Technique: Advice that sticks

Tips to keep you safe

September 1, 2010

What’s the best advice you ever heard—advice that you use on every flight? For me, it’s two tips I read years ago, and both are about making better landings.

They are both from author Ron Fowler in his book, Making Perfect Landings. The first suggestion is to be 400 feet above the ground when on a half-mile final.

Whether in the pattern or making a straight-in approach commonly assigned by control towers, the rule is the same. If you do the math, you will see that the result is a steeper glidepath, one that allows you to glide to the runway should you lose the engine. But that’s not the reason for being 400 feet high on every half-mile final. The advantage is that the look is always the same, familiar and controllable, even at unfamiliar airports. You’re not adding power to drag the airplane in, or reducing to idle power and doing a forward slip to get rid of excess altitude. You’re where you ought to be.

Fowler’s second tip is to aim for the second centerline stripe and land on the third. Jets won’t use this tip, of course, but even jet pilots use aiming points painted on the instrument-equipped and -marked runways they most often use. The advantages are that you never land short, and you never land long. Again, you’re where you ought to be. It is useful for short runways and at airshows when the tower tells you to land on the orange spot painted on the runway. It’s a good tip for student pilots, too, who sometimes think landing on the numbers is a show of skill, but risk landing short of the runway surface.

Recently I turned the tables on Fowler, now retired, by calling him in Florida and asking for the best advice he ever heard, not wrote. He quickly came up with these two. “Anger is only one letter short of danger. You just can’t get angry in an airplane. You have to stay focused.” Fowler credited the advice to Pete Campbell, an instructor in a flight instructor refresher clinic he attended in the 1960s. Fowler said he also keeps in mind this additional advice from Campbell: “Should the weather turn iffy, land and get more gas.”

I put out a general call in AOPA Online forums for the best advice pilots ever heard, and got some great tips shared below.

No tunnel vision

“Don’t lock in to a spot on the runway. You have to look up and down it, use the far end as a horizon, and keep the nose just above that line. Let your eyes take in the side of the runway, and even the grass. The point is to not get tunnel vision, but let your peripheral vision work for you, too. [This] cleaned up my landings quite a bit.

“Remember to reduce final approach speed if below gross weight. Why use 1.3 book VSO, when the airplane actually will stall much slower than that lightly loaded? I found that after learning to reduce all my speeds, especially final approach speed, my flying became much more stable, predictable, and landings are wonderful. In a game of energy management, it helps to actually do it.” —Matt Caldwell, Huntington, West Virginia

Have some class

“‘Be graceful with the airplane; your passengers will appreciate you for it,’ was the advice from the late Dick Azar, a World War II veteran CFI from El Paso, Texas, on my first airplane checkout after getting my private. I think I was too focused on hitting the numbers and whatnot to notice how jerky and sickness-inducing my checkride-passable technique was, things not spelled out in the AIM!

“Also, this advice: ‘If you can control your airspeed with discipline, you can fly just about anything,’ [a quote from] Nick Mues, my primary CFI on my first landings.” —Kannan Raghunathan, East Lansing, Michigan

Watch the speed

“The absolute unconditional best advice I was ever given was from Benjamin Gordon Cason, my dad, long before I ever sat in an airplane with an instructor. It’s actually kept me from bumping into things, like the Earth and other annoying objects, on occasion. He simply said this: ‘Maintain flying speed. As long as you have flying speed, you can make the plane do what you want it to do.’

“When I asked what exactly flying speed was, he said it’s not a number on the airspeed indicator or position of the flight controls or attitude of the airplane. It is a constantly variable speed that is totally dependent on the airplane, the environment the airplane is operating in, and the pilot’s intentions. Any given airspeed defined as flying speed changes from instant to instant. It’s all about constantly keeping the plane in a flight envelope that allows you to do what is necessary. It’s really about understanding flight as an art form, not a carefully calculated maneuver.” —Frank G. Cason (who insists he is a nomad with no fixed address)

No need to rush

“I read this in some aviation magazine many years ago and thought it was worth remembering, from an old gray-haired airline captain: ‘There are very few things that can happen in an airplane that require you to take immediate action.’” —John C. Saubak, Peerless, Montana (known on AOPA Forums as Peerlesscowboy)

“When flying in Alaska I was told, ‘It’s just mail. It can be delivered on another day.’ One thought seems to keep me out of trouble more than any other. ‘How am I going to explain this?’” —Andy Gamache, Clinton, Arkansas

Be careful, have fun

“Fly as if your life depends on it.” —Matthew Kerby, Glendale, Arizona

“Paraphrased from my instructor, ‘When you stop having fun, then stop flying.’ This wraps up a lot of advice in one sentence: pressure to make a particular flight; feeling off, tired, or just needing a break are all indications that you’d probably fail the IM SAFE test [IM SAFE letters stand for illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and eating]. In a longer-term view, if there’s money or family pressure at home, then you’d better sit back and think about why you’re continuing to fly.

“On the other hand, not every minute of every flight will be ‘fun’ (first ILS under the hood during instrument training), but you’re pursuing a goal that means a lot to you, so you work through the tough spots on your way there.” —Ken Howe, Beaverton, Oregon

Additional tips

“From one of my primary instructors, Chuck Baldwin, an old Navy chief who has since passed away: ‘Always carry a pair of skivvies and a credit card in your flight bag.’ I kept the card in my pocket, but the skivvies did go into the bag for a long time. It actually was a good reminder that you’ve always got the option to stay on the ground. It also kept people from digging in my flight bag more than once.” —Dan Barclay, Orange, Texas

“When [aviation author] Gordon Baxter was getting his instrument rating, one of his instructors told him, ‘Unless you have a cold, deadly reason for doing something, don’t do it.’ I’ve always taken that to mean, do a sanity check on everything. ATC wants me to descend. Is it really time to do that? Will that new heading take me somewhere I don’t want to go?” —David Reinhart, Holden, Massachusetts

“As we were taxiing the taildragger to the apron, my CFI remarked, ‘Errors in this phase of operations tend to be quite expensive.’” —Bruce Chien, Peoria, Illinois

“‘Plan the flight and fly the plan,’ and the complementary one which is, ‘A Cub is a simple aeroplane which flies slowly enough to barely kill you.’” —Robert Lough, Milan, Italy

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

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | "AOPA Pilot" Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.