Flair in the flare

Two degrees nose-up is all it takes

January 1, 2012

Jet landing

In all the years I’ve been flying corporate jet aircraft, one truth keeps coming through: You can fly a perfect flight every time and no one says a thing, but botch a landing and no one will ever forget. So I’ve given a lot of thought to the flare, judging your projected touchdown spot, and just what you should and should not do in order to carry out a smooth jet landing.

Turns out, it’s not easy to generalize. From our early days in primary training, we’re taught to look ahead of the airplane as it flies into ground effect. Timing the beginning of the flare to occur at a reference spot—this can be marked on the windshield itself with a marker—does a pretty good job of preventing drop-ins or excessive, runway-consuming floating. After a bit of practice you develop a feel for when to raise the nose and begin flaring. Congratulations are in order! You finally “got it” and can now wipe the reference mark off the windshield.

January 2012
Turbine Pilot Contents

  • Going Single: An international flight showcases a TBM 850
  • Top-of-the-Line T-Prop: Flying the six-hundredth TBM proves why the brand has staying power
  • Transition Troubles: Varying transition altitudes and transition levels present traps for international pilots.
  • Flair in the Flare: Tips on how to roll a jet onto the runway in style.

But when landing a jet it’s not so simple. Your outside references change considerably with each airplane, and the “speed blur” that’s useful in the flare, well, that moves far ahead of the nose because you’re now landing at 100 knots or so instead of the 50 or 60 knots you experienced in a slower airplane.

Jets are more demanding in the roundout, flare, and touchdown phases of landing. That’s just one reason why flying a nice, stabilized approach is so vitally important. Stabilized approach paths require that you fly a constant reference speed (V REF), descent rate, and configuration. This makes it easier to make predictably smooth landings to preselected touchdown points. Many manufacturers and training organizations specify that you fly no lower than V REF and no faster than 10 knots above it (although wind and icing conditions may dictate an even faster final approach speed). Descent rates down final shouldn’t exceed 1,000 fpm, and the airplane should have its wheels planted in the runway touchdown zone markers. If you bust any of those targets, it’s time for a go-around or missed approach.

What happens if you violate those rules? A lot. For example, if you extend that last increment of flaps on short final the airplane will nose down, and you’ll balloon. Suddenly, your touchdown spot moves up in your windshield. The temptation is to reduce power in order to lose a bit of altitude and hit your target touchdown spot.

But monkeying with power that low to the ground is tricky. Get too slow and you can drop in. Overcompensate and add too much power and you’ll float past your target touchdown location. That can spell a lot of trouble on shorter runways; in most cases, a go-around is the best way to save your ego, the landing gear, and the passengers’ concerns as the airplane speeds down the runway for an uncomfortably long period of time.

So what works best? Experience will teach you. Here are some tips I’ve learned:

Speed is critical. That goes double if you happen to be flying a swept-wing airplane. Do not get slow! Better to fly at V REF plus eight or 10 knots than get one knot below VREF. You can fly a steep or a flat approach, but keep the proper airspeed right to the threshold. Only then can you begin reducing power. This is the only way to prevent things from falling apart when low to the ground—and prevent you from meeting the published landing distances for your density altitude and landing weight.

As you cross the threshold, your altitude should be somewhere around 50 feet agl. Higher than that, and a jet’s slipperiness means a big float as you sail past the touchdown zone. Lower than that, and you could be faced with a major sink rate and be forced to add power, fly on the back side of the power curve, and wind up with an attention-getting descent rate and subsequent hard landing.

To begin the flare, raise the nose approximately two degrees as you get about five to seven feet above the runway surface. Some jets fly approaches more nose-low than others, but a common perception is that the nose appears to be too low. This can trick you into making a too-aggressive flare. It helps to remember the sight picture when you’re parked on the ramp. Does it look like the nose is aiming at the tarmac? Well, imagine the nose a few degrees higher than that. That’s your flare sight picture.

For more visual cues, look out the cockpit at an angle to the nose. Look ahead of the speed blur. Look too close and you’ll be tempted to flare too aggressively. Look too far down the runway and you’ll probably flare too high.

To help finesse it, make sure the thrust levers are at flight idle as you close on the runway, and then pull the nose up two more degrees. The main gear should roll on. Trailing link landing gear make for smoother landings, and they help a lot in this critical phase.

Once the nosewheel touches down, begin applying brakes and reverse thrust (if you have it) as necessary. The trend with newer light jets is to do away with thrust reversers. While this makes for less weight and complexity, it also drives home the imperative to strictly adhere to the proper V REF. You won’t have reversers to save the day if by chance you happen to fly the ship on at speeds much higher than V REF.

Some jets come with angle-of-attack (AOA) indicators, and they’re a big help in maintaining the proper V REF for your landing weight—especially in swept-wing airplanes. In the Falcon 50 I used to fly we used AOA on approach all the time, and it was invaluable.

Flaring and landing a jet is a game of small, precise adjustments of pitch and power, coupled with a disciplined commitment to the concept of a stabilized approach. That said, there are always last-second variables—wind gusts, up- and downdrafts, you name it—that can make your landings far less than exemplary. Hey, as with flying any airplane, sometimes you have to take the good with the not-so-good.

Mark Evans is a 14,000-hour ATP and a CFI with instrument and multiengine ratings.