Some thoughts on landings

I was TERRIBLE at landings. Not just bad–TERRIBLE. I either stalled the plane at three to five feet (or more) above the runway or drove right into it. My airspeed control was marginal. My sight picture was non-existent. I was always in a hurry to land. I had no patience. Crosswinds were a total mystery to me. The plane was flying me, not the other way around.

172 on landing flare
Fly the airplane–don’t let it fly you.

I went through three different instructors (including a couple of senior people at the FBO where I learned) as well as a couple of the “good sticks” to try to figure it out. Nothing was working. I was ready to solo, but I couldn’t get signed off, because I couldn’t land. At the time I owned one-third of a 1952 Piper Tri-Pacer and really thought I might never learn to land and actually considered the necessity of having to sell it.

One gray late spring day in 1975 back with my original instructor, we were out attempting landings on Runway 32 at KITH. It wasn’t going particularly well. On this day, I was stalling the Tri-Pacer at three to five feet and dropping it in like a ton of bricks. On the third landing “attempt,” my instructor let me drop it in from about six feet. The landing gear did fine (Tri-Pacers landing gear have bungee cords which can take amazing loads), but I cracked the left rear window right by the air vent. The crack was less than one inch long and non-structural. “That’s it!” I thought, “My flying days are over. I’m done!”

As we taxied off the runway, I started heading to the ramp. My instructor, very gently and totally out of his normal character, suggested we try one more takeoff and landing. All he said to me was: “Fly the airplane. Don’t let the airplane fly you.”

To my complete amazement, the next landing I made was fine. So was the next one, and the next one. Some were better than others. But all were safe. It all came together day on Runway 32 that gray spring day. A week later I soloed.

I can’t describe everything I do when landing, but there’s a picture in my head of what an airplane looks like when it touches down. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Tri-Pacer, Skyhawk, Mooney or an Aerostar. With nosewheel airplanes, the touchdown picture is pretty much the same. Oh there are type differences and nuances. Mooneys need to be “really” slow or will float forever. Tri-Pacers have a really short wing and need to be quite close to the runway before flaring. It’s easy to land a Seneca on its nosewheel unless the speeds are just so. I tend to land the Aerostar a bit fast on long runways; it’s easier to grease it on by carrying a couple of extra knots.

But in every situation, the thoughts of 1975 always come flooding back–fly the airplane! Don’t let the airplane fly you! Do whatever you have to do to put the airplane into that landing attitude over the centerline and aligned just before touchdown…you can always go around! Work the controls, all the controls, to get the plane into that landing attitude right where you want it. I never think about what happened during the approach, what the passengers might be thinking, just what’s in front of me right now.

Other random thoughts on landings:

– Landings are the culmination of every hand-eye skill ever learned in flying (except possibly aerobatics).

– EVERYONE, airline pilots included, have had landings they’d like back. For those of us who also fly on the airlines a lot, there are certainly “stinkers” more often than many would like to admit. And this is happens with pilots who do several landings “EVERY DAY.”

– Landings can be fun. Landings can be challenging.

– The centerline is your friend. Always land on it.

– There are only three ways to get good and stay good at landings. Practice, practice and more practice.

  • Go up with instructors on good days, bad days, blustery days, rainy days.
  • With an instructor, go looking for crosswinds. If the wind is right down the runway at your home field, find a field with a crosswind. I’ve gone to airports with cross runways just to practice on the runway with the crosswind.
  • Learn to do spot landings. Pick the 1000 ft. marker. Practice until you can touch down there every time. Then pick another spot–the numbers or 2000 ft. marker. Pick a different runway. You’d be surprised how different making changes can be.
  • Same for landing on wide runways and narrow ones. When we purchased our Aerostar 17 years ago, I spent a few hours practicing landings and takeoffs on a 3400’ x 75’ and then on a 3000’x50’ runway with good approaches.

– If a club CFI or other CFI asks you about your landings, be candid with them. Are you totally comfortable with every landing and situation? Do you find yourself thinking about something that happened on the approach rather than what’s in front of you? Are you letting the plane fly you?

– Fly with others who are good at landings. Ask them questions about their landing techniques…what works, what are they looking at, how they deal with crosswinds, etc. I’ve learned a lot about landing by flying with others.

– Once the airplane is in the hangar, think about your landings. What went well and what could have been done better. In the Navy, every carrier landing is scored. Consider scoring your own landings.

– Ask about what you don’t know or aren’t sure of. There are no stupid questions, just people who are too proud to ask them.

You are only as good as your next landing. Be humble.

6 Comments

  • I had trouble with landings when I was learning. It took a couple of sessions sitting by the runway to SEE what the plane should look like to help me over the hump. The day you get that site picture of the landing in your head is the day you start to learn how to land.

  • Good god I was awful at landings when I first started. I’ll never forget my first experience with porpoising. How the nose gear didn’t collapse is still a mystery to me. Then one day it just clicked for me and my landings became progressively better within a few lessons. It was really strange to say the least.

  • This is a great article. In my short time flying landings have been one of my brighter spots during my training. Controlling power on stalls is another story.

  • I agree with the bullets – get safe training in all possible conditions. I would also add downwind takeoffs and landings.

  • First thing I’d do, as in a Champ or Cub, before engine start, was to have the student ‘look around’; especially off the left side of the cowl. THIS is the view (and attitude) you are trying to attain AT TOUCHDOWN. Tri-gear, I’d sit on the horiz. stab (not literally) ’till the nose gear is off the ground, and tell the student to note the attitude, that THIS is the ‘visual picture’ he or she is looking for AT touchdown, and to ‘hold’ backpressure after thouchdown.

    I always told my primary students (10,000 hrs dual given, pvt., comm. and instrument, DPE) to ‘play a game with the airplane’ -a game we always loose at idle power, and that is to let the plane settle in as close to the runway as you can after flare without touching the surface (assuming proper speed into the flare), and holding it off as long as you can with increasing back pressure, and increasing at a faster rate as speed gets slower. In other words, try to STALL the plane as close to the surface as you can, thereby touching down at minimum speed.

    Also important is to ‘look out the left side of the windscreen, not straight ahead’, so that as the nose gets higher and higher in your field of view, ahead, you’ll still be able to see the runway. I called their attention to “the blurr-line” in their left peripheral vision and to look just ahead of that ‘blurr-line’.

    This, plus a silent prayer for the new pilot on first solo; worked for me. Only one nervious moment in all I soloed. ‘ole but not-so-bold’ jim

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