Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Paranoia Of Landings

Landings aren’t the most important thing, they’re the only thing—not

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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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