On September 27, 1947, the USAF flew a Douglas C-54 across the Atlantic and landed at Brize Norton air base, 40 west of London–automatically, untouched by human hands.
I once rode in the jump seat of Concorde through a near zero-zero automatic landing at JFK. The visibility was so bad that when the FE called 14 feet (main gear above the runway information from the radio altimeter), my thought was, “you have to be kidding.” I hadn’t seen a thing up to that point except when looking down and the beautiful airplane touched down a moment later.
The British pioneered autoland mainly to address their famous fog. Today most jet airliners are equipped with autoland.
So if for the past 65 years we have been able to fly and land electronically, we should be able to teach a chimpanzee, or at least a pilot, how to do it with no trouble at all. That we can’t do this is illustrated by the fact that there are more accidents on landing than in any other phase of flight. That is especially pertinent when you consider that the actual time we spend in the process of landing can be measured in seconds.
The day might come when our light airplanes can be landed electronically. Until then we are left to study the subject and discuss it in never-ending explorations and discussions on the fine art of landing. Think along with me as I offer thoughts and then add your thoughts at the end.
I once wrote that I consider the arrival in two segments. The first is the approach. Many pilots hold that a long stabilized approach is required if it is to be followed by a good landing. I didn’t subscribe to that because there are a lot of approaches where you might need to hurry up because of a following airplane.
One thing is true: the approach absolutely, positively must be stabilized when the airplane crosses the runway threshold. If the speed and altitude are not precisely correct there, the likelihood is high that the landing will make you blush. If too much speed is carried into the flare, trouble doubles. An airplane decelerates half as fast in ground effect as it does out of ground effect.
All that is required to fly an approach that is not stabilized until the very last is an understanding of the deceleration characteristics of the airplane and a good plan to make the peanut butter and jelly come out even at the threshold.
The second segment starts when crossing the threshold. That’s when the thinking has to switch to the landing itself. On an ILS, the threshold crossing height is 50 feet or a little more and there, or perhaps slightly past that point, is where the landing itself begins to unfold.
The autoland system gives clues on how to make a graceful arrival.
As the airplane reaches 200 feet on the glideslope, the autopilot is flying a simple coupled approach with the autothrottles maintaining the desired speed. The airplane is still tracking the glideslope but the computer starts adding height and sink rate to the equation at 200 feet.
At 35 feet the “flare logic” takes over and the flare begins. At 20 feet the system starts to close the throttles and the autopilot lands the airplane. There is a 14-foot decision height call which gives one more point of reference on the descent.
When it is broken down like that for a computer to manage, it sounds simple. If a human can visualize those heights and judge altitude accurately as the airplane slows down, then he can land just as well as the computer.
There are, however, many other considerations. Most jet airliners approach in a nose-up attitude, meaning not much pitch change is required in the flare. In most light airplanes, there is more work to do. The difference in the approach attitude and an acceptable touchdown attitude is greater.
When a tricycle gear airplane is at rest on the ground, all three tires are on the ground. Obviously this is not an acceptable landing attitude. A proper touchdown comes on the main gear, with the nosewheel coming later. If the landing is nosewheel first, or all three wheels simultaneously, porpoising can occur with resulting damage to the airplane. This is one of the leading causes of landing accidents.
The thing that most often leads to an improper touchdown attitude is too much speed at the time the landing process begins and after the airplane is in ground effect.
When tricycles first started taking over from tailwheel airplanes, many purists thought full stall landings should be made in trikes, just as was most common with tailwheels. There are still some who feel that way and there is nothing wrong with that other than the fact that some airplanes, especially heavier singles and light twins, can be awkward in full stall landings.
Some tailwheel airplanes weren’t particularly happy with full stall landings. Three such that I flew were the DC-3, Beech 18 and Globe Swift. Most pilots made wheel landings in these, where the airplane is flown onto the runway in a more or less level attitude, touching softly on the main gear.
The three airplanes I mentioned had one thing in common: a big opening on a lower surface (wing or engine nacelle) that would start to scoop air as the angle of attack increased. That resulted in a rapid increase in drag and thus rapid deceleration right at the last and you had to be super quick of hand and eye to make a good three point landing in one of these. Most pilots didn’t even try.
Where to look when landing is a key point, especially on some airplanes. The Cessna P210 that I flew for years had such poor visibility out front that you had to look to the left and ahead (like in most tailwheel airplanes) to adequately judge altitude during the flare and landing.
If a pilot looked straight ahead, lousy landings would be the result. Yet after I explained this, some of the pilots I let fly the airplane adamantly stared straight ahead when trying to land. Predictably, they made lousy landings. I always thought that we made better landings in tailwheel airplanes because in most we were forced to look to the left and ahead to see what was going on.
There will always be questions to answer about landings. What do you think are the main ones? Choose from the following or come up with your own as well as any other thoughts you may have about the fine art of landing:
- Is landing the most difficult thing we do in flying?
- Are bad landings always due to poor approaches?
- It is another subject but is going around after the wheels touch the ground always a bad idea?
- What do you do to psych yourself up for a landing?
- Do you think simulators can have value in learning landings?
- What airplane that you have flown is the most challenging to land?
- Do you blush when you make a rough landing?
- Is there any one thing that you think really helps in judging height above touchdown during landing?
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Fascinating post, thx!
This link might be of interest:
I think currency/recent flight experience really helps when it comes to judging height above touchdown during landing. the first touchdown can be a little harder to judge after a month or longer layoff…also, I’ve found it does indeed help to make a mental note of rwy width before landing, especially if different from departure rwy..it is true that the picture is very different moving from 75′ to 150′ for example..landings are a very meaningful ingredient to what makes flying so special..I vote against automation!
It is indeed a great post, but I am curious about the value a simulator can have on practicing landings. It goes without saying the differences between real life flying an a simulator is worlds apart, but not having a pilot’s license, and playing hours on end on the simulator made me wonder. I specifically use FSX and FS 2004. I also have a very nice setup, from a CH Yoke, to flight pedals etc.
I find practicing landings on my home flightsim has been a great benefit in helping me to “grease it on” almost every time.
(CH Yoke, Rudder Pedals, MatroxTrippleHead2Go & Three Screens)
As mentioned in the article, breaking the landing process down into phases will help make for a good landing. A simulator helped me get my license by allowing me to practice the mechanics and techniques for landing. While it doesn’t provide the feeling of the airplane, it trained me to memorize what I should be doing and when. So throttle, carb heat, airspeed, flaps and turning points were not something I needed to spend much time in the air practicing. I’d practice it on the sim, and perfect it in the air.
(FSX, Saitek yoke, throttle and pedals)
The title has an implied contradiction with the text. My experience as a passenger on aircraft using autoland is those systems frequently result in some pretty firm arrivals–not many squeakers.
So the goals are actually different. Autoland gets an airplane to the runway within a certain distance from the threshold at a given speed and doesn’t care much about finesse. The goal of most little airplane pilots is to get that “squeaker” every time and that may not be the best thing to do. When I’ve got a gusty crosswind I’m much more interested in getting the airplane planted than finessing the arrival, for example.
Contrary to what you might think, my worst landings are at big airports like KLCK in Columbus OH. With runways miles long and nearly a football field wide I think there is a tendency to believe landing will be a piece of cake or because it is now baseball season a “can of corn.” The more likely outcome? Plunk and skid if there is a crosswind. My best landings are usually at Mallory Airport (WV12) in South Charleston WV. The runway is less than 2000 ft long and 24 ft wide. To complicate things there is a big hill to the northeast of the runway meaning all landings are from the southwest regardless of winds. To make the cheese more binding, the runway has a dogleg to the right 2/3 of the way up so your speed has to be under control to negotiate it. Finally about 1/4 mile from the approach end is a hill. You must cross that hill at 1000 ft. MSL and at 1.3 Vso or the landing is very much in doubt. The results there are usually “squeakers” because, well, everything has to be right and I am “on the stick” and focused on the task like few other landings. When I need to make a good landing I treat it like Mallory regardless of the size of the airport.
When landing on a really wide runway some pilots land closer to the left edge. Thay say that the edge of the runway and the grass on the other side helps them to judge height.I am not sure about that and still prefer to land in the middle, but not on the centerline lights if the runway has those.
One correction, the landings at Mallory are made to the northwest (Runway 33) the approach is from the southeast.
Excellent blog. I’d forgotten about the difference in deceleration in ground effect, the correct aeronautical explanation for “float”. As an instructor I think one of the most consistent landing errors made by primary students is an inability to line up with the center line on final approach, they almost always line up on the left half of the runway. About halfway down final I ask how they feel they’re lined up and of course they say they are on the center line. “Not a little left” I ask, “no I’m on the center line”. I ask again on short final when it is now very obvious they lined up left and still they cannot see it. After we land I ask again while we’re rolling down the left side of the runway and it is now pretty obvious. Most of the time they are still fighting the fact because they honestly believed they were lined up properly. I have asked other instructors about this and most of them report the same tendency but everyone seems to have their own theory as to the cause. Any thoughts?
My Instructor always insisted that I make the centerline “pass between my legs”. It worked remarkably well in getting centered before landing.
Shahrar has it right I think. It’s just an optical thing. If you’re sitting in the left seat you’re probably looking at the center of the cowling and lining that up with the centerline. His solution, which I’ve learned before, is just line up the RW centerline between your legs. In a small airplane, if you are exactly on with that practice, you’ll be to the right of CL a foot or two. But, in real life, you’ll be as close as anyone can get repeatably.
On Landings; Lining up and making the airplane touch down aligned with the runway is one of the main factors. The wheels do not roll well sideways. They need to have a straight with the runway alignment to make a smooth landing. Often if the tires in a light plane squeak upon touchdown…. they are sliding a bit sideways.
The observation that was made that a lot of folk line up the center of the cowling or spinner of a single engine plane and their eye from one side of a side by side seating in a plane. That of course makes sure the plane is a bit sideways and not aimed straight ahead. Finding a cowling screw, or a windshield attachment fastener… that is straight ahead of one’s eye and forward over the cowling is helpful. In a strange airplane… one you are flying for the first time.. get that “gunsight” screw located as you taxi out… make the plane track down a center line of the taxi-way… and select a “sight point” that looks right down that center line.
Like wise it is very helpful for the primary student to make a “straight ahead” mark on the windshield with a wax pencil…. and even one for the horizon vertically for level flight and climb or flare pitch attitude…. much easier that sorting it out on a transparent windshield. Mac
If I haven’t flown for a while or I’m flying an aircraft that I don’t normally fly much, I practice a few landings in my mind before getting into the aircraft. Making sure I’m familiar with all the procedures and v-speeds is an important step in pre-flight. Once I’m in the aircraft, I’ll practice it a few times at the controls. And, instead of waiting until I’m getting into the pattern, I’ll go through the motions while I’m still en-route. All the preparation makes for typically a FUN landing. When all I have to think about is greasing it, that makes it really enjoyable. A few days ago I was on final and at about 80 feet I came over the trees and got some serious left-to-right wind shear. I was so well configured that I relished the change from the norm and had fun doing it.
Along these lines, I think that TIME IN TYPE is the key. The more you practice and the more the airplane feels like a nice-fitting glove, the more precise your airspeed control will be, and the better the landings.
I also have to agree with Charlie’s thought: the bigger the challenge, the better the landing. Because the stakes are high, so your concentration is at 110%, and you’re going to nail the airspeed across the threshhold. I suspect bush pilots would say that the stabilized approach theory is humbug, because curving around a hill and chopping and dropping over 100 ft trees is anything but stabilized. But the bush pilot knows his airplane inside and out, and has the pitch and power control down to a fine art. Time in Type.
In my opinion the most critical part of making good landings is looking far enough down the runway to accurately judge your flare height, and to enable you to make small corrections to guide you down the runway instead of late, dramatic movements. For me this is most evident when landing at night with the landing light on. My tendency is to stare at the point where the landing light hits the runway. My landings are actually better when I have the light off and use my perepheral vision to judge height and “focus long”.
Due to the lack of depth perception and feeling of acceleration I’ve always found simulators useless for landing practice.
I concur with Murphy: One must transition his or her eyes way down the runway (while still using peripheral vision to the sides) to get the right feel for when — and how much — to flare. This is, as he noted, especially useful at night, when one is looking at two long lines of lights heading towards each other at the distant vanishing point.
Another issue is flying multiple airplane types: something that is typical for CFIs. I find it useful to remind myself (silently) when I line up for take-off on the runway that today I’m in a T-182, or a Diamond Twin-Star, or a DA-40, … and this is how high I sit when the airplane touches down back on the runway. This mental snap-shot resets my visual expectation for when I return to land.
There’s another interesting point here. Should we continue to teach full stall landings as the preferred method? I think it’s usually much harder than “driving it on.” As Richard says here, that’s the way to go on some big taildraggers. Unless I’m landing at a short strip, I like to carry a little power into the flare–especially if it’s windy. That doesn’t mean I fly 15 knots fast, by the way.
Curious, mine were not squeak squeak, but AAAAA! Then thunk (long pause) thunk, (swearing under breath) thunk and bump and maybe squeak and WHEW! Great post, thanks!
I liked Shanes discussion of the importance of lining up on the centre line. I recall a discussion many years ago with a fellow airline instructor who had been training a command candidate. They were doing circuits at our training aerodrome in the days before simulators. The student just could not seem to align with the centre of the runway on approach and landing and in his frustration at last asked the instructor, “what is so special about the centre line”? The instructor told me he thought for a moment and then replied, “nothing really just that it is reserved for captains”. This resulted in an increased attention from the student and eventual improvement in accuracy.
John, I loved the instructor’s reply!
Lots of good discussion here. When I was based at Chicago Midway, they always wanted 140 kts on instrument approaches, so I don’t think long stabilized approaches are necessary for a good landing. I think looking to the side a bit helps with height reference. Narrow runways seem to provide better reference than big wide ones for us little airplane guys. It seems to me most Cessnas I have flown like to land slow, and some need to be slow to keep the nose gear off. The big Pipers, especially the T-tail Lance can be driven on a little faster for a good landing. If conditions are nasty, and the landing is looking bad, go around.
I fly a Cessna 180 with a huge hole cut in the bottom for an aerial photography camera, and it is a real challenge to make a nice 3-point in! I appreciate you pointing out the “air scoops” on the larger planes which are difficult to three-point as that is likely related. Nice “wheel landings” are far easier to make, although of the planes I have flown, this is one of the more difficult to land smoothly in any attitude. Perhaps it also has to do with being near gross weight all the time.
I think any precision maneuver while flying is difficult, but landing is the only one we really have the ability to judge in such small increments. Flying photography, I can tell you that it can be just as much of a challenge to maintain 10 feet vertically and stay on the centerline of a GPS course within 60 feet for several miles, depending on the wind gusts and terrain passing by the windows.
Stabilized approaches definitely are the best start for a good landing, but I think that is in part because I begin to hold myself to a higher standard before the absolute necessity of landing, giving some “warm up” time prior to actual landing.
I have a habit of wiping my hands to be sure they’re nice and dry and doing a little shimmy on the rudder pedals to check everything on the downwind… kind of wakes everything up after a long flight.
My two cents: simulators are great for some things but useless for landings.
Going around after the wheels touch can be very valid, in my opinion. I think adding power can add controllability by getting more air over the tail, thereby “straightening out” what could turn into a ground-loop.
However, I saw firsthand (from the downwind) what a mistake it can be as well when a Champ which had gotten 90 degrees to the runway added power and actually cleared the side fence, only to stall-spin into a rooftop. Miraculously there were no serious injuries. Had the pilot accepted the ground loop the damage to the airplane would have been assured – considerable to none, but likely repairable – and lives would never have been in jeopardy. As it was the plane was totalled.
“Relax your eyes” said my instructer. Avoid developing tunnel vision as you approach touchdown. A year later I read the exact same advice in Langeweische’s “Stick and Rudder”. Pilots tend to fixate on one single point in reference to the aircraft like along the left side of the cowl or down and to the right. The trick I find works best is to keep your your eyes moving down, to the side and along centerline. This way you can keep track of the changing perspective as you come closer to the ground.
All of us sailplane (glider) pilots are very much intrested in good landings too as we only have the one approach to get it right! Some sailplanes are tail-draggers, some nose draggers/skids. And we have spoilers, flaps, and sometimes both for glideslope control. We also usually have a crowd of fellow pilots watching to grade each landing, and suggestions for improvements are readily made.
Excellent discussion. A few observations:
1. Landings can be very tricky depending on many factors: aircraft type and configuration, approach type, glide slope, wind direction, wind shear, gusts, turbulence, visibility, clouds, runway width, runway slope, runway surface and markings, adjacent structures and landmarks(buildings, antennae, hills, woods etc. which may affect visual perception and wind/turbulence), and are therefore usually the most challenging part of any flight;
2. Landing involves flying any aircraft close to its minimum speed with all associated handling issues;
3. Landings usually occur at the end of a flight – the pilot is at his/her most tired point of the flight and must re-focus.
No surprise these three factors combine to create the most mishaps in those few minutes of an entire flight!
As to the use of simulators: no matter how good and useful they are, no simulator can induce the ‘fear factor’ – you will never die! You can learn many things, but ultimately you MUST experience and handle that ‘fear factor’…
Finally: I am convinced automated systems will eventually take care of all the above mentioned factors that influence landings, including the ‘fear factor’…. but still a pilot must be able to take over if the system fails… how do we take care of that and handle these issues in the mean time?
I have seen many tricks/hints in the discussion, but the one that works for me is…. well…. mine! You have to try them and find your personal preference that works for you, and even that may vary per aircraft type, approach type and weather..
A go around after the wheels touch? I would vote for that as a bad idea. Once you are on the ground, a decelerating crash is much preferred to an accelerating crash. Sometimes you can get away with it, but usually by the time things are so messed up that you feel the need to get out of the situation, it too late to go around. That’s an area where glider training is good; teaches commitment to landing.
I agree that knowing how to execute a successful go around is essential if it’s the right option. I have found that many students want to execute a go around when they still have a lot of usable runway. I think that sometimes we teach students to land on or close to the numbers and from that they develop the idea that if it looks like they’re going to land a little long they should abort and do a go around. If I can get them to wait and hold the airplane off they are often amazed at just how much runway is available to complete a landing. I think that we develop some bad techniques in initial training that we then don’t really question and they become habits. As an instructor myself now I look for those opportunities to start the right way, I certainly have learned from others and from reading how many bad habits I have acquired and need to change.
What is a stabilized approach? Clearly the pilot has to be in control, etc, etc. But most of the descriptions I’ve read or heard are similar to the Supreme Court Justice some decades ago, when talking about pornography, couldn’t define it but said he knew it when he saw it.
So, what are the elements of a truly “stabilized approach”? I’ve even read that it only matters for large airplanes/jets. Help a student pilot out and let me know what a stabilized approach is in your opinion.
A stabilzed approach is one where the airspeed is correct and the airplane is following an electronic or visual glidepath to the runway. The Supremes were right, too. If you know it when you see it then you know how to do it.
I am currently under training for my commercial license and flying a DA 40. And i have learnt the following things in order to make a good landing:-
1) Approach speed should be perfect (75kts for our a/c) to get 2 white & 2 red on PAPI
2) Just before entering the r/w check 75kts
3) After crossing the r/w nos. fly parallel to the r/w & shift our vision to far end of r/w and through peripheral vision check for r/w edges to get broad.
4) Once they start diverging on the corner of our eyes, smoothly pitch up slightly.
5) Feel the sink
6) After u have felt the sink bring the a/c to a landing attitude.
7) After landing on main wheels hold the nose wheel up for a few feet then let it down smoothly.
As long as flight instructors – who should know better – keep conflating “roundout” with “flare,” we will continue to produce pilots who cannot land airplanes with any consistency.
The OBJECTIVE of the roundout is to arrest the descent of the vehicle. The OBJECTIVE of the post-roundout flare is to rotate the vehicle into a nose-up attitude that is adequate to present the vehicle to the runway surface main-wheels first.
Naive insistence upon determining the perfect instant at which to execute a flare (from a glide to the runway environment) is the number-one cause of landing frustration – and accidents.
Tom, can you elaborate on this? Are you advocating separating the arrest of descent from the pitch up to touch with the main gear? Because they’re part of the same process I don’t make the mental distinction, but I’m interested to hear your reasoning.
Tom, I also have to admit that I’ve missed your point somewhere. What are you proposing as an alternate instructional method?
If I understand it correctly, I agree 100%. To me, landing is a 2 part process. First, stop the descent and get stabilized. Second, get into the proper attitude and touch down. I think it’s hard when we try to teach new students to do both at the exact same time. Nail the approach, then nail the roundout. Only then can you make a good landing.
Murphy: Sure. The common mistake is to try to pick some exact position in God’s sky, during an approach, at which to terminate the glide, and “assume a landing attitude” (i.e., “flare”). Do it too soon, and you baloon; do it too late and “thump, bounce, etc.” hence, the frustrating search for “that perfect moment.” It’s a fool’s errand, because it ignores the sequence of objectives that define proper approach and landing procedures.
The first element of the solution is to understand that each landing process (we’re talking about final approach here, not traffic-pattern procedures) consists of five distinct steps – each of which has its own objective:
1. The Glide (“approach” objective: place the vehicle in a position and at an energy level from which a successful landing on the available runway is possible)
2. The Roundout (objective: arrest the descent)
3. The Flare (objective: present the vehicle to the runway surface in a landing attitude – this includes more than pitch, but let’s not complicate the discussion, for right now)
4. The Touchdown (objective: cease flight; commence surface-vehicular-operation)
5. The Rollout (objective: maintain control of the vehicle, while decelerating to safe taxi speed)
Each of these five objectives has its own standards for success and its own set of typical causes of less-than-stellar outcomes – and recommended remedies. When examined in this detail, it becomes more apparent that any attempt to achieve these objectives out-of-sequence is conceptually flawed. And no matter how well one executes a flawed concept, the outcome itself will be less than optimum.
When instructing, I present flying as an exercise in management by objective. If you know what you’re trying to achieve – in sufficient detail – you’ll be able to select methods/techniques that will allow you to achieve your objectives consistently. I use the same method when teaching the five steps of a takeoff. It seems to work well – the agency has sent me a plethora of “problem students” whose principal problem was just unenlightened instruction. But hey – I’m an engineer, so I just approach everything this way! One man’s “over-analysis” is another man’s “breaking it down into little pieces.”
Hi Tom, That might be my issue. The whole things not broke the trick is to identify what part is. So could, would you explain the 5 steps for the take off? Once and awhile my lift off gets aggressive and needs to be relaxed.
My landings, the full stall kind need help. Sometimes I nail it and it feels right all the way down and sometimes it feels right and I’m glad its over. Maybe when I take your list and dissect what I’m doing. Lets hope. Thanks
The method I favor most in teaching is a “modified soft-field” one. I’ll explain. Full-stall landings may be the Holy Grail for you and/or for your instructors. But firm arrivals do little for your bird, your passengers, or your ego – unless you’re hooking the 4-wire on an aircraft carrier.
I’m a firm believer that first you crawl, then you walk, then you run – even if a 4-minute mile is your goal.
The transition from step 3 to step 4 of the landing can be dependent upon your definition of “a landing attitude.” I’m willing to tolerate a somewhat liberal definition, to the point that I don’t insist upon a full stall attitude. Why not?
First of all, excepting the rarest of conditions and constraints, it yields no real value. The difference in braking energy (and the distance in runway roll-out distance) between an adequate and safe, nose-up attitude at the instant of touchdown versus the same metrics in a full-stall “tail hook scraper” attitude is trivial. Sincere apologies to my bush pilot friends, but they take on a requirement to get into and out of strips that challenge the book performance capabilities of their machines. In primary flight training – certainly pre-solo – we’re not yet interested in exploring those limits of the machine. Remember “crawl, walk, run?”
Okay – so what’s the downside of insisting on achieving a full stall landing? Increased (and I assert unnecessary) degree-of-difficulty, elevated frustration, consequent lessening of readiness-to-learn, reduced confidence, abused airplanes, and higher-than-necessary student drop-out rates, to name a few.
Let me be clear here: I’m not exhibiting a tolerance of three-wheel touchdowns, by any means. But the flare attitude that I advocate is very similar to the rotation attitude that I’ll describe for you as part of my response to your request for a breakdown of the takeoff process.
So – my “five steps to every takeoff” list (cat shots off of the forward deck exempted):
1. The initial Ground Roll (objective: acceleration of the vehicle to near flight speed)
2. Rotation (objective: presentation of the wing to the relative wind at an angle of attack adequate to achieve a high coefficient of lift)
3. Liftoff (objective: full transition from surface vehicle to flight vehicle)
4. Initial Climb (objective: accelerate to conditions-appropriate flight speed [best-rate, best-angle, etc.])
5. Secondary Climb (objective: maintain speed and configuration appropriate to cruise-climb profile)
You mentioned an “aggressive liftoff.” I’m going to just guess that you’re referring to one of two phenomena:
1. Over-rotation at ample flight speed, which results in a very high nose-up attitude, perhaps with the stall warning horn blaring, and a prompt and firm request to “lower the nose” from that other guy
2. Sustained ground roll to a higher-than-necessary speed, followed by a hot leap off of the runway
Both of these phenomena result from improper rotation technique, which itself usually results from inadequate understanding of the takeoff process – including improper/inadequate use of rudder control.
Flying lessons are expensive, often costing more than $100 per hour in the vehicle. So here’s some homework that will cost you little but your own time, but which may help you save several hours of expensive flight time:
1. Visit an airport that has a pretty good level of light-airplane activity. This is your basic nice-weekend, $200 hamburger kind of situation, probably with some flight training thrown in for good measure. Now, place yourself in a (safe) position from which you can watch all of the takeoffs of “the little guys.” I will bet you lunch at the airport restaurant, that you’ll observe ¾ of the airplanes lowering their right wing immediately after takeoff – regardless of the direction of the wind with respect to the takeoff runway. Why do you suppose this is?
2. Visit an airport that has a pretty good level of big-airliner activity. Again, assume the position, but I want you to locate yourself far enough down the runway that you see the takeoffs from somewhat in front of (rather than behind) the spot where the airplanes completely lift off of the runway. Now watch a bunch of takeoffs. Carefully.
The first difference that I want you to notice, between the little guys and the big ones, is that the big guys seem to roll along on their main wheels for a long time after rotation. It’s not really all that much time, but I want you to buy in to the idea that a Rotation is NOT the same thing as a Liftoff. And that the two things do not necessarily happen virtually simultaneously.
Let’s go back to the wing-lowering little guys. Wassup wit dat? In my first sentence (about an hour ago), I said that I favor a “modified soft-field” takeoff/landing technique. Somewhere, your books and/or your instructor taught you that the nose wheel is lifted from the ground as soon as possible in the classic soft-field takeoff procedure. This is done before the airplane has accelerated to a safe flying speed; careful pitch control allows the airplane to continue to accelerate to flying speed while only its main wheels still are on the runway.
Now think back to the big-guys’ takeoffs, where the rotation most observably is a separate event from the liftoff. Now recall my winning bet. What’s happening with the little guys, that causes most of them to bank to their right, immediately after liftoff? P-factor-induced yaw, and their failure to recognize it and/or to use appropriate rudder control to manage its effects. Yup – they revert to “car-steering mode,” using the steering wheel to turn to the right, to counteract the airplane’s “uncommanded” turn to the left.
One really instructive thing about “early” rotations, is they provide you with an opportunity to roll along on your main wheels for an interval before the liftoff occurs. Once the nosewheel no longer is in contact with the runway, the airplane is free to pivot about on its main wheels (your instructor can demonstrate this safely on the ramp) if it is induced to do so by some force – like that mysterious P-factor that you keep hearing about. What I try to develop in my students is their perception of and reaction to that left-turning behavior that occurs at the instant of rotation. “How much right rudder should I use,” they ask. “As much as it takes to achieve the desired effect,” I always answer. I then take them out onto a wide asphalt runway, accelerate the airplane to Vmu (the speed at which you can lift the nose high into the air, but well below the speed at which the plane will ever leave the ground), and demonstrate that the rudder alone has sufficient authority to S-turn the airplane all over the runway – without any help from nosewheel steering. Then I let them practice this exaggerated rudder work, while I mind the throttle and elevator (it actually helps to have the student let go of the yoke for this – it reinforces that the “steering wheel” is not the proper weapon for dealing with yaw).
A little more patience, and I’ll tie this all back together.
Remember the “rip it off of the ground” technique that can be one of the embodiments of those “aggressive” takeoffs? You start to see this more in private pilots than in students (absence of instructors), but pilots whose rudder use could use a little polish often discover a “clever” technique for dealing with that horrible sensation of “being crooked” during the transition from ground roll to full flight. Their clever technique involves holding the airplane on the ground with the elevator, until it has PLENTY (read: way too much) of speed, and then yanking it into the air – thus shortening the interval of unsettling crooked aeronautics down to a handful of milliseconds. Whew – thank God that’s over!
Don’t let subliminal “yaw apprehension” turn you into a takeoff yanker! (This is starting to sound like a recent series of Comcast commercials!)
All of my students get a briefing that lasts about an hour. We go over the five-steps takeoff, with amplification of the objectives, methods, typical errors associated with execution of each step. We review the traffic pattern in the same way, then the five-steps landing stuff, again with amplifications. Nobody gets into the airplane until they understand what it is that they’re trying to accomplish (their “objective”). Then we crawl. Then we walk. Then we run. Then they fly.
This didn’t last for an hour (really!), but I hope it helps you a little bit. Keep flying safely!
Somebody forgot to mention all this to the NASA pilot who landed the 747 with Discovery on board at Dulles en route to the museum. He knew he would have a huge TV audience so he sat up straight and did it right, a seamless transition from flight to touchdown. You sure couldn’t see a roundout and then a flare. In truth, it is all one thing, a landing.
My point in all of this has been that the Roundout has the objective of arresting the descent, which has the observable consequence that it adds a curved flight path segment to the end of the linear one that terminates at the beginning of the roundout. My definition of the Flare is the assumption of a landing attitude – which you want to do just prior to touchdown. Flaring early (whether at too high an altitude and/or at too high an energy level) is a recipe for less-than-stellar results.
The flight path of the shuttle (sans 747) is a fabulous example of the roundout-before-flare phenomenon. I don’t have a handy link, but I’m sure that NASA has some available videos that show good visual evidence of this.
It’s easy for a heavy to seemingly “skip” the two-step here, principally because such vehicles’ final-approach (glide) attitudes already are noticeably nose-up; they require little additional rotation before touchdown. Of course, they also fly powered drag-em-in approaches – not required by nor recommended for light trainers in the traffic pattern.
A good example of landing-attitude-flight all the way down final to the runway surface is an F-18 approach and trap on the deck of a carrier. It’s admittedly simpler (in theory), but it lacks… gentleness.
Experienced pilots can think of it all as just a landing. In fact, they don’t even think about it – they just do it, and do it well at that. But beginners often don’t have that luxury. And when they are told to fly a glide to the runway, and then to flare at just the right instant, they can start to think that developing the judgment to find that perfect instant may be beyond their talents.
By explaining that “before we actually land, we’d like to bring the descent rate of the vehicle to zero” (again, not like the F-18 technique), “THEN we will allow the aircraft to touch the ground, in a flared attitude,” we encourage them to react to what’s actually happening during each attempt, rather than allow them to believe that at some magic moment they have to do something dramatic.
It’s nice to know that somebody reads these posts!
In the beginning, I had a problem with gauging my altitude over wider runways than my home one (35′). I always had a tendency to level out higher than I should because it looked like I was really close. I eventually got over that. There are no lights at my home airport so I have to practice night landings somewhere that does, when I will be staying overnight, since I can’t go home until the next morning. Not too long ago, I was doing that and mis-judged my height, dropping the plane the hardest I have ever done. The next two landings were much better, so it helps if you land on different width runways from time to time.
Tom, thanks so much for the five step breakdown and explanation. I was doing fine with my landings through solo and trips around the pattern a few times before heading out on my cross country. I ballooned badly a couple of times and find myself in a place of apprehension. I’ll be taking my CFI up for the next flight or two for practicing your suggestions and settling back down again.
As a new pilot I do find this article very helpful. Ive always had a problem with flaring but now that I can go into my approach & set up correctly my landings are gettng better, but to hear about the 35 ft flare & 20ft decrease in throttle I believe will be very helpful. thank you
Short story about centerline problems. One day, I was flying a check with a student who was lining up left of the centerline. He was consistent, landing in about the same point each time, but just left of center. I challenged him to land right of center thinking that would cause a landing on centerline. Nope. He landed perfectly centered on the right. After having a good laugh, I then challenged him to land on the center. I think he didn’t realize why I wanted or he needed to be on center. He and his CFI went to several much narrower fields with crosswinds at a later date.
“It’s nice to know that somebody reads these posts!”
I have not only read your posts, but I thoroughly enjoyed them. I sorted out my landing tecnique many years ago flying T6s care of the Italian Air Force, I have flown military heavy metal and I ended up instructing in an Operational Conversion Unit on TF104G. All I can add to your lucid dissection of T/O and landings is that the basics are all there and a pilot who has acquired and digested those principles has the tools to progress and adapt them to any type of machine. I now fly a Christen Eagle and an RV7A, completey different tecnique at touch down, one three pointed (stalled) the other on the main wheels with enough energy to keep the notoriously delicate nose-wheel off the ground for as long as possible, however the five points you describe in your post are present and recogniseble in both approaches.
Hey Tom! Now I can SEE it! I like my instructor a lot. He has made sure I can fly with out looking at instruments and insists on stick and rudder skills. He was finely able to force me to understand how valuable the rudder really is. Like the other fellow he took the yoke and throttle and I did a LOT of air work with only the rudder. It was a windy gusty day and I was surprised how with only rudder recovery from some very extreme attitudes was possible. I really don’t like the yoke, in planes with a stick the steering wheel thing doesn’t seem to happen and makes more sense.
Dick, I was inquiring to see if you’ve published any articles on landing a C206. I own a 206 and do OK with my landings but only seem to grease 1 out of 20 landings. I feel my approach is pretty good and everything is set up the way I want it. I come across the threshold with 15 inches of MP and 80 mph. As I start my flair I work out the rest of the power. My problem seems to be the last 18 inches to 2 feet it just wants to fall out and land heavy. It’s not what I would call a hard landing but it’s not a real smooth one. I’ve only bounced the plane twice since I’ve owned it. I typically land with 20 degrees of flaps. The plane does have vortex generators. I feel like I’m missing something. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!
It has been a while since I landed a 206 but as best I remember the stick forces become quite high as the airplane is slowed for a landing. This was also true of my P210. There, if I would think of it, right at the last I’d guve a little extra muscle to the pull on the wheel. If that was timed perfectly it could result in a nice landing. If not, well, you seem to know the answer to that.
Interesting article, and lots of good posts here, too. Landing is the most difficult thing we do, I think, and I really look forward to it. Once you’ve flown a few times, flying is actually kind of boring, landing is where the challenge, and therefore the fun, are found. Bad landings are not always due to bad approaches, maybe the worst landing I ever made (after I learned to land), was on a student solo x-c, I flew a nice, long, stable approach to a long, wide runway with a direct headwind, and managed to drop the airplane the last 5 feet. I don’t have to psych myself up for landings, like I said, they’re where the fun is and I’m always excited to try and do a perfect one. I took my first lessons in a Champ with instructors who insisted a full stall 3-point was the only way to land, which made it really hard to get landings down well. When I later transitioned to Cessna 152’s & 172’s, I made a bunch of bad landings trying to do full stall, highly flared landings. Those planes are not built to land like that, they land much better in a flatter attitude with the nose wheel just barely off the runway. As for go-arounds after the wheels touch, you should have done enough touch and goes to know how your airplane performs, and if you somehow have landed too long and too fast, converting the landing to a touch and go may be your best option. Under any other conditions, I believe you’re much safer staying on the ground once there.
Thanks Dick, this is always a favorite subject. A few observations. Not all autolands are smooth as silk. Landing is an art, not a science. Otherwise, we would all be able to make consistently smooth landings under total control all the way to taxi. Yes, I still blush when a landing isn’t all I had hoped for. I can make more consistently good landings in an Airbus than I can in my Bonanza. The Bonanza moves around much more than the Airbus in variable winds. I know that wing loading is the reason why, but it is true none the less.
Whether we like it or not, our piloting skills are often judged according to how well we land the airplane. I have always found that looking far down the runway during the flare makes for the best landings. When I used to teach, I had some students fly down the runway inches off the ground at MCA. This was to give them the sight picture of what things look like just before touchdown. Frequently, they would touchdown during this maneuver and it would be the best landing they had made to date. We would follow this with power off over the runway with the student trying to keep the wheels off the ground. It worked like a charm.
Crosswinds, gusty winds, or no wind, it was all about maintaining positive control throughout the landing.
As with most if not all of his columns it is a repeat of the books he churns out.
You have it wrong, Sam. The columns come before the books and I haven’t written one in a print magazine since 2008. I will say that when you have written twelve books, almost 2,000 magazine articles and script for a whole lot of videos you are bound to repeat some things. My kids said I made a living rearranging words and if you have kids you know you can’t win any arguments there.
Awesome discussions Very informative and helpfull I can’t wait to go and try these procedures in my landings
I only have twenty five hours in my log book and actually had better landings when I had 18 hours of flying
The last few hours have been very discouraging thought about what I am doing wrong and reading all the posts here has really helped me realize and actually visualize my landings
I do agree with the fact that a landing is a single thing but for a student pilot it is a process of multiple steps that must be learned step by step and then performed seamlessly as one very fragile process that can go wrong at any moment considering all the factors that can effect a landing
Please don’t be discouraged by the fact that yournlandings seemed better at 18 hours than they do now at 25. Flying like any thing else comes with a series of rises and plateaus relative to our acquired skills and abilities. Part of this equasion, at least in my opinion, is due to the fact that when we very first attempt something new, our understanding and therefore our self analysis is quite low. As our understanding starts to improve the analysis (overthinking) begins to escalate leading to the plateau periods. This is normal and is natiral for the vast majority of us regardless of the endeavor. Golf, any sporting event, anything requiring eye/hand coordination. Don’t beat yourself up, enjoy the ride and understand that all the different phases along the way are part of the grand journey. Blue skies.
I land a Cessna 180 on very narrow and short strips in the out back of Honduras. I used to do full stall, three point exclusively. Then, after buying a tail wheel gear $trut several years ago I now only land on the mains and slowly ease the tail down as softly as possible. :) Most of us are not aware of how much weight rest on a C180 tailwheel. With practice, short field technique is not compromised by using just the right amount of power.
I appreciate the words of encouragement and also the fact that you took the time to help me
I can assure you that I am not at all discouraged
This was a great review. I read everything by Mr. Collins I can find. I started lessons when I was 56 and as you might guess, had a little trouble with the flair in the 172. I eventually got the hang of it. After I acquired my own 172 and landed many times, my landings melded into a soft field technique almost all the time. A little power along with a little more yoke pullup
to dampen the last few inches, I don’t have to worry so much about the timing and height so much and I can use more of my attention on alignment, and wind.
Dick I remember reading that in one of your books way back, and I used it and thought why didn’t I think of that. It made a lot of difference. No matter what aircraft I owned or rented, the second I started to flare and couldn’t see over the cowling, I would tilt to the left to see better. Not always, but lots of nice squeaks.
Add that to my many thanks for all I learned from you over the years.
1-Is landing the most difficult thing we do in flying?
Difficult? Not sure. Fun? Hell, yeah.
2-Are bad landings always due to poor approaches?
Not always, but often enough to be taken in consideration.
3-It is another subject but is going around after the wheels touch the ground always a bad idea?
Not at all. It’s not over until it is over.
4-What do you do to psych yourself up for a landing?
Focus on it as I approach the threshold.
5-Do you think simulators can have value in learning landings?
Certainly. My last recency was obtained on them – although I agree that is easier to land a simulator after you know how to land the real type than the opposite.
6-What airplane that you have flown is the most challenging to land?
P-56, a type similar to the cub. Among tricycles, the Seneca I was somewhat challenging – weird trim, poor power.
7-Do you blush when you make a rough landing?
Not as much as I used to.
8-Is there any one thing that you think really helps in judging height above touchdown during landing?
EGPWS :-) I’ve landed on “mute” jets, worked fine. But the 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 call really helps to get you back to the deed.