No, we’re not talking about that date you went on… Our training attempts to drill a strict method for safely landing an aircraft into our thick heads — unfortunately, that method often overlooks the boundless “creativity” of the human mind…
THE RIGHT APPROACH: The idea behind this is simple — the tried and true, tested methods have proven safe, and if followed, will result in a safe landing in almost every situation. One of the principal tenants of a landing is a proper approach to landing: The aircraft enters the pattern at the right altitude and airspeed; reduces power as necessary to descend and slow down; arrives at base and final at the right attitude and ideally lands in the first third of the runway.
PROBLEM: Deviation from any single one of these simple tenants comes with risk, as it throws a pilot into a challenging situation. Example: If you arrive in the pattern too high, the power has to be reduced drastically, which can cause engine damage due to shock cooling, or the nose pushed down to reach the proper altitude. Of course, pushing the nose over will cause speed to build up, which has to be bled off before the flaps can be extended.
SOLUTION: If you do happen to blow into the pattern out of the normal configuration, there are some simple steps you can employ to salvage the situation:
- Reduce power more than usual. This will help you to reduce speed and altitude, but potentially at the expense of your engine’s health for many high performance planes.
- Extend the downwind leg. This gives you more time to lose altitude / reduce speed, but may impose adverse effects on other traffic.
- GO AROUND. If all else fails, it’s time to take the plane around for another try. Confess your sins (declare the go-around) and then do it.
BOTTOM LINE: Flying a good approach is about consistency — not making things up “on the fly.” Getting behind the aircraft greatly increases the chance that you will have an error. If you ever feel uncomfortable during an approach, take a moment to get yourself and the aircraft back on track. If you’d like more than a moment, GO AROUND and make one of the normal, uneventful landings that we all strive for the “second” time.
Case Study: High, Hot and Long – A Losing Combination
If you think that getting out of procedure during a landing is a non-problem, I can think of at least one aircraft owner who will disagree. He was inbound to an airport with a grass strip for landing, and unfortunately, managed to get too far behind his Piper Arrow to recover before disaster struck.
In this case, our pilot arrived in the pattern higher than normal. This would provide a challenge, since he still had to get down to the ground, and would have to lose the extra altitude. Compounding that, he was also coming in a bit hot (fast).
Now there were two energy surpluses at work in the Arrow. The plane was too high and too hot, both of which should be enough to sound a warning. But wait, there’s more… It was the rainy season, and the grass strip was very wet. This means that the braking action would be poor at best. Worse yet, there was a large mud bog in the first third of the 2800 foot runway.
Our pilot now had a dangerous combination of problems: he was high, hot, and intended to land long (on a fairly short strip) to avoid the mud. Rather than go around, he elected to complete the landing. As the wheels touched down — now well past the halfway point of the runway — our pilot pulled the power and stood on the brakes. The plane was still too fast, and was technically still flying. The wheels did not grab well, and the runway disappeared with alarming speed.
With only a few hundred feet of runway left, and the fence at the end of the runway looming, our pilot locked up the brakes. He hit the fence at a good clip, and did significant damage to the Arrow, which included a wrecked prop … a sudden stop to the engine (which translates to a pricey teardown inspection) … broke the nose gear and one of the mains … and did some damage to the wing of the plane. While the pilot escaped with only minor injuries, the insurance company totaled the plane.
While this is a perfect case study, the sad truth is that it *did* happen. Think about this the next time you land, and try to avoid making the same mistakes that could cost you your airplane, or worse yet, your life!