Don’t feel bad when it happens to you, even spaceships bounce off the earth’s atmosphere if their reentry isn’t perfectly choreographed. What matters is that you have a game plan ready, to instantly execute, in the event a botched landing leaves you airborne, and a bit surprised at the top of a bounce.
In fact, let’s freeze-frame that picture in our mind—the image of you, in your airplane, at the top of an unexpected bounce, and a rather high bounce at that. You’ve come in for what seemed a typical landing and somehow things went askew. Maybe it was that tight base turn, resulting in a short final that never really gave you time to set up a stabilized approach. Or, perhaps you had a good crab going in a strong crosswind, padding the speed for gusts with a few extra knots for luck. In the commotion of kicking the plane straight and keeping one wing low into the wind, you forgot to bleed off all that extra speed and, whoops—before you knew it—a big bounce. Suddenly, you’re airborne, at a weird angle, with airspeed rapidly decaying. What would you do? What should you do?
When you have a bad bounce, or a series of bounces, you’re rapidly barreling into the realm of loss of control. You may regain control, but at that moment you’re on the fringe. There are a multitude of reasons why we can find ourselves at the top of a bounce. And those reasons are good to study—because if we can anticipate what sets up a bounce, we can minimize their occurrence.
Airplanes skip, and a skip isn’t the same as a bounce. If you’ve ever spent time at an airport watching airplanes land, from Piper Cub to Dreamliner, you’ll often see their tires touch the runway, momentarily gain a bit of altitude and then settle back down onto the runway. But if you note the longitudinal axis or the pitch of the airplane throughout the landing, it essentially remains unchanged. That’s a skip.
More than likely the plane has just a couple extra knots of speed, or its closure rate on the final portion of the flare is a tad steep, resulting in the wings still wanting to fly at touchdown. But the aircraft pitch remained the same, and within a second or two the plane landed, often without any passengers even really feeling the skip, because it’s that much of a nonevent.
Think of a smooth stone gently skipping off a pond’s surface. During each skip, the pitch of the stone remains the same, as it steadily loses altitude and energy, in a series of diminishing parabolic arcs. A bounce is nothing like that. A bounce is an unpredictable ricochet.
No matter what starts a bounce, you need to end it. Fast. Otherwise, a sequence can escalate, and at some point, gravity will take over. Crunch. One bounce often leads to two, and after that, there’s usually not a third, it’s more of an impact. Sometimes it takes just a single hellacious bounce to upset your airplane’s attitude, drain its kinetic energy and whittle the airspeed away. Either nose-high or nose-low, it’s a setup for a stall and you’ll hit hard. If your wing drops, then the sequence may become bounce—impact—cartwheel—crash.
Any size airplane is susceptible to a bad bounce. In 2009, on a sunny, clear day at Japan’s Narita Airport, a FedEx MD-11 (you might know it by its former life as the DC-10) bucked a 26-knot gusting to 40 wind all the way down a visual approach. Descending through 1,000 feet, the captain remarked to the copilot at the controls, “Yee-haw, ride ’em, cowboy.” The experienced crew was obviously aware of the winds. But the landing flare was initiated late, and the widebody jet bounced three times, then cartwheeled to an inverted position and burned. Both pilots, the only occupants of the cargo airplane, were killed in the explosive fire.
But it doesn’t always take strong winds to initiate a bad bounce.
A longtime family friend was recently flying his Cessna taildragger, practicing touch-and-goes at a local airport. There was nothing remarkable about the weather conditions, partly cloudy day, visual conditions. The surface winds were 10 knots, about 50 degrees starboard. And that’s all it took. The final landing turned into a bounce scenario, which resulted in the aircraft veering off the runway and impacting the ground nose-down. He lost an eye in the crash. Fortunately, for most pilots, the blow of a bounce is confined mainly to the ego. And if limited aircraft damage does occur, it’s generally of a nature requiring a call for a mechanic, not an ambulance.
Bounces don’t only happen to land airplanes. Seaplanes are notorious for it. Both floats and amphibious aircraft share the distinction of oscillating on the takeoff run while transitioning onto what’s called the “step” phase. If not arrested early, pilots can quickly lose control as the oscillations increase until the nose of the hull or the tips of the floats dig into the water on a down oscillation and flip the bird.
The last situation where you want to bounce a landing is at night or in low visibility, because it ratchets up the difficulty factor of the recovery. Why? Depth perception. My eyes went nearsighted at a young age, so there has never been a time as a pilot I haven’t been required to wear corrective lenses. One thing, however, that glasses or contacts could never conquer completely was my lackluster night depth perception.
So, of course, my very first commercial airliner landing, with passengers, was a “black hole” night approach to Fort Myers, Florida. Fort Myers was a bit infamous at the time for its lone runway, surrounded by nothingness, just featureless Florida swamp. Think aircraft carrier in a dark ocean. It gives pilots an illusion that the lighted landing strip is hovering above the dark landscape. The effect on depth perception can result in hard or even bounced landings.
Earlier in my career as a CFI teaching students how to land at night, I learned to compensate for my night depth perception by visually aiming all the way down the runway once transitioning from descent phase to flare. I don’t mean looking a few hundred feet down the runway. I mean looking all the way to the red lights of the touchdown zone on the opposite end of the mile-plus length of pavement.
The reason? Closure rate. The same phenomenon skydivers use when executing a landing. Experienced jumpers don’t stare straight down. Instead, they select a cue, a landmark, in the distance and note their closure rate with the surface. Not sensing the closure rate with the ground in an airplane leads to either end of the spectrum when the tires make contact—a hard landing, or if enough energy remains, a bounce.
One reason why pilots bounce more landings in strong or gusty crosswinds is because they white-knuckle the airplane, as anxiety builds, from descent to touchdown. All that white-knuckling on the controls leads to tunnel vision, as in a line of sight that’s directly over the nose. That sight line prevents a good sense of closure rate with the ground, and boom—a big bounce.
Some mornings I have the challenge and opportunity to teach a high school aviation class. Two of the students have already soloed real airplanes. The desktop simulators we use in the classroom mimic a wide range of aircraft, from aerobatic dynamos to vintage WWII warbirds. But regardless of what airplane they’re flying that session, I can observe standing behind them right where their line of sight is focused as they come in to flare. If they’re sinking too fast, I’ll tell them to look down the runway, way towards the opposite end. Suddenly, to a student, they will naturally arrest the sink rate, get into a proper flare, dissipate energy, and land. Bounce avoided.
Energy management is key in handling skips and bounces. In a skip, very little of the airplane’s energy is lost. The pitch attitude isn’t excessively nose-high or nose-low. The power may be on, or it may have already been retarded to idle. In a skip, it’s simple—all you need to do is not over-control. Hold the landing attitude and confirm the power is idle. Touchdown.
Recovery from a bounce means properly managing your airplane’s energy. Excess energy is what caused the bounce. That energy needs to be gently dissipated before the next attempted landing. If the bounce leaves the aircraft too nose-high, then the pitch must be reduced, not ever to a nose-down attitude, but instead to a normal landing attitude. In the reverse scenario, if the bounce leaves your aircraft nose-low, then you should take the opposite action and increase your pitch to a normal landing attitude.
Power can be added, if necessary, to re-stabilize the descent while keeping in mind if sufficient runway ahead remains. However, pitch remains the most critical aspect of control because, as you’re taking that extra second to add power, and the engine takes another to respond, your airplane is still moving in space throughout the arc of the bounce. Bounces that leave the aircraft excessively wing-low, or with the longitudinal axis not aligned to the runway centerline, must especially be corrected immediately to reduce the chance of a cartwheel.
The takeaway: Don’t overreact to a skip. Don’t underreact to a bounce. Maintaining a normal pitch attitude is key. Use power, if necessary, to arrest your descent. If there’s any doubt about the outcome, go around. Don’t wait for another pitch oscillation to occur to see if you can save the landing. Salvaged landings lead to salvaged airplane wrecks.
Airplanes sometimes do fly like a bucking bronco, a spirited animal that retains a bit of secret wild inside its wings. And during moments like a colossal bounce, it’s time to grab hold of the reins with certainty and show your stallion there will be no galloping out of control. Not today, not on your watch.
Kathleen Bangs has over 10,000 flight hours and is a former commercial airline instructor, check airman and 2005 International Aerospace Journalist of the Year. She can be seen on FOX News covering aviation breaking news.