I’ve been thinking recently about my time as a flight instructor. While I’ve been flying for over 40 years, I’ve only been teaching for a handful of those, so I am still learning a tremendous amount in the early stages as a CFI. It’s been great. And if you’ll permit me a short commercial message here… if you’ve ever thought about becoming a flight instructor, I encourage you to dig in further and strongly consider it since you likely have a lot that you can pass along to the next generation of aviators—especially if you been flying for a long time. I believe that I’ve learned more in my teaching hours than in all the hours that came before during those 40 years of flying.
Because most of what I do is helping Civil Air Patrol pilots transition to our high wing Cessna airplanes, I tend to fly with a lot of different folks but in just a few airplane types. This has allowed me to observe aviators using a wide variety of techniques to fly “nearly the same” airplane, including in the traffic pattern. And because some folks I have recently flown with have struggled with landings I will share what I have done to help them overcome their landing issues. I must admit that nothing I share below is original to me. I have shamelessly taken techniques from the great ones and assembled them into a ritual that I routinely teach. As Air Facts Editor John Zimmerman told me, “Every pilot is interested in landing better…” so here goes!
The “good” bottom line is that I have found that when my students (or I!) fly the traffic pattern using a consistent technique our landings improve and become consistently good.
When the topic of getting better at landings come up, some people focus their effort on the last 10 feet (above the runway) to solve landing issues or just to try to get better overall. My experience indicates that while there’s nothing wrong with focus there (or anywhere else) to get better, landing issues are usually the result of a poorly flown pattern which usually leads to an unstable approach. This typically begins at one of two places: the crosswind to downwind turn, or the pattern entry. My focus here will be on the flying the pattern up to the point of the round-out.
For the folks having landing issues, it is in the traffic pattern that I see a non-structured methodology that I believe is hard for many to overcome. Specifically, the before landing checklist occurs at a different place each time, power/configuration changes and speed are not standardized, and neither are the location and angle of bank of pattern turns. Because of this “randomness,” the pilot tries to manage the process differently each time which results in the wrong things happening at the wrong time. I believe structure here helps pilots allocate more thinking time to managing the profile. The predictable “bad” bottom line in the lack of structure is frustration and a poor landing. It doesn’t have to be this way.
The other thing I routinely see is that folks are not thinking about the wind and its effect on their pattern. Unless the wind is perfectly calm, there is going to be some crab needed at different parts of the pattern to maintain the desired shape of a rectangle. The wind will also influence your pattern as to when you make your turns due to speeding you up or slowing you down on the various legs of the pattern. By the way, I suggest you refer to the FAA Advisory Circular 90-66B for details on flying at non-towered airports, which outlines the best way(s) to enter the traffic pattern.
What I advocate here is a ritual for flying the pattern. It assumes that you know your power, configuration, and flap settings for each leg of the pattern. If you don’t know this, get together with a CFI and work through that and write down them down so you can refer to them again. Don’t try to coach yourself here. And when you fly with the CFI, pick out some maneuvers that you can fly as part of the WINGS safety program and get credit toward your next flight review while you’re at it. More on the program here.
Here’s how I teach the pattern:
1. Perform the before landing checklist in one of two places: after completing the crosswind to downwind turn if already in the pattern; or before joining the downwind if joining the pattern.
2. On the downwind be at the power setting that will sustain level flight at pattern altitude at your normal downwind speed. In a Cessna 172 this is about 75 KIAS.
3. Fly the correct heading to parallel the runway. Your GPS track (on your navigator or iPad) is a perfect way to double check this. If you’re landing on runway 28 you should make a track across the ground in your downwind of about 100 degrees. Since the wind is likely to blow you away (or toward) the runway this helps you to maintain proper distance, which is part of a good approach.
4. Abeam the numbers, make your normal power reduction and first configuration change (flaps and, if equipped, gear down). Lower the nose slightly and the net result is approximately the same airspeed with about a 500 foot per minute descent.
5. Turn base at the 45-degree point. Add next notch of flaps. Maintain proper speed. In the 172 I suggest 70 KIAS with 20 degrees of flaps. As you complete your base and are about to turn final you should have descended about 500 feet: “halfway around – halfway down.” I will run the before landing checklist one more time during the base.
6. You should turn final at the appropriate time by anticipating based on how the wind has affected the rest of your pattern. This is where people can easily get behind because they turn to final late (faster base due to tailwind), overshoot the centerline, and start to maneuver aggressively to get back on the centerline. Bad move! Don’t try to re-intercept; level the wings, power up, and go around. Aggressive maneuvering that close to the ground is a perfect recipe for a stall/spin event—which could be deadly.
7. Last notch of flaps goes in here once wings are level after base to final turn. Target speed in the 172 here is 65 KIAS for a normal landing (not short field). Again, use the speed and configuration most appropriate to your airplane. I teach students to pick a spot on the windshield that lines up with the landing point and watch the trend of how that spot continues (or not) to remain lined up with the desired landing point. The key is to notice changes quickly (laterally or vertically) and correct with appropriate crosswind correction as well as power or pitch as appropriate. In general, I teach a correct pitch attitude for the airplane with backup checks on power and speed. Making small changes is far preferable to large ones, so it is important to notice and correct small variances vs. missing the trends and then attempting to make large changes in power or speed. Final is also the place where I perform one more before landing checklist.
8. From this point the goal is to fly the profile and make small corrections as needed to remain on it. I teach students to be “spring loaded” to go around. This could be because of another plane on the runway, crosswind correction that they are unable to manage, significant deviations in the profile, passenger getting sick, etc. Better to go around and make another attempt that force a bad situation.
9. The other thing I teach is for the student to hold the correct pitch attitude all the way to the round-out (which occurs 10 ft. or so above the runway). What I see a fair amount is students slowly allowing the nose to come up before reaching the round-out point. This results in a few things:
- The airplane gets very slow because no power has been added yet the airplane is no longer descending at the previous rate.
- A pretty hefty sink rate starts to occur as the airplane runs out of energy
- A perfect setup to drop the airplane onto the runway very hard, potentially causing damage.
It is very important not to level the pitch attitude until it’s time to round out and prepare the airplane for touchdown.
It’s been my experience that if the approach has been flown largely as described above, the setup for a good landing has been largely accomplished.
I would be very interested to hear your comments on what you have learned on this topic. I look forward to seeing them!