Fly like a fighter: Backseat landings

May 21, 2012

Fly like a fighter

Backseat landings in a T-38 are a challenge. Backseat no-flap landings in a T-38 without any crosswind are even worse. We all know that flaps are generally put on airplanes to increase lift at lower speeds. One of the results is that with flaps extended, the aircraft pitch attitude is less for a given airspeed, making it easier to see where you are going on final approach. This leads to the difficulty in landing a T-38 from the back seat without flaps, because without flaps you need to maintain a higher pitch attitude to maintain your given altitude or descent. This means you really can’t see the runway directly ahead of you on approach.

Larry BrownI had only been instructing in the T-38 for about a month when my student and I returned to the traffic pattern for some touch-and-go practice. Because of the high approach speeds, and the need to dissipate about 25 knots of airspeed from final approach to touchdown, our normal aiming point for a visual approach was about 500 feet short of the runway threshold in the middle of the overrun. With or without flaps, from the back seat we relied a lot on looking out the sides of the airplane to help with our aiming point and runway alignment. At least with the flaps down, you could see enough directly ahead to monitor your aiming point. With the flaps up, and a higher pitch attitude, this was not the case. That should have been my clue that the student’s attempt at a no flap landing wouldn’t be successful.

On final approach, his airspeed control was fine and he was holding a stable glidepath and aiming point. I know, because I could see the aiming point in front of the nose. In hindsight, this meant that his pitch attitude was too low and our sink rate would be too high. When it was about time to transition to the roundout and flare it was too late. We did an excellent carrier landing and firmly planted our mains into the middle of the overrun—right where the student had been aiming all along. The subsequent bounce put us back in the air, at which point I was already on the controls and lighting the afterburners for the go around. A long drone around the outside pattern gave us time to get our heart rates back down and debrief the event.

In addition to not realizing that my pitch attitude was too low on that ugly no-flap pattern, I also didn’t do a good job of monitoring other cues available to me. I had too much focus on the aiming point that I didn’t see the sink rate out of my peripheral vision, or the vertical velocity indicator. Most of us fly tricycle-gear airplanes and don’t have the visibility problem described above.

I recently flew in a tailwheel Pitts and saw how lousy the forward visibility is in the flare. No matter the type of airplane you fly, in terms of visual cues, the lessons are the same. The first is to make sure your seating height is the same every time you fly a given airplane. Next is to periodically practice normal and no-flap patterns and landings to “redraw” the pitch pictures in your brain for those conditions. Finally, for all airplanes, don’t fixate on one thing, even if you can see it well. A moving scan and use of peripheral vision go a long way to making excellent landings.

Larry Brown of Colorado Springs, Colo., is a retired Air Force F-15 pilot who is using the lessons he learned as a fighter pilot as a GA pilot in his Cessna P210. Brown, who has 2,600 hours total time during his 32 years of flying, also was an instructor pilot and flight examiner in the Air Force T-38 and instructor pilot in the T-52, the military’s version of GA’s Diamond DA40. See previous installments of “Fly like a fighter.”