We all know "those" kinds of pilots: They never bounce, are always down in the first few hundred feet, and put it on slicker’n a squashed gopher (I dare you). Irritating, aren’t they? But, the truth is that they really aren’t any more talented than we are. What they are, however, is determined to make landings as smooth as they possibly can, and they’ve worked on developing a few techniques that, when applied, make their landings works of art. Now, all we have to do is figure out what those techniques are and how to apply them. With the above in mind, and recognizing that every airplane and every situation calls for slightly different techniques, we’ve come up with what we think are the most important factors in creating our own grease jobs.
We’ve heard it from almost the first time we strapped in on an airplane: "The landing is made in the approach." And although it’s a cliché, as with most clichés, it’s repeated so often because it’s true, so the approach is where the first seeds of our grease job are sown.
1. Plan the approach and fly the plan.
Don’t just reduce the power and start meandering along a vaguely rectangular path that culminates “somewhere” on the runway. Visualize a definite path that ends on a specific spot. Don’t just let the approach happen. Make it happen.
2. Select speed points.
As you visualize the approach, identify specific speeds that you’ll have at specific points. Generally, it’s easier to set up the over-the-threshold speed as you reach your final configuration change and turn final, if not before.
3. Plan the configuration changes.
Don’t throw the gear and/or flaps out at any old time. Plan those the same as you plan the rest of the approach. And do it the same way every time.
A good landing begins with a stabilized approach. Visualize a definite path that ends on a specific spot, and make it happen.
4. Don’t trim to zero pressure.
Rather than trimming every bit of pressure out, trim so the stick/yoke is just barely pressing against your hand. This way, you’ll have a better feeling of what the airplane is doing, and what to do about it.
5. Keep the ball in the middle.
Except when slipping or fighting a crosswind, the ball should be nailed right in the middle. That greatly increases overall efficiency, which maximizes glide distance and keeps the turns cleaner.
Once we’ve turned final, the game becomes one of arriving in what some call the “rocking chair,” and others refer to as “the sweet spot—” in the exact spot over the runway, and in the exact condition and configuration the situation calls for. Every airplane has that “sweet spot,” but if we do a lousy job of flying final, finding that spot will range from illusive to downright impossible.
6. The numbers have it.
When on final, make believe the runway doesn’t exist, and focus all attention on the numbers. Using them as a reference all the way down doesn’t mean we’ll land on them, but it does guarantee we’ll touch down in the first 500-700 feet.
7. Throttle follows the numbers.
If doing a power approach, the throttle follows the numbers. If they’re moving up the windshield (away from us), we’re going to be low, and the throttle follows them. Just the opposite if they’re moving down the windshield.
8. Throttle movements should be small and on time.
We visually fixate on the numbers, and every time we see a movement in them, the throttle gently follows them.
9. Nail the speed.
Forget using a speed range on approach, e.g. 85-90 mph. Pick a speed out of the POH, and that’s the speed to be held within one or two mph.
10. Center that ball.
Letting the skid ball actually skid around wastes altitude and energy unnecessarily, and makes it difficult to maintain a given glideslope. If you’re off-center during turns, the altitude/energy waste is compounded by inaccurate ground tracks that must be rectified, further wasting energy.
11. Correct the crosswind a little early.
Don’t wait until flaring to put a wing down, and center the nose with rudder (side slip into the wind). Have the wind correction already in place before flaring, so you can concentrate on orchestrating the touchdown.
In The Flare
The flare is where the grease gets put on the “grease job.” This is where a thing of aerial beauty smoothly transitions to being a ground-bound vehicle that strives to retain a modicum of grace while begrudgingly giving up flight.
12. The first touchdown is a phony.
The phony touchdown could be visualized as a landing at roughly five feet in the air, where we set the airplane into the attitude and position that will serve as the perch from which we’ll gradually descend to the runway. We want to make this as consistent as possible.
13. We can’t control what we can’t see: Pick a reference in the flare.
While in that sweet spot at about five feet, focus down the runway, looking at both sides several hundred yards out. Don’t look only at the end of the runway. If you look at the end, it has to move a good amount in your vision for the correction required to be visible. If we glance back and forth at the sides, we’re creating a triangle with our vision and can see movements of the airplane more easily. Our peripheral vision will be sweeping from side to side, further helping us with seeing movements.
14. Have definite goals during flare.
Just like we had definite goals in the approach as to how it would be shaped and where it would culminate, the same is true during flare. We want to make the flare and the following landing “pretty,” for lack of a better word. We want it on the main gear, nose high, at minimum speed. And we want to roll with the nose clear of the ground for the early part of the landing roll until we make the decision to put the nose on the ground, rather than letting it fall. Accomplishing those goals requires extreme concentration and “making love” to the airplane: moving it with pressures, not pokes and jabs.
15. The best touchdown is one that’s a gentle touchdown.
The touchdown is the actual “grease job,” and just saying that you should make it gentle is one of those easier-said-than-done things.
16. The touchdown is a dance where speed is traded for altitude.
As the airplane slows down in flare, it will want to flop onto the runway unless we increase back pressure and the angle of attack. But if we pull too much, too early, it will balloon. This is where our eyes and our fingertips both talk to us. Our eyes tell us when the airplane is no longer floating but is slowly coming downhill. At the same time, we can sense the pressure in our fingertips decreasing, telling us that both speed and lift are going away: time to increase angle of attack (and deck angle).
17. Set a desired deck angle in our mind’s eye, and hold it.
There’s a limit to the deck angle we want. So as we approach, we set the ideal angle in our mind, and as we slow down in ground effect and hit that angle, strive to hold it, even as decreasing elevator effectiveness tells us to continue increasing back pressure. The “greasyness” of the grease job is rooted in the “touch” we have with the yoke/stick: Our fingers read the way the pressure is decreasing with speed bleed-off, and our brain combines that with what our eyes are telling us about the airplane falling toward the runway. Our mental computer is whispering, “Hold it off, hold it off,” and the way in which we obey determines the quality of our touchdown.
18. When you touch down, it isn’t the end of the landing.
A grease job means more than touching down smoothly and gently. To make it complete, the rollout has to match it for quality, and that includes the aforementioned gentle nosewheel-off-the-ground rollout. After touchdown, visually fixate on the far end of the runway and the top of the nosebowl. When touching down, note exactly where the nosebowl lies in relation to the end of the runway, and hold it there. This will require slowly increasing the back pressure as the airplane slows down. Gradually, the pressure in our fingertips will begin to decrease as the airplane slows. At that point, slowly lower the nose to the ground. We lose “grease job points” if we let it fall to the ground like a clump of dirt.
19. It’s all about consistency.
We can’t set up a good approach unless we’re in the same place on downwind every time to start the approach. We can’t hold the speed on final without being consistent with the nose attitude. We can’t hit the desired spot on the runway unless we do our best to hold the same glideslope. And on, and on. Inconsistency breeds inconsistent landings. Consistency breeds control, and with control comes grease jobs.
20. Grease jobs are an attitude, not a skill.
Grease jobs aren’t necessary for safety or efficiency. Actually, grease jobs are totally unnecessary. However, they come from an attitude that says that flying an airplane is more than punching buttons or pulling levers at the right time. They’re part of an attitude that buys into the concept that flying an airplane is an art to be understood and perfected, not a mechanical skill to be applied. And the difference in the attitudes spells the difference between people who simply drive airplanes, and those who make love to them. The latter are known as “aviators.” The former, simply “pilots.”