such stories in his decades working for the magazine and is the recipient of much of that mail. In our editorial planning, when we ask ourselves what we might do to help GA, improving safety is often at the top of the list. Whatever we can do to help pilots survive and thrive is good for everyone. Reducing the landing accident rates goes a long way toward that goal. Horne took on the challenge of planning our special section on landings in this issue ( “Landing Insights,”). He engaged his fellow editors, Dave Hirschman and Ian Twombly— also CFIs—to help him flesh out the package. The stories come at landings and approaches from all angles—short, soft, crosswind, stabilized, and unstabilized. And we don’t leave out the tailwheel pilots either. Hirschman, a longtime “conventional-gear” pilot, offers good advice for “flying the airplane all the way to the tiedown.”

Landing safety doesn’t stop when the taxiway starts, however. Changes July 1 in taxi clearances at towered airports demand review by pilots as well. No longer may pilots cross a runway, active or not, without a clearance to cross that specific runway. It used to be that if ATC cleared you to a runway and that routing caused you to cross another runway, you were cleared to cross—no longer, so listen up; stop and ask if you’re uncertain.

All of us who love to fly know that getting there is more than half the fun. Remember to keep your skills up so that you can cap every flight with an equally fun and safe landing. Happy touchdowns. I’m looking forward to your mail.


Editor in Chief Tom Haines has logged many thousands of landings without scraping any metal. He finds hearty crosswinds the most challenging and fun. E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.