Touch-and-Goes: The Rewards, The Risks

Flaps full. Power to idle. Hold the nose off … hold it up, hold it up, let the speed bleed off to the stall, inches above the pavement. A little aileron to counter the winds and keep the center stripe between the main gear. “Chirp, chirp” go the tires as the upwind wheel hits and spins up an instant before the other. Aft stick, hold the nose off, hold it up … and flaps up, power up, carb heat off, and back into the air — the perfect “touch and go” landing.

The “touch and go,” a landing with just enough time on the ground to reconfigure the airplane for another takeoff, is a staple of flight training. In Air Force flight screening it wasn’t a “T&G” unless the nosewheel stayed airborne during the entire ground roll — let the nosewheel touch and “bust” an evaluation of a touch and go. It was good practice for future fighter jocks that someday would have to hold their F-16 noses high in the air for aerodynamic braking on landing. Most civilian pilots let the nose down during the T&G, a little more time to relax and reconfigure for the next time around the traffic pattern. What is the purpose of a touch-and-go? What are the risks? And are the risks worth the rewards of a touch and go landing?

Time and Money: There are two schools of thought on the purpose of touch and go practice. Most commonly cited is the “more practice per hour” argument. Proponents rightly say that T&Gs speed the process of learning to land an airplane by compressing more landings into the typical flight lesson — T&Gs take less time than fully stopping and taxiing back for takeoff. A student flying T&Gs might log seven or eight takeoffs and landings in an hour-long session, but only four or five if making full-stop landings and taxiing back.

Another school of thought cites lower costs associated with T&G landings. If your goal were to “log three for currency,” they’d say you could do it in less time on the Hobbs meter T&G than you could with full stops. Less time = less money. Some airports outside the U.S. also financially encourage pilots to perform T&Gs in lieu of full stops. Brisbane, Australia, for instance, charges an $11 landing fee per full stop landing — making an hour of full stops much more expensive than an hour of fee-free touch and goes.

To evaluate the risk level of flying touch and goes (as opposed to full stops), take a look at just what the pilot-in-command has to do, in a very short period of time, when flying a touch and go:

Directional Control: Flying a T&G is a very workload-intensive maneuver, and often the pilot is overloaded to the point he or she does not adequately compensate for the winds or the turning tendencies of the airplane’s spinning propeller. Many T&G accident reports are written after the plane drifts into an obstacle in even very light surface winds. The T&G pilot has to maintain directional control starting with the idle-power, crosswind-correcting (as necessary) control inputs of the flare, through the touchdown, and then counter torque and more during power re-application and transition to initial climb. Directional control is usually lost not when the winds “outblow” the pilot’s ability to correct, but when the pilot is distracted during takeoff or landing.

Power: The T&G pilot has to quickly and correctly manage the power controls to get full thrust for the takeoff portion of the maneuver. Power for most piston pilots consists of up to four control inputs — throttle, propeller speed, fuel mixture, and/or carburetor heat. All that potential flailing of hands in the cockpit can (and sometimes does) lead to undesirable results (especially at high density altitudes, and/or in retractable gear aircraft). The thoughtful pilot realizes he/she can often pre-configure some of the controls so as not to require movement during the short run on the ground. A variable pitch propeller control, for instance, can be placed in the full-forward position on final approach, ready for the next takeoff without requiring movement on the ground. Same often goes for mixture control, depending on the engine type and the field elevation.

INSIDER’S TIP: Once the manifold pressure is below the propeller “governing range” (the range is usually from 12 to 15 inches of manifold pressure) of a variable-pitch prop, its control can be moved fully forward without a change of propeller pitch. Those blessed to live beneath the traffic pattern will appreciate the reduced noise of a slower turning prop. In other words, go full forward on the prop after you’ve reduced power below the governing range. In the takeoff phase, the propeller will spin up to provide full thrust once power is again added. This sets you up for full power without inviting the wrath of noise-sensitive airport neighbors.

Flaps: Most pilots land with full (or near-full) flap deployment, and take off with little or no flaps extended. The change has to happen quickly during a touch and go. The sequence of your actions (adding power first, or first retracting flaps) depends more on airplane design, the speed of flap travel, and individual technique — but the sequence may be critical to safely taking off again. Many designs can’t climb with full flaps extended — especially at high density altitudes — and many more will have seriously degraded climb performance. Other designs, notably heavier, multiengine ships, may not achieve acceptable climb performance taking off without some amount of flap extension. Follow the Pilot’s Operating Handbook’s advice, but more importantly, be certain it’s the flap handle you’re moving, and not something else … especially in retractable-gear airplanes.

Trim: The amount of change needed may be negligible, or it may be substantial — but it will affect controllability and performance. Change the power and change the flap configuration, and chances are you’ll have to change the airplane’s trim. For instance, if you trim most of the elevator pressures off during the flare, a typically loaded Cessna 172’s trim will end up near the takeoff setting. If you’re a little slow on resetting the trim during a touch and go it won’t likely be critical. Load up the same Skyhawk with two adults in the back and some luggage, then burn most of the fuel out before landing, and you’ll find the airplane is loaded toward its aft center of gravity limit. You’ll have to trim the nose further down than normal on landing, putting it in a position to resist a positive rate of climb if not re-set before taking off.

A more dramatic change in pitch trim might be noted in a Beech A36 Bonanza. The takeoff trim setting ranges from three to six increments “up” on the indicator. Land with two persons aboard and half fuel (a typical training scenario), and the trim will end up somewhere in or close to this range. Hang a 60-pound turbonormalizer out front, though, and the same A36 will end up at as much as 21 units “up” if trimmed to “hands off” during the flare. Take off with a different load and without resetting that trim, and you’re inviting an excessive pitch-up and possibly a stall during initial climb.

Regardless of the airplane, the trim will likely require at least some adjustment during a T&G, something more to do, and yet another potential distraction, in a very short period of time.

Landing Gear! Gear down and locked for landing. Gear up on initial climb. Leave the gear down all times in between. Well, at least that’s the theory. Often an “inadvertent gear retraction on the ground” happens during touch and go practice. The pilot thinks he or she is resetting the flaps or some other control, but in the heat of action pulls the landing gear handle instead. Almost as common is the pilot who forgets to extend the gear on the fourth or fifth time around, doing touch-and-goes–about the time complacency seems to set in for both the pilot-in-command and his/her instructor. History shows that “safety” devices like “squat switches” and landing gear warning horns don’t adequate protect us from the specter of inadvertent gear retraction.

There’s no doubt that T&Gs let us log more landing practice per flight hour than the full stop and taxi back. More time in the flare and landing means quicker and more economical flying lessons. In many parts of the globe there are other financial inducements favoring touch and go landings.

T&G practice also prepares the advanced student and certificated pilot a technique for an emergency go-around should he/she detect a runway hazard after touching down — such as an animal or another airplane on the runway, or the inability to meet a “land and hold short” requirement.

T&Gs can easily result in loss of control due to excessive pilot workload and, in retractable gear (RG) airplanes, inadvertent gear retractions on the ground. In fact, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration reports as much as half of all accidents involving piston-powered, RG airplanes result from landing gear mishaps — and half of those are gear collapses on the runway, most frequently due to improper pilot activation of the gear switch. In my opinion, in fact, touch and goes are an unacceptable risk in retractable gear airplanes, and I don’t routinely teach them except as an emergency go-around exercise as described above.

Alternatives to the touch-and-go include:

  1. Perform only full-stop landings. This not only avoids the risk of T&Gs, it positive reinforces the proper sequence of events for both landing and takeoff. In fact, T&Gs tend to reinforce IMPROPER techniques that can get a pilot in trouble when otherwise distracted.
  2. Perform “stop and go” landings, where the airplane is brought to a complete stop, calmly reconfigured for takeoff, and then makes a normal takeoff from the point where it stopped on landing. Do this only with adequate runway length, and after coordination with Air Traffic Control and/or other pilots at non-towered airports.
  3. Exercise cockpit management with your instructor. Assign him/her the tasks of reconfiguring the airplane (flaps, all power except throttle, and trim), so you, the pilot in command, need only add power and fly the airplane. This will also prevent the gear retraction problem if your instructor is doing his/her job.

In my opinion T&G discipline should dictate:

  • Touch and go practice only after the student/pilot has mastered full stop landings and takeoffs.
  • Prohibit solo students from flying the touch-and-go while flying solo, at least until very near the checkride preparation stage.
  • Teach T&Gs, very carefully, as an emergency go-around maneuver in all airplanes.
  • Prohibit touch-and-go practice in all retractable gear airplanes, except for such emergency training.
  • Proper use of the instructor as a cockpit resource, if conditions or the operating environment require T&G practice in RG airplanes.
  • Prohibit T&G practice in tailwheel airplanes or any airplane at night — you can’t log a T&G as a landing under those conditions anyway.

BOTTOM LINE: In flight instruction circles it’s sacrilege to argue against that old standard, the touch and go landing. Do them only after careful consideration of the risks, and the published accident record.