Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mysteries Of Landing

No, this isn’t the 11,398th story on how to land an airplane

We've all read our share of stories on how to land an airplane, many of them written by pilots with "CFI" after their name. These are usually intended to convince us that the writer has the straight scoop on the proper method to return an airplane to Earth. Right up front, it's important to emphasize that this is most definitely NOT the straight scoop on anything. In fact, I won't be surprised if some CFIs, far more learned than I, take issue with my suggestions. Rather, this is a recounting of lessons learned from making most of the mistakes you can make between entering the pattern and the actual touchdown. In almost 50 years of flying, I've made them all, or at least all that I could come up with. You'd think I had deliberately planned to screw up every possible approach and landing.

Perhaps the amazing thing is that I've never busted an airplane. Well, okay, there was that '76 Piper Lance in Ethiopia back in '98 on its way from Santa Monica to Nairobi, Kenya. The big Lycoming ate a valve four hours out of Djibouti, disassembled itself in about two minutes, and forced me to plant the airplane into the remote Ogaden Desert, harvesting acacia trees as I went.

Certainly, I've had my share of engine failures (Question: What do you do when the engine quits? Answer: Land), 13 at last count. One of them (two of them?) was a double, a Crusader over Tchibanga, Gabon, in 1984, that suffered massive fuel contamination in a fuselage ferry tank and killed BOTH engines within about 10 seconds. (No, there was no sump drain—clients aren't big on drilling new holes in the bottom of the fuselage.) Somehow, I've been fortunate to find airports or unpopulated roads to land on without damage, definitely more luck than skill.

So, for whatever it's worth, here are a few things I've learned—or at least absorbed—over the years. These are experiences that allowed me to get older without growing up, interesting moments that sometimes taught me what not to do.

Brake Failure
It was the first Extra 400 ever ferried across the Atlantic, and my trip north from Aachen, Germany, to Wick, Scotland, and second leg to Reykjavik, Iceland, had been fairly routine. I dropped out of the clouds over Reykjavik at 500 feet on the ILS to see runway 19 straight ahead, partially shrouded by light snow. Out of habit, I tapped the brakes to make sure they were there.

They weren't. I pumped furiously as I neared the ground, but there was no resistance. I touched down more or less normally, but I knew runway 19 at Reykjavik is downhill to a lava field. Without brakes, I'd stand almost no chance of stopping, and would probably leave the airplane in pieces on the lava beach or in the bay beyond.

The only answer was to go around. Predictably, the controller was more than a little surprised—"N400EX, what are you DOING?" I explained my situation, and advised him I planned to orbit out over the bay below the overcast until I could come up with Plan B.


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