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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.