Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Challenging Runways

How to handle tough landings

What makes some runways more challenging than others? The length? The wind? What you had for breakfast that morning? What? What, for instance, would make a 5,000-foot runway that’s perfectly flat, has flawless approaches and is at sea level a difficult runway on which to land? Well for one thing, let’s say that both the pilot and copilot had the fish (always have the chicken), they’re passed out, you’re the only pilot on board the 747 and every other airport in the area is klagged-in. You’re facing a runway that would normally be a no-brainer but you’re way over your head. This may be a B-movie plot, but it illustrates a bunch of points that are worth considering when discussing runway challenges.

Airplane Type

If you’re flying a Super Cub, there aren’t too many runways that you’d consider short. If you’re trundling around in a Bonanza, however, you’ll be a little pickier. Lear drivers start evaluating length and runway characteristics before they ever takeoff. Different airplanes require different runway parameters in different situations.

Pilot Currency

If the flight attendant came back and asked, “Are you a pilot?” and your answer was, “Why yes, I have 17,000 hours in 747s,” that would be one situation. Quite another would be, “Yes, but I’ve only flown Cessna 172s.” The level of both proficiency and currency in the airplane has a lot to do with how well you’ll do in different situations.

Aeroflex-Andover Airport (above) poses many challenges to pilots, including a short runway, aircraft carrier-like runway ends, side-obstacle turbulence and a drop-off curl. In such cases, wind conditions make all the difference.

Pilot Skill/Proficiency

Within certain limitations, it often isn’t what you fly, but how you fly it. Grizzled old bush pilots, for instance, think nothing of plopping a Super Cub down on a bathtub-sized sandbar, while the rest of us flying the same airplane wouldn’t try that on a bet. Being able to fly an airplane isn’t the same as being skilled at flying it. Skill means you have the airplane so wired that whatever the runway or the local environment throw at you, if the airplane can handle the situation and the runway, you can safely land it. Regardless of how well suited the airplane is to the runway and vice versa, if you can’t make it dance, you’re out of luck on that particular runway and it’s time to go someplace else.

Every runway we ever even consider landing on should be judged against
the background of airplane type and how well we can fly that airplane. Then, and only then, can we start evaluating the sometimes complex variety of factors that can make a runway or an airport challenging.

Constant Game Changer

Wind isn’t only continually changing, but it also has the ability to totally change the challenge quotient of a given runway, for better or worse, regardless of what airplane is being flown. Any wind that has a vector down our nose, regardless of how crossed it is, is our friend as it slows us down. And wind on the nose makes an airport longer. Even a few knots on the tail, however, make it much shorter. Then there’s the gust spread and general personality of the wind that can make short final a nightmare on some runways.

Psychological Factors

Let’s be honest about it, there are certain factors about runways that generate illogical fears. Generally, those factors are borne of us having to land in a situation that’s far removed from what we define as normal, and some of those fears make no sense at all. For instance, landing on a narrow runway that’s bordered by ditches scares the socks off of most of us even though we’ve not once run off a runway, so the fact that there are ditches out there should make no difference. Or the runway is perched on top of a peak, like an aircraft carrier. We’ve not once landed short of a runway and we know to land just a little long on this one, so the fact that we’re staring at the end of an aircraft carrier on approach shouldn’t make any difference, but it does. And the fact that it bothers us means we have to concentrate on doing what we know should be done and not let it distract us from the job at hand.


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