Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Staying Centered

If you’re a pilot, there’s more to staying centered than transcendental meditation

One way to correct the problem is to note the crosswind direction and make a SWAG estimate of corrected heading after liftoff, then adjust heading in flight. Another method is to look back through the rear window (if the airplane has one) and make certain you’re tracking directly outbound from the runway. Many urban airports have runways aligned with local streets, and that’s another way to check your outbound track.

Takeoffs and climbouts aren’t the only time you need to consider staying centered. It’s equally important on landing, perhaps even more so considering that you’re decelerating from a higher speed to start with. Holding the centerline on touchdown can be especially critical, for several reasons. If you did blow a tire on liftoff and didn’t know it, your first indication of trouble will come the moment you contact the runway. If you’re flying behind a nosewheel, you’ll at least have the option to recognize the problem and either continue the landing or go around and consider your options. If it’s a main gear that’s problematic and you’re not on centerline, you may find yourself in the weeds faster than you can think about it. That’s all the more reason to give yourself every advantage by touching down dead center.
Takeoffs and climbouts aren’t the only time you need to consider staying centered. It’s equally important on landing, perhaps even more so...
Another cardinal rule I’ve always been taught is to always brake in a straight line from the center of the runway, and test the brakes immediately on touchdown, even if you’re flying a 152 into the space-shuttle runway in Florida. That way, you’ll know if you actually have brakes and fully inflated tires on both sides, and you’ll have time to correct if you don’t.

Once you’re down and everything seems to be tracking normally, don’t worry too much about how much runway you use, as long as it’s not more than you have. Remember that it’s all yours if you need it. Don’t try to impress yourself or anyone else by screeching to a stop to make the first turnoff. In fact, some pilots (typically owners who have to pay for brakes and tires rather than renters who don’t) prefer not to use brakes much at all if there’s plenty of runway. It’s easier on your nerves and easier on the airplane.

Similarly, never try to turn and brake at the same time. In addition to the side stress it places on the gear legs and tires, extreme examples can lead to wheelbarrowing in nosewheel airplanes. Brake the airplane down to walking speed before you try to leave the runway, and don’t drift to the left or right side after landing in preparation for making a special taxiway. Hold the centerline until you know you can make the turn easily. You can blow a tire or lose a brake as easily at low speed as at high velocity.

I know tracking down a runway with the white line directly beneath the center of the airplane is a little counterintuitive. You don’t drive your car that way. (Okay, some people do.) Just remember that the tricycle configuration of most airplanes is far from ideal on the ground. Airplanes were meant to fly, not drive. Give yourself every break (brake?).

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