The V-tail Bonanza pilot approached Camarillo, California; leveled 20 feet above the runway; and raised the nose. Perhaps the goal was to make the first turnoff, and it was a success, but the airplane couldn’t taxi afterward—it was damaged. The aircraft stalled from six feet and landed on its prop. There was a similar problem at a flight school in Frederick, Maryland. One renter tried—and failed, thanks to his instructor—to do the same thing at 100 feet. The instructor intervened as the airspeed dropped from 65 knots to 50. No one knows what either pilot was thinking.
High level-offs aren’t the only mistakes made by experienced pilots. In Poughkeepsie, New York, a pilot and aircraft owner came in so fast that he floated for half of the 5,000-foot runway.
Maybe there’s a pilot virus, like getting a cold, that causes landing slumps. What follows is a collection of random tips from instructors, including author Bob Gardner who wrote the books The Complete Private Pilot and Say Again, Please, and a U.S. Air Force major who is in charge of the U.S. Air Force Academy Flying Team.
Beware the differences. Current discussions among Light Sport aircraft (LSA) manufacturers and the FAA indicate that experienced pilots of larger aircraft—and just about anything is larger—have problems landing LSAs. The little aircraft lack mass and inertia. That means that when power is reduced to idle, the aircraft slows suddenly. Do that three feet up, and your greaser is a thumper.
Even Air Force pilots of Transport-sized aircraft admit they need retraining when moving down to a single-engine trainer. Maj. Nannette Menath, the officer in charge of the U.S. Air Force Academy Flying Team, said she flew with an instructor when transitioning from her former 590,000-pound (when loaded) KC–10 tanker to a light piston-engine trainer. “In the KC–10, we start flaring at about 50 feet. We don’t feel any kind of ground rush; we’re listening to a computer telling us when we are at 50 feet. To actually have to feel that ground rush and have the runway fill up your window—it was very hard to go back to that,” she said. After two flights the skill returned, she said.
Instructor Roger Staples of Richmor Aviation in Poughkeepsie, New York, said experienced pilots get complacent when transitioning to aircraft with different systems. In one case, a pilot moved into an airplane that offered 40 degrees of flaps instead of the 30 degrees in his previous airplane, and hard landings were the result.
Spotted a tire lately? Staples’ school has problems with experienced pilots who brake so hard that they leave flat spots on the tires. That suggests a lack of airspeed control, plus the inability to land at the intended point. (Don’t land at EAA AirVenture or Sun ’n Fun if you can’t land on an exact and rather small spot.) Staples saw an aircraft float 2,500 feet and then land on a 5,000-foot runway. If that happens to you, go around and try again.
Flat-spotted tires are also a problem at Channel Islands Aviation in Camarillo, California. When I called there, asking about typical landing problems, flight school director Sarah Oberman asked, “Are you calling about my flat-spot email?” She had just warned renters to avoid excessive braking or pay for the repair.
The same problems are reported by Frederick, Maryland, Chief Flight Instructor Keith Jackson.
Chief Flight Instructor Mike Lozano of Channel Islands Aviation, who suggested reading famed CFI William Kershner’s “Landings” series written for AOPA Pilot, said it is almost always the right tire that is flat-spotted. That’s the foot the pilot uses when driving, and it carries over into flying, he said.
Tips from the Air Force. Here are some general tips from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Good wind analysis for all types of landings is the key, Menath said.
“You need to understand what the winds are doing to you when you are on downwind, base, and final,” she said. “That’s my number one suggestion. [Do] energy analysis on top of that. Are you in the right energy state to land the airplane the way you want to, where you want to land it? Do what you need to fix that energy state, such as adding power—or not.
“Ultimately,” she said, “the biggest thing that is hammered into a cadet’s brain is safety. Any time the winds are at the limit, or things are not going the way they were planned, the answer is always to go around. Making that decision earlier rather than later can prevent a really ugly situation.
“I especially want them to recognize earlier rather than later if they are going to land short,” she added. “Have in your mind a good go-around point. ‘Aim point, airspeed, center line,’ is a mantra that we teach over and over again,” Menath said.
Airspeed, airspeed, airspeed. Bob Gardner is the former director of ASA ground schools who wrote, in addition to the books already mentioned, The Complete Advanced Pilot and The Complete Multi-Engine Pilot. Now in his 80s, he works constantly to keep his books updated for new printings. Gardner warns that the downward transition to a smaller airplane is more difficult than transitioning up to a heavier one. Experienced pilots assume if the plane is smaller, it’s easier to fly. As sport pilots know, that’s not so.
Maybe if more general aviation pilots practiced spot landings, all their little troubles would go away. “I’m a great big fan of the dirty spot method of landing,” Gardner said. Using that method, make a spot in front of you on the window with a grease pencil, or use a dirty spot already in the right place, and keep that spot on the point of intended landing. Pilots who level off at 20 feet or 100 feet would see that spot climb above the horizon.
Many pilots have a need for too much speed when landing. “This has been true since the days that Adam and Eve were learning to fly—people are afraid of stalling. I don’t know who makes them afraid of stalling, whether it’s the instructors or their buddies or what. My mantra is that good landings are slow landings—1.3 times the stall speed in the landing configuration. It’s energy management,” he said.
Gardner believes in full flaps—even in windy, gusty conditions—in order to land as slowly as possible. He knows many pilots prefer partial or no flaps in such conditions, but those are exactly the times when he wants to land as slowly as possible. Backing up his opinion is 7,400 total hours of flying, including 4,335 hours of instruction given.
Airspeed is the critical factor for a good landing, Gardner said. When he gave flight reviews, he noticed many pilots flew the final approach at five to 10 knots too fast. “People complain about floating and ballooning, and both are the result of too much airspeed. If you can’t control airspeed to within two or three knots, you should be ashamed,” he said.
Poughkeepsie instructor Staples said he has seen students control airspeed so well that the airspeed needle never moves. So pilots, ask yourselves—are you as good as a student pilot?
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