Plane & Pilot
Thursday, April 1, 2004

10 Fast Fixes For Lousy Landings

Pilots put their passion and their pride on the line with every landing. Here’s some advice from the pros.

10-fixesPeople place too much emphasis on landings. Non-pilots often base their entire evaluation of a pilot’s ability on nothing more than the smoothness of the touchdown at the conclusion of the flight. Never mind that the pilot in command may have made a clumsy takeoff, forgotten to retract the flaps during climb, leveled at the wrong altitude, left the cowl flaps open at cruise, descended without richening the mixture or almost landed at the wrong airport—a smooth return to Earth usually forgives all sins.
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5. Memorize the climb attitude at Vy. If you’re flying an airplane you’ve never flown before, note the nose attitude at VY, the best rate of climb speed. You may be surprised to find that the airplane will hold roughly the same airspeed in a power-off glide at the same attitude. VY is often very close to the recommended approach speed. Yes, I’m aware flap configuration may be different for takeoff and landing, but you’d be surprised how often this trick will work. In a new generation Cessna 172R, for example, the manual suggests an average sea level VY of 75 knots for altitudes between sea level and 10,000 feet. A normal approach without flaps also can be flown at 75 knots. This trick won’t work on all airplanes, but it’s a good one to remember on many types.

6. Extend your sight picture. Where you look for proper depth perception during the final portion of the landing will vary from model to model because of the difference in cowling shape, panel height, windshield line, seating position and the phase of the moon. One fairly consistent rule, however, is to focus your eyes on a point far down the runway, say 15 to 30 degrees to the left or right of the spinner. (Left is usually preferred, though some pilots in tandem airplanes prefer the right.) Don’t try to focus too close to the airplane during the flare, as you’ll only see a confusing blur.

7. Make the flare in stages. The pilot in Tip #2 very well may be able to fly right down to one foot above the runway, level and bleed off speed to a perfect touchdown, but most of us will need a more gradual descent to the ground. A two-stage flare makes things easier, especially on an airplane you’re not familiar with. Aviation speaker and 8,000-hour CFI-AIM Rod Machado suggests maintaining 1.3 VSO “until [you’re] ready to begin the roundout, which normally occurs about 20 feet above the runway. Raise the nose slightly and the descent rate decreases, but the airplane continues to descend because of the increasing drag. It usually takes no more than two distinct attitude changes to land the airplane: the roundout and the flare.” If things are still happening too fast, Machado suggests you slow the flare and make the landing process easier by carrying a little power right down to the runway. “Don’t use [this technique] on short runways, in strong winds or when obstacles are present,” advises Machado.

8. Use landing simulations to extend flare time. If your landings are in a slump, you might practice increasing flare exposure, according to both Crystal and Machado. “During an actual landing, the [pilot] spends approximately 12 seconds in the landing flare. If it’s possible to accomplish 10 touch-and-goes in one hour, a [pilot] will acquire [only] two minutes worth of flare,” adds Machado. Both instructors suggest one way to practice fine-tuning the flare is to configure the airplane for landing, hold the exact approach speed and fly the length of the runway at an estimated two feet altitude. This will give you a better feel for the airplane and provide good practice at maintaining the proper flare height.

9. Try to make all landings main gear first unless you’re flying a taildragger. Whether you’re driving a 421C or a Cherokee Warrior, follow the traditional mantra chanted by instructors for years, “Hold it off, hold it off.” Prolong the flare as long as possible to rotate the nose as high as you can before touching down. Slower is nearly always better. Tricycle or taildragger, even the most responsive airplane in the sky can become a squirrel on the ground. If you’re deep into the stall when the wing pays off, you can even drop it in a few feet without bouncing.

10. Always brake early and in a straight line. Logic dictates that every pilot depresses the brake pedals before landing to test for resistance, but remember to test the brakes immediately after touchdown as well, just a light tap to make sure there’s braking available. Then, use whatever brakes are appropriate in a straight line. Don’t try to impress the locals with a screeching stop to make the first turnoff if there are 5,000 feet of runway and no reason to hurry. Wheel bearings are cheaper than brakes or tires.


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