REAL “SMOOTH.” Though it’s not the most important yardstick, landings typically are the criterion on which a pilot’s flying abilities are judged by their nonpilot peers.
I had been hired to fly a Cessna 340 from Torrance, Calif., to Glasgow, U.K., on an Atlantic tour with the owner in the right seat. The first four days of the trip had gone well. We had departed Torrance, stopped in Denver and made it to Ohio the first day, then managed to have lunch in Bangor and fly on to Goose Bay the second day.
Our third day consisted of a fairly easy two legs, the first up to Frobisher Bay, Nunavut, and the second across the Davis Strait to Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland, to avoid some weather in the southern part of the island continent. We departed the fourth day and flew across the ice cap to Kulusuk, Greenland, refueled and went on to Reykjavik, Iceland.
The doctor who owned the airplane specifically wanted me to do all the flying while he shot pictures. He pointed his Nikon at everything that didn’t move, and some things that did, and he blazed through probably 100 rolls of Kodachrome during our trip. (Yes, this was a few years ago.)
Personally, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’ll sit quietly in the right seat and open my mouth only to avoid dying, if that’s what the client wants, but I far prefer to fly. The doc’s 340 was a nicely equipped and well-maintained airplane that he hardly ever flew (the all-too-typical syndrome: plenty of money and no time), and it was good for a solid 200 knots up high. The plan was for me to deliver him to Glasgow, then fly home on the jet and return 10 days later to make the return trip with him back to California.
The final leg of our trip was from Reykjavik down to Glasgow, where the doctor had relatives. Day five started on a low note when the weather went down in Iceland. I filed IFR to Scotland, launched into the murk, then was surprised to see a contrail streaming off the right wing. The right fuel cap had come loose after refueling, and fuel was siphoning from the right tank. The cap hung on by its chain, fortunately not bouncing around much.
Embarrassed by my stupidity for not double-checking the cap before takeoff (“Gee, Bill, I thought you’d done this before”), I throttled way back, climbed up into the clouds, flew to the outer marker and shot the ILS back into Reykjavik. I taxied back in, shut down, refueled, secured the cap and departed a second time, grumbling to myself. Fortunately, the good doctor seemed not to mind. It was just part of the adventure for him.
Then, level at FL190 some 200 miles out over the ocean, I apparently missed a handoff from Iceland radio to Scottish control and stumbled along in the murk wondering why no one was talking to me. No big problem, I just continued to fly my flight plan, but it was another irritation. Again, the doctor seemed totally unconcerned, but I was disappointed in my seeming stupidity. Scottish finally called and said all was forgiven.
Naturally, Glasgow had gone down below minimums to near zero/zero in rain and fog while I was en route, but my alternate, Prestwick, on the west Scottish coast, was still up and running because of 20-knot winds. I’d been into Prestwick many times before, and I knew the ILS for runway 13 came in over the water, so at least there was nothing to hit.
The first thing I’d done right all day was to execute the ILS in “snarfly” rain against a nasty right crosswind. I broke out at 700 feet, spotted the runway and somehow managed to make a squeaker landing. The doctor lavished me with praise for such a wonderful touchdown, apparently ignoring my earlier dumb transgressions, or perhaps he was just being a nice guy.
And therein lies the rub. Like any pilot, I’m happy when I make a decent landing, but long ago, I learned that’s definitely not the most important criterion for judging a good pilot. Obviously, every takeoff requires a landing, and returning to earth has never been my weak point. (I make enough mistakes in other areas.) I usually can avoid breaking anything, but while I’ve heard a few, “Hey, nice landing” compliments, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Wow, that was a great preflight/takeoff/climbout/level-off/cruise segment/descent/instrument approach [choose one].”
Nonpilots tend to hang their collective hat on a gentle touchdown, in both little airplanes and larger types. It’s true, “smooooooth” often seems to define success for the uninitiated in general aviation machines. That’s partially because passengers may not understand what other mistakes you’re making, even if they’re watching you make them.
Airline passengers are even more suspended from reality, because they can’t see what’s going on up front, and they probably wouldn’t understand it if they could. I have a friend who has been flying for a major international airline for 20 years; he’s a longtime instructor and, currently, a copilot on 747s. He remarked recently that he has seen some mistakes made by captains and other copilots that are automatically ignored completely or forgiven if the landing is smooth. “The passengers usually will never know about the mistakes in the cockpit, but they certainly understand the difference between a smooth landing and a hard touchdown,” said the first officer.
Student pilots also tend to grade themselves almost exclusively on their ability to land, never mind that they may have already partially tamed takeoff, climb, cruise and descent. I know of one student who started off with the usual apprehension several months ago, and who’s now doing everything well except the actual touchdown. She’s familiar with the discipline, has been bitten by the flying bug and truly wants to get her license, but she’s discouraged by her inability to return to earth with consistency. She feels if she can’t make a smooth touchdown, she hasn’t truly arrived.
We pilots sometimes contribute to landing snobbery without knowing it. One of the local airports here in the Los Angeles Basin has a nicely sheltered outdoor lounge area where pilots often gather on Saturday mornings to hangar-fly and grade the landings. The chairs all face the runway and have a relatively unrestricted view of the threshold and the first half of the uncontrolled strip.
It hasn’t happened yet, but I expect any day to see the hangar flyers using flash cards to rate the landings from 1 to 10. “Whaddaya think, Charlie: Did that Skylane look like about an 8.5 to you?”
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected]