About half of all general aviation accidents happen in the landing phase. A significant percentage of these happen before actually reaching a runway (due to cross-control stalls, undershoots, etc.) Regardless of the reason, most landing accidents can be avoided by using pattern reference points, the right airspeeds, making effective use of flaps, managing pitch and power, ignoring distractions, using checklists, looking out for other aircraft, communicating, staying alert to outside information (unicom, wind indicators), reacting properly to wind and turbulence, and being ready and willing to ‘go around’ if anything looks wrong. Hey, no one said it would be easy.
With all the complications that make approaches what they are, what can you read that will help you make a smooth landing once you get over the numbers? First off, proper landing technique is much like the ‘muscle memory’ of riding a bicycle and can’t be learned ab initio just from reading. Although the landing ‘flare’ actually starts from 10 to 20 feet up, in an oversimplified view, landing involves little more than slowly flying straight and level down the runway. When the wheels are hip-high, reduce power, pull back (this is actually optional) and the aircraft will settle to the ground. In fact, once over the threshold, AOPA teaches ‘pinch-hitters’ (non-pilots landing for an incapacitated pilot) to reposition an imaginary fly on the windshield from the numbers down to the far end of the runway, and keep it there. Of course, experience confers the finesse of knowing just how much to pull back so that by the time the stall horn is starting to sound, you’re a foot off the ground and settling slowly. However, here are some important things to remember for anyone who’s made their first solo…
The Five Don’ts of Good Landings… and one NEVER
- Don’t lose your vertical perspective and avoid hard landings by staying ahead of the airplane — literally. By the time you’re very near the runway, you often won’t be able to see over the nose. How: Using peripheral vision, look 20 degrees to the left and right, and far enough forward so the ground isn’t blurred as it rushes past. This technique, plus moving your eyes around, will help enhance your depth perception.
- Don’t get distracted (the main cause of gear-up landings). How: When flying with passengers, demand a sterile cockpit (no talking, no asking questions, no pointing or waving) within five miles of the airport. If you are flying alone and become distracted while in the pattern or on approach, go around.
- Don’t flare with excess airspeed. How: Bleed off speed by holding the aircraft where it is (altitude) and letting it settle in slowly — but don’t land longer than your runway, either!
- Don’t land tired. Landing at the end of a flight, you’re usually more tired than you were when you started. How: If you’re tired when you start, it’ll be worse when you come back. Leave rested, land rested.
- Never land downwind … unless a runway slope significantly counteracts it. Still, remember that things will look very different — you may end up flying slower (and closer to stall) although it looks like you’re flying faster.
Know The Basics, Do The Basics
- Consider density altitude, runway slope and surface, especially if much different from cool, level, and dry. Always calculate the estimated performance of your aircraft for the conditions it will encounter.
- If winds aren’t steady, add a gust factor to your approach speed.
- Fly a stabilized approach, at a constant airspeed. A good landing is more likely (though never guaranteed).
- Understand ground effect, which improves things for the main wings, but decreases elevator effectiveness. If you run out of the latter before you run out of altitude, add power … gently.
- Lower the upwind wing but hold opposite rudder to keep the airplane aligned with the runway, when ready to flare. Let the upwind tire contact the ground first.
- Touch down on the main wheels, before the nose wheel. Just thinking this will help you set the aircraft up in a proper landing attitude while transitioning to the flare.
- Wait to apply brakes until the aircraft is at least 25% below touchdown speed. (With little weight on the wheels, brake application is likely to just leave expensive rubber marks on the runway.)
- Correct directional excursions early (especially in tailwheel airplanes). In tail-draggers, full back stick after touch down puts more weight on the tailwheel and improves directional control. In a tricycle gear aircraft, applying backpressure while braking will increase stability and friction between the mains and the pavement.
- Slow the airplane properly before exiting the runway.
Beyond The Obvious
- Small airplanes don’t have Vref data, just Vso for gross weight. Light weight often paradoxically increases landing distance. Sure, lower weight means less kinetic energy the brakes have to dissipate, but that’s after you get on the ground! Extra distances here are due to ‘float’ at lighter weights. Generally, you can reduce the approach speed slightly at lower weights, ask your flight instructor for advice.
- Usually, small airplanes do OK with power at idle in the flare. In heavier airplanes, as well as smaller ones, you can make things happen a little slower if you keep in a little power until the wheels touch the runway.
- If it’s night, choose a destination airport you’re familiar with, especially if it’s non-towered. In many areas of the country, wildlife may wander onto the runway at night. If in doubt about terrain on the approach, or the condition of the runway, go somewhere else.
- Beware of non-standard VASIs, which may locate the aim point several hundred feet down the runway.
- Any qualms, any questions … go around! And stick to your decision.
- Practice — generally, the more the better but also know when to say when.
Don’t Get Discouraged: The trick to landing well is accepting that each landing will be different. You will make mistakes. Conditions change constantly in the pilot’s environment, so while the principles of a good landing are always the same, the execution is always subtly different. Your job as a pilot is to know the theory of a good landing and act to apply it in the conditions as they come.
- FAA pamphlets 8740-48, -49, and -50: ‘On Landings‘,
Parts I, II, and III, respectively
- Good Takeoffs and Landings, by Joe Christy
- AOPA Air Safety Foundation Pinch-Hitter Pilot Training Manual
- The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual, by William Kershner