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Training Tip: In the nick of time

It’s natural to sympathize with a student pilot who has just taxied in from a rocky session practicing takeoffs and landings. Go ahead and empathize—but if you’re next to fly the trainer, show the aircraft some love too.

Photo by Mike Fizer

Making good landings is customarily the single most challenging skill for a new pilot to acquire, the path to proficiency paved with instances of floating, bouncing, drifting, tire-screeching sideloads, and go-arounds until finally, it all “clicks.”

Floating, a symptom of failing to bleed off airspeed just above the runway, can lead to bouncing, and taken to an extreme, to porpoising—that awful cycle of nosewheel-first impacts in which the pilot never quite catches up with establishing a proper landing attitude. The cycle bears a superficial resemblance to the sight of its namesake sea creature breaking the surface of the water and re-submerging in a manifestation of marine majesty.

Porpoises are common inhabitants of training-accident reports. A quick trolling of the NTSB accident database using the words “porpoising” and “porpoise” as bait brought 552 nibbles.

Witnessed from the sidelines, a porpoising incident is painful to behold; if it is easy to imagine how the pilot’s pride was bruised by the experience, be sure to go over the trainer for physical evidence of the impact when it comes your turn to fly it.

Don’t assume that if the trainer taxied back to the ramp under its own power, everything is fine from a structural or airworthiness point of view. Not all damage resulting from porpoising or other landing mishaps manifests as plainly as a collapsed nosewheel, blown tire, bent propeller, scuffed wingtip, or other obvious injury.

A prop striking the runway during porpoising won’t always do so with engine-stopping force, but may register only slightly visible damage noticed days later, as described by a pilot flying a Cessna 182 in an air race who filed a report with the Aviation Safety Reporting System (after a mechanic recommended grounding the airplane with its nicked propeller).

A tail strike can weaken an aircraft’s structure. Give your trainer’s rear areas careful visual inspection and be rigorous about verifying free-and-correct control movements.

Damage to the firewall—the “flameproof bulkhead” between the aircraft’s engine compartment and its occupants—is a common result of landing accidents, sometimes escaping notice by the pilot involved.

As you follow your aircraft’s preflight inspection checklist, pay close attention to the special risk factors associated with aircraft that suffer the routine wear and tear of the flight training environment.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Flight Instructor, Student
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