By Scott Ruppert
You’ve gotten everything right in the traffic pattern.
On speed and altitude on downwind, properly configured for landing with all checklists complete. You turn onto base leg and the descent continues to arrive on final. The PAPI lights become visible and voilà, two red lights, two white lights. And then things start to fall apart midway through your final approach somewhere near that last 300 feet.
If you’re working through your first 50 hours of training this probably is an all-too-familiar scenario. Overpowered, underpowered, too much or too little descent rate, or a left or right drift away from centerline are just a few of the ways a pattern that got you onto final in a perfect position turns to mental mush. Don’t worry, pretty much everyone goes through this phase.
Getting to final in the perfect position is a matter of hitting the targets for altitude and airspeed. The real flying begins once an airplane turns on the final leg, as the three-dimensional funnel leading to the intended point of landing gets ever narrower, and the margin of error becomes smaller. That’s when those rote pilot’s operating handbook procedures must lead to a different skill set: The eyes scan the final approach corridor, and the brain analyzes that data and sends input to the hands and feet to take certain actions leading to touchdown.
The final approach phase of the landing pattern is dynamic and always subject to change based on winds, unstable descent rates, and subtle changes to power and attitude. As training progresses, pilots gradually develop the skill of recognizing visual cues that a certain trend is developing. Engine sound, nose attitude, peripheral vision, closure rate, and descent angle are a few ever-changing cues that no online training presentation or YouTube video can capture. It is a feeling that can only come from experience, sensory awareness often brought to light by a good CFI, and, frankly, failures where a student cognitively digests what has transpired, then retains the memory and makes a mental note of how to avoid or correct the situation the next time it happens.
In a previous life, I was a Navy pilot and landing signal officer who flew and oversaw thousands of aircraft carrier landings from the flight deck. Each of those landings were graded in terms of angle of attack/airspeed, line-up, and glideslope, with the goal of landing on the coveted three-wire. Three feet off centerline or three feet above or below the glideslope was the difference between a good landing and an unacceptable landing. Every pass had a post-flight debrief with the pilot, no matter how good or how bad. Rookie aviators often had growing pains in their early evolution. As they became more comfortable with the environment, the improvement became exponential. Even so, many times a veteran carrier aviator would throw a haymaker at me. Those were usually easy debriefs because the experienced aviator in question knew exactly what happened and why: scan breakdown, getting lazy with the pattern numbers, or sometimes their mind simply wasn’t in it that day.
There is a correlation, however, between us all. My instructing experience in general aviation has taught me a few things to look for on final with a student learning proper landing technique.
In the final 300 feet before landing, everything begins with the eyes.
If you’ve flown your aircraft by the numbers listed in the pilot’s operating handbook to arrive in the proper position, your initial scan turning final should focus on the outside cues of alignment with the runway, runway aim point, and whatever glide path information the PAPI or VASI is giving you. Now bring the scan inside to recheck the airspeed and vertical speed indicator (VSI). Take the eyes back outside: alignment and PAPI. Inside: airspeed and VSI. Repeat. It makes no difference if you fly a glass cockpit or an instrument six-pack, the scan routine remains the same.Make life easier and take steps early on final to get the aircraft on centerline.
If you are lucky enough to have a PAPI or VASI to give you glideslope information, it begins to replace the altimeter/VSI from your inside scan, making the airspeed indicator the primary instrument when scanning inside. Scan simplified.
As your scan routine develops, the speed at which it moves increases, as does how your brain interprets the information it receives.
While instructing, I often glance over to see what the student pilot’s eyes are doing. Is their scan active from outside to inside or are they staring at the runway aim point while airspeed is either running away or decaying? Eyes that stare stop sending important data to the brain that tells the hands and feet what to do.
Now the sensory information must connect to physical movements by the hands and feet to make alignment, airspeed, and glidepath corrections during that final 300 feet. I cannot remember an approach—VFR or IFR—where I never had to make some sort of correction to the glidepath, airspeed, or alignment. Energy management is a skill that requires both hands and feet working together, complementing each other’s action if one is to develop good landing technique.
There is an instructional line of thought that once on final, the throttle is the primary control for glideslope. This is the CliffsNotes version of landing technique, and there is more to it than just throttle input. If there is not a corresponding and appropriate response on the yoke or stick to adjust the elevator, airspeed and attitude will be affected. Your scan must be consistently active to catch these subtle changes.
Your hands must work in concert with each other whenever a correction is required. If a power reduction is required with one hand, an appropriate movement of the controls with the other hand will likely become necessary. This sequence must quickly be followed by a scan inside to analyze how that correction affected your airspeed. Movements on the controls during this time are typically small, subtle, and controlled.When staring starts, the scan stops, the brain freezes, and the hands and feet become still.
Finally, whenever your outside/inside scan detects that a correction is required to get back on glidepath, there must be another resultant correction of smaller magnitude to then stay on glidepath. An example of this would be if you found yourself above glidepath (four white lights on a PAPI). You make an appropriate throttle reduction and yoke correction followed by a quick scan inside at the airspeed indicator. Your descent rate will increase slightly, and as the red lights begin to appear on the PAPI you see you are reestablishing yourself on glidepath. Great.
If you leave in the correction you made to get back on glidepath, you’ll go right through the glidepath and out the bottom end. You need to anticipate this and add in half the power you took out with one hand and adjust the attitude with the other. Remember, the funnel leading to landing is quickly getting smaller, and these corrections are typically flown with subtlety.
The last 100 feet
When all has progressed well down to 100 feet agl a new set of skills must be addressed. The scan pattern continues—alignment, aimpoint, airspeed—but a shift in the scan begins to focus farther down the runway. Hopefully proper airspeed has been bracketed by a couple knots at this point, and line-up is within the margin of safety with runway centerline coming at you between the main mounts.
If the eyes continue to focus at close range in front of the airplane, expect a flat or nose low landing. By moving your outside focus farther down the runway (1,000 feet or more) you begin to sense velocity, descent rate, and the ability to gauge the proper altitude to slowly, smoothly transition to the roundout and touchdown. This roundout maneuver is another subtle input to the controls: power and yoke. Flare too fast or too aggressively and you’ll end up 5 feet in the air, out of ideas and airspeed.
Too many times I’ve sat through landings wherein the student pilot impressed me by doing a great job of getting to 75 feet agl on speed and glidepath only to utter the words, “I’ve got the runway made” and wipe power to idle with a resultant nose drop to “put it on the numbers.” I understand this in the context of short-field procedures, but what happened to the beautiful landing profile that got you to 100 feet?
On the other hand, if the last 100 feet yields a trend taking you above the glidepath, you have two options: Go around or take what the runway is giving you and land a couple hundred feet farther down the runway. No harm, no foul. Of course, runway length is the primary consideration in this decision. How one gets past the learning plateau of making consistently good landings is one of the great challenges for the student pilot—and the CFI. You, too, can make it through this flight training rite of passage.
Scott Ruppert is a flight instructor in Harpswell, Maine.