Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Challenging Runways

How to handle tough landings

Runway Challenge Factors And What To Do About Them

Although there will always be hyper-challenging runways, like the circular ones Helio Courier pilots use in the Brazilian jungles, most of the factors that make a runway we’re likely to see challenging are much less exotic.
  • Length. How short is short? It varies from airplane to airplane and pilot to pilot because of the skill factor we were discussing earlier. Most GA pilots think a runway starts to look short when it’s less than 2,000 feet, which of course isn’t for most GA airplanes. The POH ground roll on a C-152 is around 475 feet, while a Bonanza is less than 750 feet. So what makes 2,000 feet short? First, we’re not used to seeing such a short runway and too many of us leave too much pavement behind on touchdown. Get the airplane down in the first 500 feet and you’ll find landing on a 1,500-foot runway will be a piece of cake. Put a little wind on the nose and it’s even easier.

  • Slope. Slopes, either up or down, create an optical illusion that can best be combated by focusing on the threshold and keeping it stationary in the windshield. (If it’s moving up, we’re low, moving down and we’re high.)
  • Approaches/obstacles. Having to fly over or around something to get at the threshold requires a little planning. If runway length isn’t a factor, then set up a glide slope that gives a normal margin over the obstacle, knowing we’ll land a little long. If getting in short is a necessity, then a short-field approach where the airplane is more dependent on the throttle as we’re closer so we can drop over the obstacle is a possibility. An alternate is to fly the approach to a point just above the obstacle and slip down. Obstacles on a short runway demand more skill and judgment than most landing situations, and wind can sometimes make or break it.
  • Topographically generated turbulence. If the topography or buildings at the end or sides of the runway are such that crosswinds really beat us up, we need to pick an approach speed that’s just high enough over the normal approach speed to give increased control in the flair. Even so, every effort should be made to get rid of that speed before we touch down. Speed is our enemy on touchdown. And on short final we keep our eyes on the trees, windsock and anything at the end that will give us a clue as to what the wind is doing right where we’ll be touching down.
  • Skill means that you have the airplane so wired that whatever the runway or local environment throw at can safely land it.
  • Cross-runway slope. A runway that slopes from side to side isn’t seen often, and it’s very weird when encountered. A nosewheel airplane wants to turn down the slope and a taildragger up the slope, as gravity tries to pull our CG downhill. This is one time you ignore your butt and concentrate on the windshield.
  • Dipped runways. A runway that’s high at the ends but low in the middle can be a real chore to land on because, as we’re in the flare, the runway is falling out from under us, then suddenly comes up to meet us. Takeoff is something of a challenge for the same reason. We want to be off before we hit the up-slope section. When landing, this is one place where putting the airplane down close to the end of the runway really pays off. Carry any excess speed at all and we’re guaranteed of floating downhill and slamming into the upslope.
  • Runway surface (rough, slick, corrugated, undulating, etc.). If runway length is a factor then runway surface is, too. A shorter-than-normal runway means we’ll need braking to get stopped and a rough or slick runway means we’ll have minimal braking available. So, we just assume we won’t have braking and make a short-field approach as we attempt to touch down just past the threshold at minimum speed. Then as we do use the brakes, try not to lock them up and use them sparingly. If it’s soft, we hold it off in a soft-field type of landing.
  • Carrier-type runways. The psychological effect of looking at the end of the runway like the fantail of a carrier has a tendency to make us land really long, which isn’t a bad thing as long as the runway is available and we’re doing it on purpose. The reason it’s not a bad thing as long as we don’t overdo it is because if there’s a measurable wind, there’s likely to be a curl right at the end of the runway where the wind rotates down. So, have the throttle hand ready to get into the action in case the airplane tries to settle.
  • Big controlled airports. Big controlled airports are a challenge only if you’re not used to a fast-talking tower. All you have to do is say, “Say again?” a few times and the tower will slow down for you. They recognize the newbies. If they don’t, ask them to slow down.
  • Busy uncontrolled airports. There’s no spookier situation than trying to fit into the pattern at a fly-in or a busy uncontrolled airport. First, when entering the pattern, cross the runway from the other side at least 500 feet (1,000 feet is better) above pattern altitude and not only look for traffic, but scope out the surroundings and windsock to better understand what you’re likely to encounter on approach. Hopefully there’s an active Unicom, but don’t expect everyone to talk on it. In fact, assume they won’t so it’s a see-and-be-seen type of situation. After flying over the airport, back out and come in on a 45 angle to the downwind, so you have some time to see where everyone is. Announce your position and your intentions on every leg. And again, when someone says they’re on downwind, look for them, but remember the ones giving position reports aren’t the problem. It’s those who aren’t talking you have to look out for.

So, never stop looking. Or talking. At an uncontrolled airport there always will be someone flying by his own rules, so really keep the old eyeballs moving.

The Key Is Proficiency

When it comes to handling challenging runways, there’s simply no substitute for proficiency, which comes via only one tactic: intelligent practice. Get out there and rise to the challenge of new runways. The more you face the challenges, the quicker they’ll seem to disappear.


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