Practicing “incorrectly” is good practice

Ask any aviator and you are likely to confirm that it is the rare flight where everything goes exactly as planned – the dynamic nature of aeronautical conditions and the complexity of our flying machines ensures that at least some small adjustments have to me made as we go along. The better we are prepared for mildly unusual conditions, the more equipped we are to face them at short notice. I feel that the introduction and practice of atypical scenarios in aviation during training and maintenance of currency is invaluable, and encourage pilots to exercise the following situations carefully, possibly in the presence of a CFI.

Item 1: Approaches at Maximum Speed

For the instrument rated pilot, rather than relentless practice at the usual approach speed of 90 or 100 knots, it is very helpful to rehearse and become familiar with approaches at your maximum airspeed on occasion, limited by the green arc of prop rpm or manifold pressure. Clearly this primarily applies to “light and slow” piston single planes, which are inherently quite filled with drag even in their cleanest configuration – that is, Cessna 172s, smaller Pipers, non-turbo 182s, and similar, with maximum speed 130-150 knots or so.

Green arc
Can you fly an approach at the top of the green arc?

Why would you ever want to fly an approach at the maximum speed you can? The main reason is that if you plan to ever go into busy airspace or any airport served by turbine traffic, a fast approach will be often be requested; ATC will ask you to keep your top forward speed. Flying the maximum speed makes the sequencing much more facile for the controller, and will get everybody to their destinations quicker. While this is a request and not a requirement, and “unable” still works, it is a wonderful privilege that we are able to go into airports alongside commercial jets, and it is our duty to keep these privileges by minimizing disruptions to other traffic when able.

There is not too much difference between flying an approach at 90 knots and 120-140 knots except that responses to heading deviations happen significantly faster at the higher speed, and overall events happen more quickly. Ironically, the effects of crosswind and required wind angular deviation are reduced at higher airspeed (think of the wind triangle with a fixed base leg, extending the other two sides decreases the wind correction angle). As you go faster, you are more likely to approximate the actual magnetic runway heading on your final approach course. Occasionally faster approaches, for this reason, can be easier than slower as the wind has less time to change and angular corrections are minimized.

Airports that would ask you to fly approaches at maximum speed typically have very long runways, so configuring the plane for landing once the runway environment is in sight is rarely a problem. Remember, if a 350 ton 747 can touch down at the same speed and come to a halt before the end, your piston single can, too.

A few modifications in technique from standard approach warrant mentioning. The first is that in low ceilings of 200-300 feet, you will possibly have to do several configuration changes while keeping the runway in sight right before touching down. Generally I prefer full flap landings in almost all conditions, but your airspeed will be well above full flap ranges in most aircraft when first seeing the runway.

Once the runway environment is in sight, smoothly pull the throttle to idle and verify prop at lowest pitch, and put in 10 degrees of flaps (or the maximum permissible by the airplane POH near cruise speed.) You will feel the aerobraking relatively rapidly. It is very important not to “balloon,” as with an increase in altitude the runway may disappear; fortunately the effects of vertical visibility versus skew tend to make the runway easier to see as it approaches and becomes below you. Holding altitude, the speed will bleed off slowly at first, and when at the top of the white arc full flaps can be selected, which will produce a rapid loss of speed – be prepared for a change in pitch attitude with the flaps application – with most Cessnas there will be a nose-down moment.

From there, the standard nose up inputs will be needed for a standard flare and landing on the mains. Remember, you will often have two miles of runway, making landing a relaxed, easy process despite the required and varied control inputs and feel of the plane.

Item 2: Misconfigured takeoffs and landings

The reason for practicing misconfigured landings and takeoffs is more clear – one day you may put the flap lever down and the flaps will remain motionless. Rather than do extensive troubleshooting in the air, it is often a good decision to set the craft down and figure things out on the ground; and knowing how the plane lands without flaps, how much runway will be expected, and getting a good feel of the handling in a controlled environment pays dividends.

Flap switch
When’s the last time you practiced a zero flaps landing?

For the flap up landing, find a long runway and land with 0 flaps – note the approach speeds and the change in approach profile. It is instructive to see why standard approaches are at such a shallow angle, and why you can have white / white on the PAPIs and still place it on the numbers with the Cessna with 30 or 40 degree flaps. Become comfortable in slipping the plane to rid yourself of excess energy as the plane will be much more “slick” without the flaps.

A few things that you may consider experiencing are significantly more dangerous, and think long and hard before attempting (or do this with the watchful eye of a CFI). First is the excess flap takeoff – most light planes have maximum recommended takeoff flaps around 15 degrees. Many will take off at 30 degrees but have very strange characteristics, with a very slow roll and a possible tendency to “wheelbarrow,” with the mains lifting off before the nosewheel.

Some aircraft may not be able to climb well, or at all, with full flaps deployed. It may be useful to just experience the (lack of) acceleration with full flaps on the roll before retracting them to appropriate settings – this simulates a “touch and go” with slow flap retraction, or what you may feel if you ever fail to retract the flap when doing “the option.” Experiencing this in a controlled environment helps with immediate recognition if the real thing ever happens.

Item 3: Tailwinds

A third strange sensation that I would encourage all aviators to experience is that of landing with a tailwind. Why? Well, the short answer is that winds can shift, and particularly at towered airports you may be requested to use a runway that can, perhaps transiently, have a tailwind component. Alternatively, you may use an outdated or distant AWOS on a non-towered airport and land downwind at that moment. Whatever the reason, experience gained from learning the very strange cues that accompany even a mild tailwind when landing is invaluable.

There have been several loss-of-control crashes that likely have contribution from tailwind patterns, more recently with the crash of a Cirrus by a confused pilot who made several high approaches in Texas and made a crosswind leg into a gusting tailwind and stalled/spun to ground. Understanding the visual illusions that the pilot experienced is instrumental to appreciating how this crash could occur.

172 on landing flare
With a tailwind, your groundspeed might make you feel like you’re flying a lot faster than you are.

There are some strange sensations that are present when landing an aircraft downwind. Under normal VFR flight conditions we have a subconscious feel for how the airplane operates with regards to external references; we may judge our rate and angle of climb by the relation to the trees at the side of the runway, or our height relative to the end of the threshold as the ground rushes by. We may be learning the “angle of climb” for our aircraft.

With even a minimal tailwind component, this angle of climb relative to the outside fixed references will markedly diminish, things will feel “wrong” and the plane’s performance may feel simultaneously good (high ground speed) yet inadequate (slow climb rate) – even though it is developing normal power. In fact, with the increased groundspeed from the tailwind it may feel as though we are going “too fast,” or certainly “fast enough,” and a pilot may feel the need to hoist the plane upward or even throttle back.

With any attempts to return to the normal angle of climb relative to ground references, the angle of attack may be raised and airspeed reduced, and if excessive, a stall may result. In the case of a tailwind we may need to refer to instruments often, even in VFR conditions, in order to accurately judge our airspeed, and by surrogate, angle of attack to the incident air. It may feel as though you have a high groundspeed and anemic performance of the aircraft.

In order to experience this, be sure to find a good CFI and an extremely long runway and one that is clear of obstacles, and keep in mind that minimal tailwind component, say, 5 knots or so, is sufficient to experience the illusions. Take adequate precaution to ensure that no other traffic will be operating on the opposite / correct runway, and obviously do not do this if there are other airplanes in the pattern! Note how a long landing is easy to do with such a high groundspeed, and the feel of “low performance” during the climbout.

Item 4: Heavy aircraft

W&B form
The numbers may add up, but the feel of the airplane will be different at higher weights.

“Everybody knows how a Cessna will fly with two people in front and full fuel,” my instructor once said. This is absolutely true, and I vividly remember the first few times I was exposed to an airplane that was edging toward a different side of the envelope. The first experience, for most of us, is during our initial solo where the plane is markedly more high-performance and perhaps a bit less nose-heavy. The second “first exposure” was when I took several friends up, and despite the math saying it was all OK, the plane just felt “different” with the increased weight and aft CG.

During or after training, if not already familiar, it is useful to experience the aircraft with a less nose-heavy center of gravity, or at higher gross weight. Be sure to do the appropriate calculations and stay safely within CG and weight limits, and account for the fact that an aged engine may not produce full rated power. The simplest thing to do is invite a friend or two (depending on their weight and your plane) up to observe a lesson with your CFI when somewhat near to maximum weight.

Note the control input and trim changes, and how the plane handles differently than before, and how climb rates and inputs for takeoff, landing and flare are altered. Check your takeoff to 50 ft. distance and landing roll against the calculated book numbers. With a Cessna 172 or other small plane, the differences are easily felt, and again will be less surprising when you have to do it “for real.”

Experiencing the out of ordinary situations in a controlled environment can pay dividends. Find a CFI and try a few of the above before your next flight review, or even on a sunny weekend for fun. It will make you a better pilot.

4 Comments

  • A couple of thoughts:

    It’s been awhile since a tower asked me to maintain best forward speed–I guess they don’t have much faith that it will make much difference because I’m flying a P172D (“hot rod” version though it may be, all they see is a 172). But that was a common request when I used to fly a friend’s 231 Mooney into old Denver Stapleton, frequently during “bank time”, when there’s a big influx of airliners. I got pretty accomplished at meeting tower’s needs and still getting slowed down enough to safely land, but it did take practice–Mooneys don’t take well to landing too fast.

    However, on the advice of the examiner when I took my IR ride some 42 years ago, I have always flown pretty fast instrument approaches, even in my poky little P172D. With my airplane, my approaches are faster than Vfe by a few knots. When the ceiling is pretty low, I’ve found it easier just to land without flaps rather than change configuration at the last minute, since most instrument runways are plenty long enough. With other airplanes which have faster Vfe, then I’d rather have approach flaps in all the way down from the FAF and again leave them there for the landing, rather than change configuration at the last minute. If the ceiling is relatively high, though, and I’m certain that there’s no wing contamination, then I’ll slow down after breaking out and apply more flaps for the landing, depending on the crosswind.

    On the heavy vs. light aircraft handling, that’s definitely an issue with 4 place airplanes but especially crucial with 6 (or more) place airplanes. The difference, for instance, between a lightly loaded PA32, 206, 210, A36, or any of the light 6 place twins and a fully loaded one with the CG at the aft limits is dramatic. Any thorough checkout of any airplane which has a wide CG limit should include flying it fully loaded with an aft CG, including especially some stall practice.

    Good article.

    • Thanks for the comment. In busy airspace I have still quite often had the approach controller ask what my best forward speed is. They often won’t even make the explicit request, but flying 120 kts gets everybody there quicker and is, with practice, no more difficult than 90 kts.

      I also agree regarding loading – exploring the handling envelope is a very good idea, particularly if the pilot is paying quite close attention to the feel of the plane. As you said, the changes are often not subtle!

  • A few years ago I was doing a night flight for currency in Western Australia. Flew to a field about 40 minutes away from home. Listened to local weather, observed the steam plume from a nearby factory, set up for landing and found myself overshooting. Went around and headed back to my home field, arriving after the tower closed. Picked up the ATIS and observed the windsock agreed – 1 kt headwind on the chosen runway. Again found myself overshooting so went around and on downwind took a look at the GPS groundspeed to find at 1000′ the wind was about 060/20Kt and at ground level 240/1Kt. No abrupt change, just a steady reduction in windspeed all the way down. Ended up flying a very long final, but in hindsight probably should have taken 1Kt tailwind for the landing.

  • Absolutely, the winds aloft can be significantly different from those at the surface. A runway on a mesa will also behave quite differently from one surrounded by trees that shield the wind or any venturi effects.

    Sounds like you handled it fine, but I would have also taken the touchdown tailwind also.

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