Doing soft field landings for real

“Ever land on grass?” Chet asked quietly, as always, with great understatement that veiled the imminent challenge.

“No,” I replied, knowing that I would do it soon.

The morning was clear on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay even though the sun was not yet high, and the dew still hung on cool blades of grass. The turf runway at Harford County airport (0W3) in Churchville, Maryland, was only 17 nautical miles northeast of our home base at Martin State Airport in Baltimore. My flight instructor, Chet Allen, reviewed the reasons why every competent pilot needed to have proficiency in soft field landings, including his belief that it was an excellent way to satisfy, in part, my flight review required by the FAA (FAR 61.56 (c)).

Proficiency. It’s a big word at the FAA, and not a bad thing to possess, actually. It saves lives, mostly, and looks very good from the ramp.

“You know, Chet, I have only ever done simulated soft field landings.”

Harford
There’s a paved runway at 0W3, but what fun would that be?

Those are the ones you must do for the private pilot flight test. The examiner asks you to “show me a landing for a soft field.” All he wants is a landing at minimum controllable airspeed where the main wheels touch down first very softly so as not to stick in the imaginary mud. Then, you plant the nose wheel even more softly so as not to stick it firmly in the mythical goo and produce the first step of a giant cartwheel that destroys both sod, airplane and occupants. And you do this on 3,000-foot asphalt runways where you can bleed off speed over the first third of the runway just before touchdown to make it all happen just right.

Chet merely shrugged his shoulders.

Simulation would not be permitted this morning. Today we would fly the Beech Sundowner onto real grass, all wet with the morning dew and soft from melted snow, grass that was 90 feet wide (nearly three times as wide as many runways I’d landed on before) but only 1600 feet long. A grass runway that was not only soft but short as well. During practice we had assumed that the soft fields were very long, and our “short fields” were very hard so we could come down steeply and plant the main gear firmly while slamming on the brakes to prevent careening off the end. That technique would not work here because a steep approach would bury the main tires in the real muck, and we would tumble nose first while losing momentum and create work for the National Transportation Safety Board as they investigated another training mishap.

The runway faced north along our direction of flight. At least the sun would not be in my eyes.

“Do it slowly,” Chet said, “or you’ll sink the mains into the turf, and we’ll flip over,” as if I had no idea that was even a remote possibility. What did he suppose was going through my mind?

“Keep the nose high and touch down softly,” he cautioned.

“Right,” I acknowledged. “I hope the turf is not as wet as the grass next to the ramp back home,” I offered aloud.

No response.

The field came into view. I steered a bit west and entered a left downwind to the runway at a 45-degree angle, just as the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual advised. I turned to the base leg, chopped the power, and dropped the full 30 degrees of flaps to get us slowed down. I trimmed the nose up as far as it would go. We approached stalling speed, and I added a bit more throttle.

Chet still said nothing.

“I hope he tells me if he thinks it doesn’t look right,” I said silently to my anxious soul. “I’ve never done this for real.”

More silence, loud silence with the engine at idle.

As I turned to short final approach, we were still descending a bit too fast. I added more power, but now the runway was moving to the left!

“Crosswind!” I uttered softly. “I don’t need this. Not short and soft and a crosswind!”

Not a word from Chet.

I dropped the left wing and recaptured the extended centerline of the runway. Then I kicked in some right rudder and held the forward slip on the center of the runway.

“This could get ugly,” I thought, but I remembered the wind speed was only 10 knots from the west. “I can handle this,” I repeated silently. “I can handle this. Just let the left main touch first and keep the nose high. Keep it high. Don’t cartwheel!”

We were near the ground now, just 200 feet to go. I had the drifting stopped with the left wing down.

“When do I chop the power?” I asked Chet.

“When you have the field made,” he parroted with the textbook answer, staring straight ahead.

I wondered why I was paying him.

“Chop it now!” was my non-verbal answer to myself. “Pull the power now!”

Soft field landing
When the soft field is really soft, the right technique is important.

So, we descended, power off, left wing low, sun glinting on wet grass, with only the sound of slipstream air rushing by at 75 knots. Fifty feet to go, 40, 30, 20…

Early in my training, I tended to start the flare too high, ten feet or so over the pavement. On a concrete runway, that meant we plopped in hard with a clank and a bump. If I did that here, we were going to die, or worse. I desperately wanted to raise the nose and that drooping left wing, but I kept it down, sacrificing bank angle to drift control. The nose tracked straight ahead, gradually coming higher and higher in the flare until it filled my forward vision, obstructing my view of the runway racing by so that I could see it now only by looking out my side window. Then, almost imperceptibly, the left main wheel greased the wet grass silently. Remarkably, we were still tracking straight ahead, so I relaxed the yoke with my tense, sweating, left hand, lowering the right wing and the nose at the same rate. I simultaneously eased the pressure on my right foot as the nose wheel settled on the turf seconds after the right main. Still tracking straight ahead. No cartwheel!

I suddenly remembered to pull back on the yoke to keep the nose wheel from digging into the soft turf during the rollout.

Still not a word from Chet. He just looked straight ahead.

“Not bad,” he said finally, with no more enthusiasm or conviction than when he ate his beloved orange-colored peanut butter crackers. “Let’s go around,” he added.

The end of 1600 feet of turf was rushing closer. One more test to pass. Full power, flaps to 15 degrees, right rudder to fight the torque of the engine. Positive rate of climb at best angle of climb speed. Safely away. Obstacles cleared. On to the next challenge.

For an instant, I thought I detected the hint of a grin on Chet’s usually sullen face.

“Did you see that?” I yelled, relieved to be in one piece and airborne again, my heart racing.

“Not bad,” he repeated. “Not bad.” He glanced at me for only an instant, then stared straight ahead. Now Chet was smiling.

15 Comments

  • The prospect of danger and death here is exploited and somewhat sensationalized. The airplane was flying and the grass runway was at a municipal airfield…for all intents it is manicured and maintained. You are making it seem more dramatic and dangerous than it is. Don’t do that. Doesn’t help the next guy coming along behind you. If you really feel this way when you fly I would suggest you work on a program with your school or instructor that informs and educates you on the actual perils of flying and how the risk is manageable. If your school/CFI is teaching you to feel the way you do in this article then please change educators, they are doing it wrong. Best of luck to you.

    • Clayton, have you ever seen an airplane flip over onto its back while landing at a municipal airport on a grass runway that is saturated with water after excessive snowmelt and rain? It’s not a pleasing sight. It’s down right shocking; even more so when you find out later that the runway in question was NOTAMED closed for just those reasons. Don’t take it for granted that just because it’s a public, municipal runway that all is safe and secure. Water and changing temperatures do strange things to soil densities depending on what type of turf is planted on it.

    • Get a friggin life, you miserable ‘sod’….. no pun intended. There are people out there with a sense of humour….something you are lacking. Maybe you should change educators…learn to lighten up!!

  • I agree wholeheartedly with Clayton. Turf runways are wonderful and not a problem whatsoever. This article makes it sound like it is dangerous. It Is Not. I have flown thousands of landings on many turf/grass fields – even in the remote mountains of Irian Jaya – and it was never ever a problem.
    Please follow Claytons advice! Good Luck and Many Happy Turf Landings

  • I remember flying into a grass ‘strip’ for the first time in upstate New York in a rented Cessna 172. Not only a grass ‘strip’, but a short runway that you couldn’t until you turned final….. and NO taxi ways. When I turned off the runway after landing I ran into a small ‘mound’…. no ‘real’ damage to the nose wheel fairing, but it needed to be straightened… which I did. When I returned to ‘home’ base where I rented the the airplane, the maintenance guys just said ‘no problem. And I flew 50+ years fighters and bombers in the U.S. Air Force and Mass. Air National Guard, but NEVER landed on a grass ‘strip’!

  • What’s with the ‘hard’ short-field landings, planting the gear, and slamming on the brakes. That’s no way to treat an airplane. A short-field landing shouldn’t be harder than a normal landing.

  • As a student practicing emergency procedures, engine out maximum glide, looking for a place to land several times that morning we had an actual engine failure. as a pilot newly soloed I followed procedure. As we were looking for a place to land I spotted a small grass strip used by a local group of WW1 kit plane pilots, I followed the procedure and landed the plane. Then I git the shakes. I asked my instructor why he did not take the controls and he replied, you were PIC and were doing the job. He knew the strip was there and told me if I had not spotted it and performed correctly he would have taken the controls. This incident taught me to trust the training, and follow procedures. Oh yes, it turned out a bit of paper towel plugged the fuel line.

  • The HELIO H295 soft field procedure starts out with ” if the mud is above the tire” meaning it is very soft. They actually had a procedure in the FAA APPROVE FM.
    Few airplanes can say that.

  • I learned to fly on grass 40+ years ago and continue to fly from grass. Grass landings generally offer noticeably smoother touchdowns.
    To defend “sensationalism,” yes, you can find airplane wrecking conditions at grass airports, that’s why insurance companies ask if you plan to operate on grass in their questionnaires. Some policies forbid grass ops. Damage usually involves propeller strikes, from soft ground, hidden depressions, or improper taxiing across a swale. Single engine aircraft should cross swales at a shallow angle to protect prop clearance, twins need to cross perpendicularly. These are “gotchas” at paved airports that require you to park in grassy areas too. Airplane flipping events usually occur OFF of a runway (in a plowed field or encountering a ditch, both requiring high enough speed to cause sauce an event).
    Always call the grass airport owner/operator about conditions. If it’s too wet to land, it’s usually too wet to mow, so don’t land in tall grass. You definitely do NOT want to leave ruts for the airport to remember your visit!

  • Yes, they can be scary, especially the first time, but grass fields are great. I remember thoughts just like that when training for my PPL, making my first grass landing, getting my TW endorsement, landing my first student, soloing my first student … Thanks, Victor, for a well- and engagingly-written recollection. Chet trained you well; I hope that I can be as good an instructor one day!

  • That landing was about 2300 hours and three decades ago. And it was my first landing on grass. Now, as a CFI, I assure you there are many anxious students who trained on 3000 feet of asphalt who express similar anxieties during that first grass sojourn. I agree that grass is a beautiful surface after one acquires a bit of familiarity.

  • I read Victor as telling what stories his neophyte mind was cooking up under stress, no foul to me. Personally, I *LOVE* grass strips. Especially in my lovely Chief, the soft landings and secure tracking added to the smells to make me smile at every landing. To any new-pilot readers, get comfortable with grass strips– flying as it once was….

  • SOFT -SOFT landing, an unattended short grass runway flew over it many times near the concrete airport, I decided to land. Flared just above the grass and let the PA-28-140 settle in, it went in half way to the wheels before I got the noise up and out of the long uncut grass. The leading edge was green the gear in a jungle camouflage of clinging grass. Cherokee was a rental, just tie down walk rapidly away.

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