Short work

College students seek to land aviation championship

August 1, 2011

Can the annual collegiate flying championships answer two nagging questions about short-field landings: Do you really need short-field landing skills as a professional pilot? And is it imperative that your aircraft have a maximum 40 degrees of flap deflection to really nail a short-field landing? I attended the 2010 competition and talked to participants from last year and this to find out.


There’s no secret to making good short-field landings, said Steve Halcomb, a Boeing 737 captain for AirTran Airways and chief judge of the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s (NIFA) 2011 national Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (Safecon), hosted by Ohio State University in Columbus May 16 through 21. “If you want to touch down at a particular point, you’re going to go through a flare, and it’s going to carry you a little bit down the runway,” he said. “If I’m going into Key West, Florida, in a 737, and I want to touch down at 300 feet down the runway, I’m going to flare at 100 feet down the runway.”

Halcomb competed in the short-field and power-off landing events at two regional and one national Safecon while attending the University of Illinois in 1994 and 1995. “When I flew the [Cessna] 152, it seemed I could put that thing down within five or 10 feet.”


Now, when landing at Key West—which, at 4,801 feet, is the shortest runway he lands a 737—he ensures that the approach is stable early. “Unlike Atlanta and other, busier destinations, by the marker you’re configured with flaps and on speed,” Halcomb explained. “That’s just another technique that we use—have your stabilization point much farther back.”

Cessna 172s and other heavier trainers can push through crosswinds. “Having that extra weight is great, but for pure finesse, having that extra flap makes the 150 and 152 easier to control.” Above all, Halcomb said, you have to have good technique. “I wanted to know that when I took that power off, it was going to touch down right there,” he said. “It never really changed for me, flying in competition or flying the line.”

40 degrees of flaps?

So, professional pilots do use short-field landing skills—relatively speaking, of course—without trekking to back-country airstrips. What about flaps, is there a magic number?

If you’ve never been to a Safecon, you need to know this: The venerable Cessna 150, with its 40 degrees of maximum flap deflection, is coveted by competitors. Many aviation colleges have one or two especially for flight-team use. And over the past three years, two-thirds of the top three finishers in the national short-field landing competition flew Cessna 150s.


This year, however, first and third place in short-field landings—and first and second place in power-off landings—were won by pilots flying the Cessna 152, which has a maximum 30 degrees of flap deflection. All four of those honors were captured by Southern Illinois University, which won the 2011 national championship trophy, followed by the University of North Dakota; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona, campus; Western Michigan University: and Ohio State University.

There’s more to winning a Safecon landing event than where you plant the main gear.

“With the 150 or 152, you could be off your airspeed by a few knots and still have that full-stall landing. That’s what the judges are looking for, the full-stall landing,” Halcomb said. “We’re not just looking for touchdown point, we’re looking for technique—are they drifting after they touch down?”

They’re also looking for proper crosswind technique, so if there’s a crosswind, be sure your upwind wheel touches down first. Penalties are assessed for improper use of flaps, sloppy patterns, turning to crosswind at too low an altitude—the rules go on for 10 pages. “You can’t keep a lot of power and drag it in—you’ll lose points for that,” Halcomb added.

Practice makes perfect

“This year was a culmination of all the years I’d worked before,” said Mike Carroll of Normal, Illinois, who was Safecon’s top-scoring contestant, placing second in Top Pilot and power-off landing, and third in short-field landing. He graduated in May from Southern Illinois University with degrees in aviation management and aviation flight. Practice “was like having another part-time job during the semester.”


Carroll treats short-field landings like any other. “It’s really nothing different, other than that you plan on touching down at a specific point on the runway,” he said. “Flaps come in at the same time as on any other approach. The flare’s a little different; you try to bring it in to a full-stall landing—but everything else is pretty much the same. Airspeed control is paramount. With respect to a precision landing, coming in fast can be just as bad as coming in too slow.”

He said some people aim at a point maybe 300 feet in front of their touchdown point, then level off and flare. “Avoid waiting for the airplane to touch down in a long flare. We try to move our aiming point and our touchdown point closer together. We try to have a continuous descent to landing throughout the final approach.”

He doesn’t believe an extra 10 degrees of flaps is significant. “It’s got more to do with the pilot than with the airplane. The 40 degrees of flaps really steepens the descent, but once you learn how to land the airplane, you can put any airplane down right on the line,” he said. “The most difficult aspect of the short-field landing is the requirement for a full-stall landing. Sometimes you’ll come in a little fast, and receive a ‘not full stall’ penalty. The judges are looking at your pitch attitude and elevator position, in addition to your airspeed,” he said.

Teammate Taylor Breum of Lake Villa, Illinois, starting his junior year at Southern Illinois, was surprised to learn he won the short-field event. “I knew I had landed pretty close to the line, but I didn’t know what points I may have lost. Anybody can land close to the line. What you also have to do is fly a perfect pattern,” he said.


“It’s all about energy management. I need to be as slow as I can be, but I still need to be in control of the airplane,” Breum said. “I start my flare about 200 feet up. It’s really an extended process that’s a little bit different from normal landings.” He flares with full aft elevator. “I’m riding the stall warning horn all the way to the ground.”

The 6-foot, 2-inch Breum does have one trick. “I sit on a booster seat so my head’s on the ceiling, so I can still see over the nose with that high a pitch attitude. I try to get other people to do that, but they won’t listen.” He said he loves short-field landings.

The shape of things to come?

For the first time, a Light Sport aircraft—the Cessna 162 Skycatcher—was used by competitors in the landing events. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has acquired two for use by the flight teams at each of its campuses, in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona.

“The airplane does great, but it’s different than a 150,” said Les Westbrooks, head coach for Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach flight team. He said the 162 has twice the glide ratio of the Cessna 150, and the same 40-degree maximum flap deflection. “It’s hard to win the landing events without 40 degrees of flaps. Getting used to the different sight picture took some doing. [The Skycatcher is] a lot cleaner; it comes in a lot flatter; and honestly, that’s a little bit of a learning curve for the judges, too. But you can definitely hear the stall warning horn going off” from the judges’ location beside the runway.


Team members mastered the new sight picture in April, just a month before the competition, Westbrooks said. “The students are going to do well in it in the future, I have no doubt about it. It performed great. On climbout, it outclimbs a 172.”

Embry-Riddle is getting ready to sell its Cessna 150s, which were increasingly expensive to maintain. “It is so wonderful to have an airplane that’s not 40 years old,” Westbrooks said.

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Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.