Another Perspective On Landings

by Harold Green

Probably since the dawn of human flight, powered or otherwise, pilots have been debating the best way to land aircraft. The literature is filled with articles offering advice and/or promoting the author’s favorite approach. Further, the FAA has weighed in on the subject with advice and techniques in its publications. Not to be left out of the fray, the following presents another approach to this subject, but is limited to pattern operations.

First of all look at the basic goal: It is to arrive at a predetermined point on the surface, in a controlled manner, such that the airplane is in an undamaged condition and with insufficient energy to continue flight. Of course there are fine nuances to this. We all like to make greasers, or better yet, touchdowns so gentle no one knows for sure we are down. This discussion leads up to ways to achieve this, but does not discuss the touchdown itself. This method is not presented as the be-all-and-end-all of landings. You may or may not agree with this discussion and if not, that may be just as correct as what is presented herein.

As background, there are two basic techniques to employing power and flaps for landing. The first is the glider approach wherein the power is reduced to zero at some point, usually just before turning base, and the airplane glides to touchdown with the pilot using pitch to control airspeed, and power or flaps are used only if required to reach the touchdown point. This technique is useful in lower performance airplanes. The other technique is to use graduated power and flaps, as the pattern progresses. Usually this means full flaps on final and power until just before touchdown. This is best used on higher performance airplanes generally with higher wing loading and is the technique used in the big iron. This method discussed is independent of either technique and makes no judgment on them.

Consider the traffic pattern to be a series of ground reference maneuvers conducted in three dimensions instead of two. This method is based on the belief that good landings begin with a good approach. The ground references maneuvers referred to are 90-degree turns, tracking toward a target while holding altitude or attitude. Beginning students tend to over think a landing by worrying about it all the way through the pattern. Then, when it is time to rotate so the plane can do what it is going to do anyway, they are so concerned about getting it right, they get in the way of a good landing. By concentrating on each step of the pattern, this worry is delayed until the proper time.

A good landing begins when entering the pattern, whether it is at an uncontrolled airport or towered. By focusing on each leg of the traffic pattern as a separate maneuver, attention is kept on the task at hand and not on worrying about the touchdown.

Typically, the first consideration is the downwind leg. The distance from the runway depends on the airplane and the power technique to be used. Experience is the best guide here. After judging distance from the runway on entering downwind, it is more important to pick a target on the ground to track towards so as to maintain that proper distance from the runway.

Since the ultimate goal is to land, it is normal for the pilot to look at the runway. Since we tend to make the airplane go where we are looking, pilots often find the aircraft too close to the runway when turning base if they have been watching the runway. By holding altitude and tracking towards the selected target, there is a far less likelihood that the pilot will turn towards the runway.   Also, by maintaining the track, the pilot gains an appreciation for any crosswind component early on. This does not mean the pilot can’t glance at the runway to judge progress along it. It simply means that primary attention should be on tracking and watching for traffic, rather than the runway.

The next step is a 90-degree turn onto base leg. Again, there is a tendency to look inward toward the runway to judge the rollout point. Actually there is no need to look at the runway during the turn. In a high-wing airplane, the wing blocks the runway, and in a low-wing airplane, the downward view is blocked.

There are three issues with this: First, sighting down the wing, whether high or low, when it is pointed at the runway distorts the sense of height. Second, the degree of turn is not likely to be consistent from approach to approach. The result is that the distance from the runway approach end varies from landing to landing. This in turn disturbs the pilot’s development of position awareness. Third, while looking toward the runway the pilot is not able to watch for incoming traffic on a long final. A much-preferred technique is to focus on performing a 90-degree turn toward a target while also scanning for incoming traffic and then, when the wings are level, take a look at the runway and judge the aircraft height. When a 90-degree turn is completed, the runway will magically appear off the wing after the wings are level.

NOTE: I have never heard of a runway being moved once in the pattern, so I find no need to watch it during a turn. This gives the pilot an undistorted height perspective and, after picking a tracking target, allows more accurate assessment of wind effects on the airplane’s path, thus providing a more stable basis for judging when to turn onto final. If minor altitude adjustments are to be made, small changes to the track toward or away from the runway will accomplish this.

Again, when turning final there is no need to watch the runway during the turn. It will show up in the windshield at the proper time. The pilot need only wait. During the turn onto final, the pilot can also be watching for any aircraft that might be on a long, unannounced final, particularly at non-towered airports. After the runway is in view, the last portion of the turn onto final can be used to ensure that the airplane is on an extension of the runway centerline. At this point power and speed should be as close to final as possible.

The classic “stabilized approach” is critical to a good landing. Any change in aircraft configuration from this point on just makes a good landing difficult to achieve because it introduces new variables into the flight. The pilot should be able to focus on the projected touchdown point, while applying any required wind correction. Since the target point, without leveling to slow, is that point in the windshield, which remains stationary, the need to maintain a constant pitch angle is obvious in achieving the desired landing point.

A very common sin at this point, regardless of the technique used to get there, is that pilots tend to settle for pointing at the runway centerline, rather than being on an extension of it. Even if landing on a runway, which does not have a centerline, such as a grass runway, the airplane can be positioned tracking parallel to the edges of the runway, midway between them, and things will work just fine.

When approaching the runway at an angle, it is more difficult to judge touchdown point and height to say nothing of attempting to determine the effect of any crosswind. Therefore, it is very important to maintain the track along the runway centerline. Ideally, the final leg should be stabilized at least 250 feet above touchdown elevation. That is an FAA recommendation and one, which makes sense.

There is one more point about this turn onto final. That is, that we still have far too many stall-spin accidents from overshooting the runway and then attempting to correct with steep, uncoordinated turns. This is particularly a hazard when the crosswind results in a tailwind on base.

Since the pilot is tracking toward the downwind target, the wind will be a known factor, and therefore no surprises on base, so allowances may be made in judging when to turn onto final. If the turn onto final results in the need for an extreme turn to the centerline, it is time to go around and live to try again.

On final, the pilot can begin to make an accurate assessment of where the touchdown point will be. This is also the time to begin any corrections needed to compensate for crosswinds. Since we look for that point in the windshield that does not move up or down, it is important that the pitch be held as constant as possible during final. By beginning these corrections early, the pilot will have an opportunity to place the aircraft in the proper position for a crosswind landing, whether the technique is crab and kick or slip to landing.

In summary, this approach uses ground reference maneuvers which provide for a series of discrete stages in the landing pattern using maneuvers, which the student has learned already. These help the pilot develop a sense of where the airplane is, what the wind is, and a priority for performing those maneuvers. Once the procedure becomes second nature, the pilot will automatically pick out targets at unfamiliar airports without even thinking about it. When the tower says, “Extend downwind, I’ll call base,” the pilot automatically selects a new target and flies accordingly. Of course this is not a cure-all, but it does provide a possible tool for learning and teaching landings.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Email questions or comments to: harlgren@aol.com or call 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

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