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Rite of passage

The touchy subject of touch and goes

A rite of passage for many student pilots is the introduction and their mastery of the touch-and-go landing procedure. As an instructor, you know the drill well: The pilot lands on the runway (touches) and immediately begins a new takeoff (goes). In other words, at some point after landing, the landing rollout becomes the takeoff roll. Graduating to touch and goes is a sign of confidence from you that the student has begun to master the fine control of the aircraft in the last several feet of the flare, at touchdown, and during the transition to the takeoff roll and subsequent departure.

Practicing touch and goes is also a way to save an enormous amount of time and money because it avoids slowing the aircraft to a stop, clearing the runway, and taxiing back to the departure end for another takeoff. At a typical nontowered airport with a 3,000-foot runway and little traffic, a pilot can expect to do about two touch-and-go landings for every full-stop landing. At a towered airport, or at a busy nontowered airport, the touch-and-go ratio may be slightly less. So what's the big deal, and why am I not a fan of using touch and goes in primary training?

The breakdown

A touch-and-go landing is conducted in the normal manner until on the runway. At that point, the pilot must divert his attention from outside the airplane to inside the cockpit long enough to retract the flaps, turn off the carb heat (if applicable), and execute any other actions from the checklist or pilot's operating handbook (POH) that might normally be done before taking the runway. The pilot must then return his attention to tracking the runway centerline and adding power to the normal takeoff setting.

Once power is added, the pilot is now concerned with achieving normal takeoff rotation speed while ensuring that there is sufficient runway to safely clear any obstacles. Somewhere in all of this there must be a verification that the flaps really did retract, the engine instruments are giving normal readings, and all required checklist items are accomplished.

At some undefined point, the landing roll ends and the takeoff roll begins. If the runway is relatively short, it may leave you with little to no room to execute a safe rejected takeoff. Likewise, floating too long during the landing or being slow in retracting flaps may bring on the same situation.

The touch and go is primarily a teaching tool, but it also has a practical application. All pilots should be able to do touch and goes in case they need to clear a runway quickly (think of it as a sort of rolling go-around).

What can go wrong

Stick around the pilot's lounge long enough and you will hear tales of things gone wrong when trying to do two procedures at once. Here's a sample.

Locked brakes. Any pilot intending to do a touch and go can land and make an effort to use the rudder to maintain runway alignment. During the application of power, any deviation from a straight line will only be magnified--as will corrections. The result can be a sudden rush to add rudder input that includes inadvertent brake input, leading to a ground loop or a fast exit from the runway onto the grass. The brakes might also get hit by accident or in an attempt to use them to steer. This happened at the airport where I learned to fly when a student was on a solo flight in a Cessna 152. While there was some minor damage to the airplane, she was, fortunately, not injured.

Gear up. There are legends dealing with this error: Pilot lands, pilot reaches for some control (usually flaps), pilot inadvertently and unintentionally moves landing gear switch to "up" position, airplane belly-flops, pilot marvels at new short-field landing distance, mechanic smiles. This also happened at my former home airport, when a transient aircraft was using our runway for practice. At some point, one of the pilots raised the gear handle and added power. As the airplane gained lift, the landing gear retracted, but it was before normal flying speed. Sure enough, it settled, and the prop sliced a number of cuts into the runway before the airplane hit the runway and slid to a stop. While this isn't a problem for fixed-gear airplanes, guess what is?

Flaps down. Believe it or not, it's happened. Instructors who make a habit of retracting flaps during the roll between the landing and takeoff can inadvertently train the student to expect that help all the time. What happens? A pilot lands, gets ready to go, and adds power--but doesn't retract the flaps, creating a very dangerous low-speed, low-lift, high-drag condition. Throw in a hot summer day or a strong gust and the results can be catastrophic.

This problem can also occur if the student doesn't fully raise the flaps. Granted, half-flaps is better than fully deployed flaps for a takeoff, but the unusual handling can still cause a case of panic. Another potential gotcha will happen if the flaps don't retract because of a failed motor or electrical system. Granted, it's unlikely, but this would be a bad time to find out. I once had the manual flaps in a Piper Cherokee get stuck on a flap setting not approved for takeoff. Fortunately, they came loose, and we were able to take off safely.

No recovery time

The landing is a high-stress phase of flight; a lot of information has to be sorted and absorbed at once, especially for low-time pilots. Taking the time to clear the runway and run the after-landing checklist reinforces a good habit. Secondarily, it gives the student and the instructor a chance to come to a stop somewhere (or let the CFI take over taxiing for a couple of minutes) so that the CFI can explain to the student what was good--or not so good--about the previous landing. Trying to do this while making a circuit around the pattern detracts from more important objectives, like not hitting another aircraft and listening to the radio. Trying to dissect the previous landing while getting ready for the next one can also overwhelm a student, and half of what the CFI says might be missed (and the other half might be selectively ignored).

Taking a break on the ground gives the student a chance to take a breather while having a thorough discussion with her teacher about what is or isn't working. That discussion can also last as long as necessary, and having it on the ground permits a better exchange of information. This is also a good way to avoid fatigue. It's frequently said that the cockpit of an airplane is a lousy classroom, and the touch and go is a perfect example.

Doing touch and goes safely

Is all this to say that touch and goes can't be conducted safely or effectively? Of course not. But instructors and flight schools should establish certain parameters and abide by them.

First of all, the runway should be limited to those longer than a certain length. I've always used 5,000 feet, but that was because we had an airport with a runway that long a few miles away. A good rule of thumb is to take the landing distance over a 50-foot obstacle and the takeoff distance over a 50-foot obstacle, add them, and double (or triple) the result to get a minimum runway length. This will help take into account the relatively high-speed ground roll between the landing and the takeoff.

Second, set a crosswind limit that matches the current skills of the student and stick with it!

Third, don't use touch and goes before the student has mastered landings well enough to solo. When you are ready to introduce them, spend some time discussing them in the briefing room. Explain what's going to happen, and who will do what. For the first couple, the CFI should be responsible for retracting flaps. As the student gets more comfortable, he or she can start adding to the workload during the transition. Make sure that the student is verifying actual flap position before takeoff.

Fourth, limit fatigue. Don't do more than three or four touch-and-go landings in a row. After the third or fourth one, do a full stop and taxi back for a normal takeoff. This will allow time for a discussion and give the student a break. Alternatively, instead of taxiing back, have the CFI do a full circuit in the pattern and give the student a chance to watch and observe.

Finally, set a defined touch-down point. My home base where I learned to fly and where I later taught had a 2,900-foot runway with the approach over a road. In order to avoid scaring drivers (and us), my early instructor always hammered home that he didn't want me landing before the first runway stripe, and he wanted me on the ground by the third runway stripe, with my absolute limit being the fourth runway stripe--bouncing from the third to the fourth stripe didn't count. That was a policy I took to heart, and as an instructor I've taught the same rule; it makes the transition to touch and goes much safer and easier for everyone.

Touch and goes can be effective if used correctly. During the initial process of learning to land, full-stop landings are the best and safest method of teaching because the student hasn't mastered full control of the airplane through the landing roll, and the taxi time on the ground is a more effective place to debrief each landing. Touch and goes are much safer and more beneficial when landings have been mastered and the student only needs some proficiency work or wants to hone technique. While the argument for saving time and money is a tempting one for justifying the touch and go, it isn't always the best one, and it should never override any safety considerations.

Chip Wright has been flying since 1990, has been a CFI since 1994, and is now an ATP and a Canadair Regional Jet captain for Comair. His total time is 8,000 hours.

By Charles Wright

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