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Copyright 1996-2001 jsd

12   Landing


Pilots spend a lot of time doing ``traffic pattern work'' — a series of touch-and-goes. Non-pilots imagine this as being analogous to driving into a parallel-parking space, then immediately pulling out, driving around the block, and repeating the process — over and over again.

Landings involve procedures and perceptions that are just a little bit different from those involved in other phases of flight. A few of them are discussed in this chapter. (Special procedures for forced landings are discussed in section 15.1.)

12.1   Planning the Approach

Use a checklist. I know a lot of pilots who fastidiously use a written checklist for preflight, but rely on memory for the approach and landing checklists. This is not good, but it is fairly easy to see how it happens: During preflight you are not strapped into your seat, and you are not busy flying the airplane. You can always take a minute to find the POH and read through it. In contrast, when you are setting up for a landing, the book is likely to be somewhere behind the back seat and you're likely to be too busy to go looking for it.

Therefore, here are some constructive suggestions. Pick the one(s) you like best: If you fly more than one airplane, make sure you have an appropriate pocket checklist or lap-desk checklist for each of them. As you progress in your pilot career, you will be flying progressively more complex aircraft, and if you persist in using the same old checklist you will get into trouble some day. Some aircraft have retractable landing gear; some don't. Some aircraft have cowl flaps; some don't. Some aircraft require using carburetor heat; some don't. Some aircraft require switching on the electric fuel pump; others forbid it.

Discipline yourself to pay attention to the checklist. Don't just keep it in your pocket as a good-luck charm.

The approach checklist should actually cover three things: approach, landing, and go-around. At the point where you decide to perform a go-around, you will be in no mood to go looking for a checklist.

By the same logic, by the time you are established on downwind in preparation for landing, it is not an appropriate time to be reading checklists. Therefore, the practical way to use the approach checklist is to review it before entering the traffic pattern. A few miles from the airport, read the checklist, think about it, and commit it to memory. Say it aloud several times if you like.1 Short-term memory is considerably more reliable than long-term memory. Remember that the checklist is not a ``do-list''; you don't have to do each item at the moment you read it on the checklist.

*   Other Planning Issues

In flight, you know you have to land sooner or later, but you should never allow yourself to get into a situation where you think you have to land on this runway right now. If you are approaching a soft, narrow, short runway with gusty crosswinds and the setting sun in your eyes, it might be a lot safer to land somewhere else. You might have to get a ride from the second airport back to the first, or you might just wait on the ground until conditions improve.

12.2   Judging Left or Right

Let's consider how things are supposed to look on final approach. One important ingredient is to be correctly lined up left/right. The task of getting lined up with a far-away object, without any intermediate guideposts, is unfamiliar to most people.

Figure 12.1, figure 12.2, and figure 12.3 show how the runway looks if you are lined up too far to the left, perfectly on the runway centerline, or too far to the right (respectively).

land-left
Figure 12.1: Lined Up Too Far Left

land-center
Figure 12.2: Lined up On The Centerline

land-right
Figure 12.3: Lined Up Too Far Right

The distinctions are easy enough to perceive, once you learn how. In all cases, one of the key ideas is to notice that point A lies directly above point B. That means you are lined up on the line from B to A. In particular, we see that in figure 12.1 and figure 12.3, you are exactly half a runway-width to one side. That is, you are lined up on one of the runway edge lines. If you continue with such an approach, you will mow down all the runway edge lights.

If while on final you perceive that you are lined up left or right of the extended centerline, you should not just fly directly toward the point of intended landing. Instead, you should fly over to the extended centerline now and then follow it to the runway. The objective is to be traveling in the right direction when you arrive at the runway.

As discussed in section 12.6.2 and section 12.11.1, you will not be able to see the runway centerline during critical parts of the flare, touchdown, and initial rollout. You need to maneuver to reference to the runway edge. You should start applying this skill on short final. If the runway is 40 feet wide, you should say to yourself ``I'm lined up 20 feet this side of the edge line.... I'm lined up 20 feet this side of the edge line...''.
Land on the center line
by reference to the edge line.

Don't fixate on the centerline — it will disappear during the flare.

12.3   Judging High or Low; Rule of Thumb

Even more important than having the left-or-right alignment is having the proper up-or-down alignment of the approach path. There are several ways to do this.

One of the worst ways is to use ``local tricks'', such as passing over the pond at 1500 MSL and then passing over the old red barn at 1000 MSL. Such an approach procedure doesn't work too well when you visit other airports.

The smart way to control the slope of the glide is to observe and control the slope angle directly. On an instrument approach, the electronic glideslope needle defines a 3 degree angle for you. At some airports there is a visual aid such as a VASI to define the angle for you. At most airports, though, provide no guidance at all, so you need to rely on your own perception of angles.

Most people are terrible at judging angles using the unaided eye. Therefore I recommend the following rule of thumb:

A thumb at arm's length subtends four degrees.

Specifically, the rule of thumb refers to the distance between the last joint and the end of the thumb, as shown in figure 12.4.

thumb-angle
Figure 12.4: Rule of Thumb — 4 Degree Glideslope Angle

To use this rule, hold your thumb at arm's length, and arrange it so your sight line over the end of the thumb extends to the forward horizon, as shown in the figure. Then the sight line over the last joint of the thumb will be four degrees below the horizon. If this sight line extends to your chosen aim point, you know you are on a nice 4 degree glideslope.

In order to make clear the geometry of the situation, figure 12.4 shows how your eye, your thumb, etc. will appear as viewed by your copilot. Figure 12.5 shows how it looks from your own point of view.

thumb-angle-self
Figure 12.5: Rule of Thumb, Pilot's View

Note that for reasons discussed in section 12.7.2, the aim point is generally not the runway threshold.

Your thumb may not be exactly the same size as mine, but if your thumb is smaller your arm is probably shorter and the angle is probably close to four degrees. In any case, you should learn what angle is subtended by your own thumb2 — it comes in really handy.

Another application of this ``rule of thumb'' is to help perceive the destination of a power-off glide, as described in section 15.1.4.

The next question is, how do you know you are actually following the 4 degree glideslope, as opposed to merely passing through it? Answer: as long as you remain on that glideslope, the aim point will remain four degrees below the horizon.

This is the correct strategy: throughout the final approach segment, your chosen aim point should remain below the horizon by the desired number of degrees.3 To say it the other way, if the angle between the horizon and your aim point is changing, then your intended destination is not your actual destination.

If the angle from the horizon to the aim point is increasing, you are going to land long; if the angle is decreasing, you are going to land short — unless you do something. The logic of this is shown in figure 12.6.

land-long-short
Figure 12.6: Landing Long or Short

The airplane in the figure is flying directly toward point X. It will overfly point A but land short of point Z. As the airplane moves from position 1 to position 2, the angle of A below the horizon increases to 90 degrees and beyond. The angle to point X remains constant, while point Z appears to move closer to the horizon.

If you are on final and perceive the aim point shrinking up toward the horizon, you probably need to add power. Conversely, if you see the angle growing (3 degrees... 3.5 degrees... 4 degrees...), you probably need to reduce power and/or increase drag.

Given that the angle shouldn't change, what sort of angle is suitable? Within the reasonable range (three to six degrees) it usually isn't critical which angle you choose. Here are the main considerations:

If you make a too-steep approach, it makes the flare maneuver more difficult and more critical. Also, some aircraft have so little drag (even in the landing configuration) that they have a hard time staying on a steep glideslope, unless they get help from a headwind.

Conversely, if you fly a too-shallow approach, you need to worry about running into obstructions. It also leaves you with fewer options in the event of an engine failure on final.

Generally, if the angle from the horizon to the aim point is less than three-quarters of a thumb (less than three degrees), you are flying a too-shallow approach. Conversely, if the angle is more than a thumb and a half (more than 6 degrees), you are flying an abnormally steep approach.

In all cases you should be extremely sensitive to changes in the angle, since that tells you whether you are going to land long or land short.

12.4   Judging Pitch Attitude and Angle of Attack

Now we come to the most critical task of all: you must control the angle of attack. This is important in all phases of flight, but especially so on final approach when you are intentionally rather low and slow.

12.4.1   Use Outside References and Trim

One way to maintain a definite angle of attack is to carefully perceive and control both the pitch angle and glideslope angle, as shown in figure 12.7.

As discussed in chapter 2, for any given flap setting the angle of attack depends on the difference between the pitch attitude and the direction of flight. Therefore if you maintain a definite value for those two angles, you are also maintaining a definite value for the angle of attack.

Trimming the airplane for the desired angle of attack and flying with a light touch on the controls is also exceedingly helpful in maintaining a definite value for angle of attack; see section 12.12.

land-angles
Figure 12.7: Perception of Pitch and Glideslope Angles

To make sure the value in question is the correct value, you should look at the airspeed: indicator every so often, but that should constitute only 10% of your looking. The other nine looks out of ten should be directed toward the outside, such as the angles in figure 12.7.

Controlling angle of attack is even more important than controlling the left-or-right and up-or-down alignment of the flight path. If you show up at the runway slightly misaligned, or slightly long, it is usually not tragic and it is usually obvious how to solve the problem (perhaps by going around). On the other hand, if you lose control of the angle of attack, your flying career could end quite suddenly.

12.4.2   Observe and Control More Than One Thing

We see that there are three vertical angles of interest: As discussed below, if you perceive and control any two of these angles, you automatically control the third.

Some pilots (especially students) try to oversimplify the situation by worrying about only one of the three angles. This leaves the other two angles completely uncontrolled. Figure 12.8 shows three examples of what can happen if you control only one angle, namely the aim point relative to nose:
  1. The lowest airplane has the aim point in the right place on the windscreen. However another angle, namely the glide slope angle, is wrong, so you hit the obstruction.
  2. The middle airplane is just right. All three angles have their correct values. You got lucky.
  3. The highest airplane once again starts out with the aim point just the right angle above the nose, but this does not mean that the angle of attack is correct, because the airplane is not actually moving toward the aim point. Another angle, namely the angle between the aim point and the horizon, is too big and (what's worse) it's changing. To keep the aim point the ``right'' angle above the nose, you foolishly keep pushing harder and harder on the yoke. At every point along this curved path you've got too much energy, but you don't know it because you are only watching one angle.
landing-aoa-only
Figure 12.8: Controlling Only One Angle

For a typical person in a typical airplane, on final approach you can easily see the aim point over the nose. If one day the nose of the airplane comes up and blocks your view of the aim point, you should notice immediately and be at least somewhat alarmed.

There are several possibilities. The most alarming ones are:
  1. Possibly your pitch attitude is too high (meaning you might be about to stall).
  2. Possibly you are not really moving toward your chosen aim point (meaning you are about to land long).
  3. Possibly you have both problems (long and slow).
Less-disastrous possibilities include the following:

  1. If you ever find yourself on approach with too much airspeed and too little altitude, it is OK to raise the nose and zoom back up to the correct glideslope. During this correction maneuver, the nose will (temporarily!) block your view of the aim point. Still, it remains a topic of concern: if the nose comes up like this, you should have a special reason, and it must be very temporary.
  2. If you switch to an airplane with a longer, wider, and higher snout, it might block your view during a normal approach.
  3. If you have a short torso, you might have trouble seeing the aim point even if your copilot can see it easily.4
  4. If you use less than full flaps, it will make the problem worse.
  5. An unusually large headwind will make the problem worse.
Note that the converse does not hold; maintaining a proper view of the aim point does not solve all the world's problems, as was illustrated by figure 12.8. To control the airplane properly, you absolutely must perceive and control more than one angle.

In theory, you could concentrate on any two of these angles and let the third one take care of itself. On the other hand, it's not really any extra work to keep track of all three, and each one is interesting for its own special reason: Additional discussion of too-steep or too-shallow approaches can be found in section 12.3.

12.4.3   Correct for Wind

There is one more ingredient in this recipe: the wind. As we shall see, in the presence of wind your direction of flight relative to the ground is not the same as your direction of flight through the air. You need to be able to perceive both.

Suppose you are on a nice 3 degree glideslope, doing 90 knots in no-wind conditions. Your direction of flight is 3 degrees below the horizon and the relative wind is therefore originating 3 degrees below the horizon. Now suppose a headwind of 30 knots springs up. You add power to remain on the 3 degree glideslope. Your flight path relative to the ground is still three degrees below the horizon, but the flight path through the windy air is only two degrees below the horizon.

Figure 12.9 may clarify the situation. The approach commences from a point 1 mile from the runway and 300 feet up; this constitutes a 3 degree glideslope. In the absence of wind, the approach is flown as shown in figure 12.10. You have 90 knots of true airspeed (90 KTAS) and 450 fpm of descent rate. You will reach the runway in 40 seconds.

As shown in figure 12.11, in the presence of wind you have only 60 knots of groundspeed — two thirds as much as in the no-wind case. In order to stay on the 3 degree glideslope, you must descend at two thirds of the rate. This is why you had to add power.

At the reduced groundspeed, it will take you an entire minute to reach the runway. At the end of that minute, the small hot-air balloon that is in the middle of the runway in figure 12.12 will have been blown a half mile, and will meet you right at the runway threshold. Therefore your path through the air is not aimed toward the threshold, but is aimed toward the balloon. Your direction of flight through the air is only two degrees (not three degrees) below the horizon.

The relative wind is the reciprocal of the direction of flight through the air. The wing doesn't care about your groundspeed; it only cares about the angle of attack, which depends on the relative wind. To maintain the proper angle of attack the pitch attitude will be one degree higher than in the no-wind case.

Conclusion: First, you need to perceive your direction of flight relative to the ground, so you can be sure you will arrive at the aim point as intended. Second, you need to perceive your direction of flight through the air, so you can know what pitch attitude is required to give the desired angle of attack. If you are descending into a headwind, you will need less rate of descent; in any situation where you have less descent you will need less nose-down attitude.

windy-setup
Figure 12.9: Three Degree Glide Slope

windx-ground
Figure 12.10: Approach Without Wind (Ground View)

windy-ground
Figure 12.11: Approach With Wind (Ground View)

windy-air
Figure 12.12: Approach With Wind; Path Through the Air

Note that the scheme of estimating the relative wind using the ratio of vertical speed to airspeed gives the correct answer even when nature's wind is blowing. As shown in figure 12.13, you have a normal airspeed and a reduced VSI indication while plodding down the glideslope into the wind. See section 2.11, including figure 2.12, for some discussion of how this looks on the instruments.

windy-vsi
Figure 12.13: Vertical, Horizontal Speeds Determine Angle (Side View)

12.5   Other Perceptions

Instruments: About one look out of ten, you should look at the airspeed: indicator on final approach. The other nine looks out of ten, you should look outside, judging the angles as described above. During the flare, you should definitely be looking outside, not at the gauges. You want to land the airplane at a very high angle of attack. You will have to perceive the angle of attack using outside visual cues. During the flare, the airspeed indicator doesn't tell you anything about angle of attack (as discussed in section 2.12) or anything else you need to know. I once asked an experienced airline captain to tell me at what airspeed his airliner touched down. He said ``I don't know; I never looked. I always have more important things to look at''. That was a good pilot's honest answer.

Wind drift: On the base leg, you should make it a habit to check your wind drift. Normally you are being blown away from the airport, meaning that after you turn onto final you will have a headwind. If you are being blown toward the airport, watch out!

Groundspeed: It is not a very good idea to control your speed according to your impression of motion over the ground. What you care most about is angle of attack. The groundspeed perceptions will change according to Fortunately, angle perceptions remain more or less the same. Of course you should remain somewhat sensitive to groundspeed; if it seems unreasonably high you might have a tailwind. You should go around and take a good look at the windsock before trying again. Also remember that the vertical speed indications and power settings required on final approach tell you a lot about the headwind or tailwind.

12.6   Basic ``Normal'' Landing

Your Pilot's Operating Handbook should specify a ``normal'' landing procedure. It would probably be more accurate to rename it the ``basic'' landing procedure, for a simple reason: Many pilots are based at short, unpaved, or crosswindy airports. For them, the basic procedure is definitely not their ``normal'' procedure. The basic procedure should be thought of as the basis, the foundation on which other techniques are built.

In any case, here are the elements of the basic landing procedure: (1) the final approach, (2) the flare, and (3) the rollout.

12.6.1   Short Final

The main aspects of the final approach were discussed in previous sections.

12.6.2   Flare

The term flare refers to the part of the flight where you are raising the nose, from the nose-down attitude on final approach to the nose-high attitude at touchdown.

Throughout the flare process, raise the nose smoothly. It is a common mistake to raise the nose stepwise, that is, to raise the nose a little bit, see what happens, and then raise it a little bit more, and so forth. You should not ask yourself ``How much should I raise the nose?'' It is much better to ask yourself ``At what rate should I be raising the nose?''

At each point in this process, you need to worry about three timescales: how long is it until ...
  1. ... your flight path becomes horizontal
  2. ... you reach the proper airspeed for touchdown
  3. ... you reach ground level
Those are the three main dependent variables that are the result of the maneuver. Correspondingly, the three key independent variables that you use to control the maneuver are
  1. ... the airspeed you have before starting the flare
  2. ... the height at which you begin the flare
  3. ... the rate at which you raise the nose
Typically you make the decisions in that order: First you pick an airspeed. That determines the height at which you must flare (the faster the speed the higher the flare). Then you adjust the rate accordingly.

In ideal conditions, you can schedule it so that all three things happen at the same time. For any given airspeed, if you start your flare at the right height and raise the nose at the right rate, you can arrange that by the time you reach ground level, you are just beginning to fly horizontally, and your attitude is just right for touchdown.

If the altitude, direction of flight, and attitude are just right, they imply that your angle of attack, airspeed, and energy are just right, too.

In less-than-ideal conditions, you should not attempt this ideal three-way timing. This is because in the real world you need to worry about wind gusts. You don't want a wind gust to come a long and rob you of your airspeed while you are still several feet above the ground, in the round part of your roundout.

landing-basic
Figure 12.14: Basic Landing Procedure

Therefore, in real-world conditions you should arrange that items (a) and (b) happen at the same time, and item (c) happens later, as shown in figure 12.14. That is, the flare really has two parts: Continue skimming, gradually raising the nose, until the angle of attack has increased to the point where you can land on the main wheels, with the nose wheel definitely in the air.6 To say it the other way, a flat, ``three-point'' landing, with all three wheels making contact at the same time, is proof that your angle of attack is much too low and your airspeed is much too high.

If you find that the skimming phase lasts longer than necessary, then you started with too much airspeed and/or you began the flare too late. If you had too much airspeed on final, next time get rid of it earlier.

Every so often I get a student who thinks it is a good idea to wait until the last possible moment and then raise the nose all at once. I call this a ``square flare''. Even though you can get away with this under some circumstances, it is a bad idea for the following reasons:
  1. There is no margin for error. If you misjudge, and wait a little too long to perform the square flare, you will make an airplane-shaped hole in the runway.
  2. It puts the instructor in an unpleasant situation. If you don't start the flare at the proper time, I can't just sit there, hoping you can see the altitude and rate of descent, and hoping you will do the square flare at the last moment. I have to take control of the airplane, which will hurt your feelings if you think it wasn't necessary.
  3. The square flare doesn't work in all circumstances. Yes, you can get away with it in certain light trainers when your airspeed is much faster than your stalling speed, but in an airplane with a higher stall speed, the wing can't develop enough lift to force such a sudden change in direction of flight.
  4. You can't reliably know how much to pull back. If you move to a different brand of plane, or if your plane is unusually lightly loaded, or if you fly the approach at an unusual airspeed, the square flare will go awry and you'll have no time to compensate.
There is no point in learning the square-flare technique (which will work in just a few airplanes, some of the time), when with the same amount of effort you can learn a technique that works in all sorts of airplanes, and gives a much greater margin of safety.

Remember, good pilots are judged on their smoothness, not their quickness.

In the proper touchdown attitude (in most airplanes), the nose will block your forward view. You will not be able to see the runway centerline. Therefore, during the latter part of the flare, during the touchdown, and during the initial parts of the rollout, you will have to guide the plane by reference to the runway edge. Otherwise, one of two things will happen: (1) If you manage to keep the centerline in view, you will touch down with much too low a pitch attitude and much too high a speed. (2) If you raise the nose anywhere near enough, you will lose sight of your reference and become an unguided missile.

If the stall warning horn comes on during the skimming phase, when you are flying horizontally a few inches above the runway, it is a good sign. You will be touching down shortly.

Conversely, if the stall warning horn comes on early in the roundout, when you are still several feet above the runway and descending, it is a bad sign. You should add power immediately. Adding power helps in two ways: (1) The power-on stalling speed lower than the power-off stalling speed (because of the propwash over the wings). This might give you enough lift to arrest the descent. (2) The added power contributes to the energy budget, so you can rebuild your airspeed.

12.6.3   Timing the Flare

How do you recognize when it is time to begin the flare?

Let us begin by mentioning a few unhelpful answers to this question.
  1. You could wait until you see the hair on the instructor's neck stand on end, then begin the flare. This is not good preparation for flying solo.
  2. Many books suggest beginning the flare at about the height of a typical hangar. This doesn't work very well if you visit some place that has bigger hangars, smaller hangars, or no hangars at all. It also isn't very reliable at night.
  3. Some people like to flare at about half the height of a typical tree. Alas, trees work even worse than hangars, for similar reasons.
  4. You could wait until the width of the runway subtends a certain angle in your field of vision. This will get you into trouble if you visit some place with a wider or narrower runway.
  5. You might think of using the perception of the ground rushing past, which does depend on height. Alas, this is hard to perceive, and is unacceptably sensitive to the amount of headwind.
  6. You could try to use the depth perception that comes from having two eyes. However, human binocular stereopsis is absolutely useless at distances of 20 feet or greater. By the time this depth perception comes into play, it's too late. Wiley Post was blind in one eye, but that didn't prevent him from making good landings.
Here is something that actually helps: Use your sense of timing. At each moment on short final, ask yourself how much time t remains until you would, at the current rate, reach zero AGL. When this time t reaches the special value tF (about two seconds), start your flare. (The exact value of tF will depend on what sort of airplane you're flying, and other factors.)

Of course the actual flare will take longer than tF — roughly twice as long. That's because tF refers to what would happen if you forgot to flare. During the actual flare, your descent rate is reduced, so you take longer to descend.

This timing technique has some nice properties. It works on wide and narrow runways both. It works during daytime and nighttime both. It causes you to flare at a greater-than-usual height if you have a greater-than-usual vertical speed.

Now all you need is some way to perceive how much time t remains. You don't need to know the height in feet or the descent rate in feet per second; all you need is some quantity that perceptibly changes as you approach zero AGL. Figure 12.15 shows one such quantity. The left side of the figure is what you should see when you are on final, at a definitely nonzero height. The letters ABCD and WXYZ represent landmarks along the side of the runway. In particular, for night landings you would use the runway lights as landmarks.

land-triangles
Figure 12.15: Perceiving Zero Height

The important thing to notice is that the landmarks are not all colinear. In particular, BDZ is a triangle that covers nonzero area in your field of view.

Now, in contrast, imagine that you are on your hands and knees on the runway, so that your eye is just at the same height as the runway lights, about 12 inches AGL. Suppose that landmarks A and W are behind you, but you can still see the others. As shown in the right side of the figure, all the landmarks have become colinear. The erstwhile triangle BDZ has flattened out and now has zero area.

Of course you never actually fly with your eyes at zero AGL. Therefore you need to observe the rate at which triangle BDZ is gradually flattening out. By combining this rate perception with a sense of timing, you can decide when to begin the flare.

You can practice this perception indoors: Put a book on a table, then lower your head until the corners of the book-cover all line up.

12.6.4   Touchdown and Rollout

Don't land with the brakes applied. Of course your feet must be on the rudder pedals; just make sure you aren't accidentally depressing the brake pedals even a little bit. Wait until there is plenty of weight on the wheels (i.e., after the nosewheel is on the ground) before applying the brakes.

At touchdown and thereafter, the airplane should be sufficiently well centered that the centerline is between the main wheels. On a narrow runway you have no choice, but on a wide runway you should land on the centerline anyway. See how close you can come. Make it a matter of self-discipline and pride.

The touchdown should be gentle enough that the nosewheel stays in the air during touchdown and during the first 50 feet of the rollout. This is a good way of proving to yourself (and to all the kibitzers in the airport lounge) that you were in complete control of the landing. To say it the other way, if you hit with a lot of vertical momentum, it will force the nosewheel down like a mouse trap. See also section 12.11.7.

Stay in control during the rollout. Remember, the flight isn't over until the aircraft is tied down. The NTSB files are full of reports of pilots who made a decent touchdown and then (a quarter mile later) stopped paying attention and had an accident.

After you have taxied clear of the runway, perform the after-landing checklist. This will include items such as carburetor heat off, flaps retract, cowl flaps open, strobes off (for night taxiing, so you don't blind everybody), boost pumps off, et cetera.

12.7   High-Performance Landing

This section discusses the tradeoffs you must make when the field is short, obstructed, and/or plagued by gusty winds.

As always, plan ahead. In particular, you should do your short-field takeoff planning before landing at an unfamiliar short field, since in many airplanes it is quite possible to get into a field that you can't get out of.

The key elements of a high-performance landing are:
  1. use the right configuration,
  2. touch down at the right point,
  3. touch down at an appropriately low airspeed, and
  4. use the brakes effectively.

12.7.1   Use the Right Configuration

As discussed in section 5.5, extending the flaps has five main effects:

  1. Flaps decrease the stalling speed.
  2. Flaps increase drag.
  3. Flaps increase the incidence.
  4. Flaps increase the washout.
  5. Flaps perturb the trim speed.
These influence the landing in various ways:

1)
Having a low stalling speed is always good.
2a)
The typical short field is not just short, it's obstructed. Because of the obstructions, you want to make a relatively steep approach. Because of the steep approach, you might need the drag that comes with full flaps.
2b)
Your aim point will be not very far down the runway, so a steep approach helps keep you within power-off gliding range. If you lose power and need to glide a long ways, retract the flaps.
3)
Increased incidence means that (other things being equal) the pitch will be lower. (Remember: pitch + incidence = angle of attack + angle of climb.) Extending the flaps makes it easier to see over the nose but makes it harder to have the nosewheel in the air at touchdown.
4)
Increased washout increases roll damping so the airplane handles more nicely near the stall.
5)
In an ideal airplane, you would be able to make power changes and configuration changes without perturbing the trim speed. But in most airplanes, when the flaps are extended (and not otherwise), every power change affects the trim. One of my students pointed out to me that when I was flying with the flaps extended, every time I moved the throttle I simultaneously nudged the trim wheel with my thumb. I had been unaware that I was doing it, but it seems like a very sensible habit. You know compensation is going to be needed, so why wait?
Also note that in many light aircraft, the last notch of flaps produces its full share of incidence and its full share of drag, but has only a small effect on the stalling speed. Therefore if you didn't need the last notch for energy management on final, you've got very little reason to extend the last notch at all, unless the field is very short and you need to get rid of every last knot of stalling speed.7

A gusty wind or a strong crosswind is a good reason using less than full flaps. Compared to full flaps, reduced flaps has the following consequences: Finally, while we are discussing configuration: the landing gear is an important part of the landing configuration. Please don't forget this. Double-check it on short final.

12.7.2   Touch Down at the Right Point

In the presence of obstructions, a relatively steep approach will allow you to use more of the runway. Consider for example a 50-foot tree quite close to the beginning of the runway pavement. If you use a six-degree approach slope, it will block you from using the first 500 feet of the runway. If you were to use a three-degree glide slope instead, it would block twice as much of the runway. You can get information about obstructions from the Airport/Facility Directory and other sources. Also, whenever a runway has a displaced threshold you should suspect it is displaced because of obstructions.

If your airplane requires a 1000-foot landing roll, and you are landing on a 2000-foot runway, you should arrange things so that you use the middle two quarters of the runway. That gives you a safety margin at each end. It doesn't make sense to put all your margin at one end or the other.

For an extreme short-field landing, your margins will be much smaller. In this case, your touchdown point will be beyond, but only very slightly beyond, the runway threshold. You must allow for the fact that your aim point will not be the same as your touchdown point, since the flare carries you forward several hundred feet beyond where the a straight-line extrapolation of your approach path would go. The correct procedure is to aim your approach path a corresponding distance short of the intended touchdown point. In extreme cases, the aim point may even be ahead of the runway threshold, as shown in figure 12.16.
landing-short
Figure 12.16: Extreme Short-Field Landing Procedure

On any runway, long or short, pick a definite spot and hit it as accurately as you can; don't just land ``somewhere'' down the runway. Then every landing can be practice for a short-field landing.

No matter what spot you pick, you want to land in the zone that starts at this spot and extends 100 feet or so beyond. If you have unfavorable conditions (such as gusts, wind shear, and/or an inexperienced pilot), the zone will be larger. Make sure the far end of this zone leaves enough room for the rollout, plus a safety margin.

If the field is so horribly short that you need to choose an aim point that is near the threshold, or ahead of it, choose a glide slope that is steep enough that you can fly it without engine power. (Or, better yet, go find a more reasonable runway somewhere else. At any field where you can depart with reasonable safety margins, you should be able to land with considerable margin at each end. See section 13.8.2.)

At any field that is not horribly short, you should make a power-on approach, and not aim for the very beginning of the runway. There are a couple of reasons for choosing a spot farther down the runway: (a) it gives you more obstacle clearance, and (b) if you should ever have engine trouble on final, you would have a much better chance of being able to make a power-off approach to the very beginning of the runway.

I often fly at a rather short, obstructed field: 1700 feet after the displaced threshold. We see people run off the end of the runway all too often. If you over-react to the possibility of such an over-run, you might be tempted to make an extreme short-field approach, so you would have the largest possible amount of runway ``left over''. With some skill and some headwind, you can land a Skyhawk using only the first half of the runway.

Much of flight safety depends on margins and on backup plans. At every phase of flight I ask myself how many things would have to go wrong at this point before I ran out of options.

So why put all the safety margin at the far end? What about the near end? A few years ago I decided that rather than using the first half of the runway, I would use the middle half of the runway.

Sure enough, a few months after making that decision, I was with a student who incapacitated the engine9 on 1/2 mile final. At that point we were close enough and high enough that I could glide toward the weeds as shown in figure 12.16, flare, and land on the runway with several inches to spare.

12.7.3   Touch Down at a Low Speed

*   Choose the Right Runway

The following statement may seem obvious, but it's worth emphasizing: Avoid landing with a tailwind! In an airplane that normally touches down at 50 knots, you will use up more than twice as much runway with a ten-knot tailwind than with a ten-knot headwind. Roughly speaking, the amount of runway consumed during rollout depends on the square of your groundspeed at touchdown.

Your Pilot's Operating Handbook should tell you how much runway will be consumed, as a function of headwind and other variables. Make sure your chosen runway is long enough. Include a safety margin, because the numbers in the book are based on flawless pilot technique, and you don't want to put yourself in a situation where perfection is required. Also, for reasons to be discussed below, even if you have a headwind, make sure you could safely land on the chosen runway without a headwind.

*   Compensate for Windshear and Gusts

Proper management of your airspeed during a short-field approach is complicated and tricky. You have some difficult compromises to make. A low airspeed gives you the best short-field performance, but a higher airspeed gives you highly desirable protection against stalling if there is a gust or a windshear (or a lapse in pilot technique).

Your Pilot's Operating Handbook should specify the speed to use for short-field landing. This is the speed you want to have when you begin your flare. In ideal conditions, you could trim for this speed early in the final approach leg, and maintain this speed all the way to the flare. In real-world conditions, however, the wind makes speed management much trickier.

Therefore, you need to include the following steps when planning your approach: On final (as always!) trim for the appropriate speed and fly with a light touch; this will greatly help you recognize when a windshear occurs, as discussed in section 12.12.

If your approach speed includes a gust allowance and the expected gust does occur, then you are in good shape. Assuming you are at the right altitude and assuming you are not expecting any further windshear, you can just raise the nose and retrim. You are now flying at the handbook approach speed just as if there had been no gust and no gust allowance. The rest of the approach should be straightforward. (You typically need to make a slight power reduction, because in the absence of the headwind you will arrive at the runway sooner, so staying on the glideslope requires less power.)

On the other hand, if the gust does not occur, you will arrive at the runway with too much airspeed. Fortunately, though, if you have followed all the steps above, the gust allowance is less than the headwind component, so your groundspeed is less than the calm-wind short-field groundspeed, and you if you proceed to land your rollout shouldn't consume any more runway than it would in the calm-wind case.

The foregoing describes the correct procedure, in which you anticipated the windshear. Let's now consider various situations that could arise if you have forgotten to include a gust allowance in your approach speed.

1) Suppose you are flying at the handbook's short-field approach speed when a gust or windshear robs you of ten knots. If this happens on long final, several hundred feet above the ground, it is no big deal. You have lots of altitude and lots of time. You can regain your airspeed by diving about 60 feet, according to the law of the roller coaster (section 1.2.1). At this point you are on a new glide path which is 60 feet lower than the old one. This will take you to a point about 600 feet short of where the old one would have (assuming a 6 degree glide slope), but you can correct for this by increasing the power, re-intercepting the desired glide path, and then reducing the power.10

2) Now suppose you suffer a similar unanticipated loss of airspeed when you are only 50 feet above the ground. In this case you have a definite problem. At this point you are on (or below) the desired glidepath and below the desired airspeed. You have a critical energy shortage. You have nothing to gain by pulling back on the yoke; if you try it you are likely to wind up as a statistic — one more ``unexplained'' stall/spin accident. The proper way to deal with it is to apply full power, as discussed in section 1.4. Simultaneously, dive to regain airspeed. Dive as much as you can without hitting anything, and then proceed with a go-around. Do not attempt to salvage this approach. Instead, go around and set up a proper approach, including an allowance for the windshear.

Beware decreasing headwind on final.

*   Compensate for Density and Weight

Suppose you are flying at less than standard weight. For reasons discussed in section 2.12.4, the angle of attack will be the same but the indicated airspeed will be less. The percentage change in speed should be half the percentage change in weight.

Now suppose you are landing at a high-altitude airport, where the air density is less. For reasons discussed in section 2.12.3, the angle of attack will be the same and the indicated airspeed will be the same — but the true airspeed will be greater, the vertical speed will be greater, and the ground speed will be greater, by about 2% per thousand feet of density altitude. Because of the groundspeed, you will consume more runway, about 4Your POH should contain a chart or table with more accurate information.

Note that in all cases, being able to accurately perceive the angles is a big help.

12.7.4   Use the Brakes

To stop in the shortest possible distance, the procedure is as follows: The reasons for these steps are as follows:

The amount of braking force that a tire can provide is directly proportional to how much weight is on the tire. As a consequence, you want to make sure there is as much weight as possible on the wheels before applying the brakes. If the nose is in the air, the wings are still supporting part of the weight of the airplane. Lowering the nose reduces the angle of attack. Retracting the flaps also reduces the angle of attack, since it reduces the angle of incidence.11

A skidding tire provides much less braking force than a non-skidding tire. You never have anything to gain by allowing the tire to skid. Furthermore, skidding can very quickly lead to loss of directional control. If you think the tires might be skidding, release the brakes so they stop skidding, re-establish directional control, then reapply the brakes.

In addition the loss of braking effectiveness, skidding is very destructive to the tires — it quickly grids away one part of the tire. The loss of rubber shortens the life of the tire, and the loss all from one place throws the tire out of balance. An out-of-balance tire tends to thrash itself off the pavement, reducing braking and steering effectiveness.

The idea of pulling back on the yoke during braking is simple: it increases the weight on the main wheels (which is where the brakes are). The main wheels are now supporting their normal share of the weight of the airplane, plus whatever down-force is being developed by the elevator, plus whatever share was previously being supported by the nosewheel. The idea is not to lift the nosewheel off the ground, just to bring its share of the weight almost to zero.

See section 12.6.4 for additional discussion of the rollout, including the case of a not-very-short runway.

12.7.5   Summary: High-Performance Landing

For a short-field landing (compared to the basic landing described in the previous section) ... These points can be seen by comparing figure 12.16 to figure 12.14.

12.8   Soft-field Landing

If the field is soft or bumpy, it is important to touch down (1) as gently as possible, with the smallest possible vertical speed, and (2) with the lowest possible groundspeed. (In gusty-wind conditions, these two objectives are somewhat in conflict, and the first one should get priority. That is, it is better to touch down with a tiny bit of extra horizontal speed, rather than to risk ``dropping'' the airplane into the mire with any appreciable vertical speed.)

The key element of soft-field technique is to use engine power during the flare and touchdown. This helps in two ways: first of all, the propwash over the wings lowers the stalling speed, meaning you can touch down at a lower speed, and secondly, the power allows you to fly horizontally over the runway for an extended time, descending very slowly, gently ``feeling for the runway''.

The approach to a soft-field is basically the same as a normal approach. The only differences are as follows:

On short final, after you are assured of reaching the field, you should extend full flaps. (They're optional on normal landings.)

Fairly late in the flare maneuver, you should add a little bit of power, just enough to maintain level flight, or a little bit less. The required amount of power is remarkably small. You are in ground effect, so there is very little induced drag, and you are moving slowly, so there is very little parasite drag. If you add too much power, the airplane will accelerate or climb, which is not what you want. You will be much too busy to look at the engine gauges during this maneuver, so use your ears: you can learn to recognize the right amount of power by its sound.

When the main wheels make contact with the ground, friction will cause the airplane to decelerate, possibly quite rapidly. This friction will also create a torque that tends to slam the nosewheel into the ground, so you generally have to pull back on the yoke to prevent this. Also, you can anticipate that the deceleration will drive your body forward (relative to the plane) at just the moment where you want to be pulling back, so tighten your shoulder harness and brace yourself.

As soon as possible after touchdown, reduce the power to idle.

As always, when taxiing on a soft surface, keep the airplane moving. If you stop, the airplane might sink in, and you will be unable to get it moving again.

During the rollout, and during taxiing on rough surfaces, it is usually a good idea to pull the yoke all the way back. The remaining airspeed and/or the propeller blast acting on the tail helps to reduce the weight on the nosewheel. This is important because (1) the nosewheel is usually more vulnerable to damage than the main wheels, and (2) more importantly, if the nosewheel drops too heavily into a pothole it could result in a prop strike.

Here's an advanced technique: if you are taxiing toward an abrupt bump, such as the edge of a piece of pavement, keep the yoke all the way back and apply a blast of power during the few feet leading up to the bump. If you do it right, in some aircraft the propwash hitting the tail will allow you to ``pop a wheelie'', lifting the nosewheel almost (or perhaps entirely) off the ground. As soon as the nosewheel is over the bump, reduce the power back to idle.

If you are based at a paved airport, the ideal way to learn soft-field procedure is to fly somewhere that has a paved runway and an unpaved runway. Land on the paved runway, then practice soft-field taxiing and takeoffs before trying soft-field landings. This way your first experience with a soft bumpy runway comes at the lowest speeds rather than the highest speeds.

12.9   Crosswind Landing

Immediately before landing, the airplane is moving through the air, and is hardly affected by the ground. During the landing process and afterward, the airplane is moving along the ground — and is still affected by the air.

During the landing process and afterward, we want the airplane to be moving straight down the runway, and we also want the axis of the airplane to be pointing straight down the runway. These are two separate requirements; especially in the presence of a crosswind it is all too easy to have the airplane moving in one direction and pointing in another.

The only way to meet all the requirements is to land in a slip.

Suppose for sake of discussion that the crosswind is coming from the right. Early on final approach you observe that in order to keep the airplane's motion aligned with the runway, the airplane's heading is pointed a few degrees to the right. This in normal, coordinated flight; the airplane's heading is aligned with the relative wind.

It is a very bad idea to touch down with the airplane's heading aligned with the relative wind as opposed to the runway. This will create a huge sideways force on the landing gear, and could knock the tires right off their rims. If the tires survive, they will create a sudden large force in the direction you are pointing. This will cause the airplane to scoot off the upwind side of the runway.12

You need to change the direction you are pointing so that it is aligned with the runway, not the relative wind — and you need to do it without changing the direction you are going. Changing the heading is quite easily done using the rudder. You press the rudder pedal on the downwind side (the left pedal in this case). Rudder alone does not suffice, since as soon as the heading is changed the wind will strike the side of the fuselage and start blowing the airplane off course — an undesired boat turn (as discussed in section 8.10). Therefore you must lower the upwind wing; the lift vector is now tilted toward the upwind side, providing a force that counteracts the wind on the fuselage.

You are now ready to touch down. Land on the upwind wheel. Land on the upwind wheel!13 You should keep the ailerons and rudder deflected even after touchdown. Keep rolling along on one wheel for a while; as the airplane decelerates you will need to apply more and more aileron deflection in order to maintain the bank angle. Remember, you need that bank angle to provide the force that resists the wind.

Land on the upwind wheel.

Only after the upwind wheel has considerable weight on it should you allow the downwind wing to settle. At this point the aircraft is no longer banked. The friction of the wheels on the runway is the only force resisting the sideways force of the wind. The amount of sideways friction a tire can produce is proportional to the weight on it, which is why you must not level the wings until there is plenty of weight on the wheel(s).

At no point should you neutralize the ailerons. Keep the ailerons deflected so that the upwind wheel remains firmly planted on the runway. As airspeed decreases, you will need progressively more aileron deflection to create the required amount of force.

To reiterate, the overall sequence should be:
  1. Lower the upwind wing and apply downwind rudder.
  2. Land on the upwind wheel.
  3. As the lift dies away, the weight of the airplane will force the other main wheel onto the ground.
  4. Then you can let the nosewheel come down.
During this whole process you need to maintain pressure on the downwind rudder pedal, to counteract the weathervaning tendency (section 8.11). As soon as there is weight on the nosewheel, the nosewheel steering becomes effective, adding to whatever steering the aerodynamic forces on the rudder have been providing. Therefore at this point you can expect to suddenly need somewhat less pedal deflection.

Maintain appropriate aileron and rudder deflection during the rest of the rollout, and during taxiing as well. Remember, the flight isn't over until the airplane is tied down.

The question arises: at what point should you make the transition from coordinated flight (on final) to slipping flight (for touchdown)? Some pilots prefer to establish the slip on short final or even earlier; the idea is to have time to get the ``feel'' of the slip. My recommendation, though, is to begin the slip at the same time you are beginning the flare, not much earlier. The rationale is: (1) A strong crosswind is usually accompanied by a considerable headwind component, delaying your arrival at the runway, in which case an early slip is the last thing you need. It just creates drag which steals energy and aggravates the tendency to land short.14 (2) The winds near the ground are never the same as the winds aloft, so any slip established on final will have to be changed during the flare anyway.

Be sure to correct for whatever crosswind is actually there at each point, not the crosswind you were expecting. Crosswinds are notoriously variable. As you descend and as you travel down the runway, you move in and out of the lee of trees and buildings.

If the crosswind is really strong and/or variable, you might consider using less than full flaps, as discussed in section 12.7.1.

12.10   Going Around

Before you begin the approach, at the time you review the landing checklist, be sure to review the go-around checklist.

If you're not prepared for the go-around,
you're not prepared for the approach.

There are many situations that call for a go-around. You should think about this in advance and establish guidelines for yourself so that you can begin a go-around immediately when the need arises.

If you need to go around, don't wait until the last moment. If you are rolling toward the end of the runway and are worried about running off the end into the trees, attempting a go-around will only make it worse. It is better to hit the trees when you are almost stopped than to hit the trees with almost enough energy for a go-around. An early go-around is good, but a late go-around is worse than nothing.

Here are some guidelines. You can imagine exceptions; for instance if you are flying a glider it is hard to perform a go-around. So you should come up with guidelines adapted to your situation. The point is that you should think about the go-around decision in advance. The accident records contain many examples of people who got into trouble because they spent too long deciding whether or not to go around.

If ATC clears you to land, that does not prohibit you from going around. For instance, if your gear is not down, ATC would prefer to see you go around rather than land gear-up. Similarly, if ATC clears you to ``land and hold short'' of a runway intersection, they would prefer see you go around early rather than skid through the intersection at the last moment.

Energy mismanagement is the most-common reason for go-arounds. This is a good reason for evaluating your energy situation early and often. Ask yourself: are we high and fast, or low and slow? Fixing an energy problem is easy if you start early, but it is hard or impossible if you start late. Also remember:

An early go-around is good, but
a late go-around is worse than nothing.

When you begin the go-around, do it right. Don't add ``some'' power; add full takeoff power.

In a Cessna 152, 172, or 182 with flaps extended, an increase in engine power will magically re-trim the airplane for a lower airspeed, as mentioned in section 2.3. This is annoying when you make small power adjustments on final approach, and downright dangerous when you apply full power for a go-around. Your first defense (which works in all airplanes) is to watch the pitch attitude; if the nose starts to pitch up, push it down with the yoke. This is sometimes quite a hefty push. (Practice simulated go-arounds at a safe altitude every so often, so you won't be surprised.)

Take a look at the airspeed indicator. Raise or lower the nose as necessary to establish the proper airspeed for the go-around.

After you have done the right thing with the power and the angle of attack, start working on the configuration. If you are carrying full flaps, remember that the last notch contributes a lot of drag but doesn't contribute much to the stalling speed, so you want to retract that notch fairly early in the process. Also, retracting the flaps part way will help with the trim problems. Don't retract the rest of the flaps until you have a reasonable airspeed margin above the stall. To the extent possible, use the trim wheel to take the pressure off the yoke. (A yoke-mounted electric trim switch comes in very handy for this.)

Make sure you have established a positive rate of climb before retracting the gear. This rule arises because in some situations you may need to perform a ``bounce and go'' — that is, to touch down on the runway briefly before going around. It is much nicer to bounce on the wheels.

12.11   Learning to Land the Airplane

12.11.1   Maneuver by Reference to the Edge

As mentioned in section 12.6.2 and section 12.2, in most airplanes, the pilot cannot see the runway centerline when the airplane is the proper attitude for touchdown. This comes as a shock to many student pilots.

Therefore, we want to land on the center line by reference to the edge line.

There are several good ways to learn to do this. Repeated out-of-control attempts to land the airplane are not the recommended way.

A trick that works beautifully in typical light Cessnas (150/152/172/182)16 is the following: taxi down to the end of a disused runway (e.g. the crosswind runway) or a long taxiway that resembles a runway. Taxi into ``takeoff position'' and shut down the engine. You remain in the left seat, while your instructor sits on the tail, raising the nose to touchdown attitude. You should sit there for several minutes contemplating the perceptions. Compare level attitude with touchdown attitude. You will note that in touchdown attitude, you will not be able to see the centerline or the right-hand edge of the runway, but you will be able to see the left-hand edge. Especially if you move your head a little toward your side of the airplane, you should be able to see the whole sideline — from the point abeam your position all the way to the far end.

You can study these perceptions during taxi. Fortunately, all landings are preceded by takeoffs. Especially in an unfamiliar airplane, you should consciously use the pre-takeoff taxi to practice taxiing on the centerline without looking at the centerline. That has a certain Zen ring to it, doesn't it? The trick is to taxi by reference to the taxiway edge line on your side. If the taxiway is 40 feet wide, you should concentrate on taxiing 20 feet in from the left edge. The instructor may help by holding a chart in front of your nose, forcing you to control the airplane by reference to the sideline.17 Every ten seconds or so the chart will be moved aside so you can recalibrate your perceptions.

During taxi, you should also practice perceiving height. Ask yourself, ``how far below me are the wheels?'' You will need to know that when it comes time for landing.

12.11.2   Hesitation Takeoff

Make sure you have an instructor with you, especially the first time you try this. At an airport with a nice long runway, taxi into position for take-off. Pull the yoke all the way back, as you would for a soft-field takeoff. Using full power temporarily, accelerate until the nose comes up to the attitude that corresponds to stalling angle of attack or slightly less. Then retard the throttle almost to idle so that your airspeed does not increase any more. Do not let the pitch attitude or the airspeed get so high that you actually become airborne. Do not raise the nose so much that the tail hits the runway. Then just taxi down the runway in this configuration. Make a careful note of the perceptions of height, pitch, heading, and left/right position relative to the edge line.

Make sure you don't run out of runway. One option is to close the throttle, stop, and taxi back. Another option is to add power and fly away. Be careful to maintain constant pitch attitude as you increase the power. This will require releasing some of the back pressure on the yoke. This is because the increased propwash increases the effectiveness of the tail.

12.11.3   Practice Maneuvering at Altitude

The traditional (but not the best) way to learn about landing the airplane is try it again and again until it comes out right.

Landing practice has its place, of course — but it is not the only thing, or the first thing, you should do. Especially if you are learning landings for the first time, or are learning to fly a new type of airplane, there is no point in practicing defective landings over and over. That just reinforces bad habits. Also, as Langewiesche (reference 1) pointed out, landings happen so quickly that there is very little time to learn anything.

Therefore, you should leave the traffic pattern. Go somewhere where you have more altitude and fewer other aircraft. Perform the familiarization exercises as described in section 16.8.

You want to spend a fair amount of time practicing slow flight. This is the sort of thing you really want to learn in the practice area, not during an attempted landing. Landing involves flying very slowly, right next to the ground. You've got no business trying to fly slowly at three feet above ground level (AGL) if you don't know how to do so at three thousand feet AGL.

In slow flight, in the landing configuration, make a note of the angle of attack. This is the angle of attack you want to have when you touch down on the runway. Remember the pitch attitude that goes with this angle of attack. Observe the angle the cowling makes relative to the forward horizon, and observe the angle the wingtip makes relative to the lateral horizon. Since at touchdown you will be (I hope) flying purely horizontally (i.e. negligible vertical velocity), the pitch attitude tells you everything you need to know about the angle of attack (at any given flap setting).

You will probably discover that the angle of attack you want to have on final approach is halfway between the cruise angle of attack and the stalling angle of attack. This rule of thumb is related to the more widely known rule of thumb that approach speed should be about 1.3 times the stalling speed.18

This little fact (approach angle of attack is halfway between cruise angle of attack and stalling angle of attack) is more useful than it might seem. It means you can land the airplane — and I mean an on-the-numbers, short-field landing if necessary — even if your airspeed indicator has failed (or you just can't see it because your lights have failed at night). You should not consider yourself properly ``checked out'' in an airplane until you know how to do this.

Table 12.1 shows some airspeeds and angles for a typical general-aviation aircraft.19


Airspeed (KCAS)
Pitch Attitude
Incidence
Angle of Climb Angle of Attack
cruise (clean) 115   0.0 4.5   0.0  4.5
level VY (clean)
 76   4.0 4.5   0.0  8.5
level (flaps)  76   0.0 8.5   0.0  8.5
slower (flaps)  70   2.0 8.5   0.0 10.5
descent (flaps)
 70 -2.0 8.5 -4.0 10.5
flare (flaps) decr. incr. 8.5 incr. incr.
stall (flaps)  53  12.0 8.5   0.0 20.5
Table 12.1: Landing — Airspeeds and Angles
On approach, the angle of attack is distinctly not the same as the pitch attitude. Don't be fooled; bear in mind that you probably have ten or a hundred times more experience in level flight than you do in descending flight. You're not flying toward the horizon any more; you're flying toward a point several degrees below the horizon. As you transition from level flight to a four degree descent, you need to lower the nose by several degrees in order to maintain the same angle of attack.

12.11.4   Practice Flaring and Stalling at Altitude

The following is a great way to learn some of the skills that you need for landing the airplane.

Choose a safe altitude (3000 feet AGL or thereabouts) and designate it as the altitude of a ``virtual runway''. Starting at an altitude 500 feet or more above the virtual runway, set up a power-off glide in the landing configuration (gear and flaps extended) at the normal approach speed. Then, about 10 feet above the virtual runway, begin a flare, so that you wind up flying level, power off, at the virtual runway altitude. As the airplane decelerates, keep pulling back, cashing in airspeed to pay for drag, maintaining altitude. Continue pulling back until the airplane stalls. Then make a normal stall recovery.

The point of this maneuver is to learn at what rate you need to raise the nose during the flare to maintain level flight.

As a variation of the above procedure, you can practice ``soft field'' landings on the virtual runway. After you have flown horizontally at the virtual runway altitude for a second or two with zero power, add enough power to sustain steady level flight. See also next section.

Practice recovering from evil zooms (section 12.11.8) and other types of defective flare (section 12.11.9).

12.11.5   Practice Flying in the Runway Environment

As mentioned above, the landing flare lasts only a few seconds, and if you do a hundred landings you still have only a few minutes of experience handling a flaring airplane. Practicing slow flight at altitude is a tremendous help. Practice this. However, don't expect it to do the whole job, because (a) the airplane handles slightly differently in ground effect, and (b) you need to learn to perceive alignment with the runway, altitude, descent rate, etc. very precisely, based on visual cues in the runway environment.

Before actually trying to land the airplane, go to an airport with a nice long runway and make a few low passes at a safe airspeed.
1)
Make the first pass about 10 feet above the runway at approach speed.
2)
Then try it about 5 feet above the runway, at approach speed.
3)
As you gain skill and confidence, try it about 2 feet above the runway, at approach speed.
4)
Then try it about 1 foot above the runway, at approach speed.
During these maneuvers, you will learn to judge your height above the runway, learn to maneuver the plane so that it is centered on the runway, and learn to use the rudder (and opposite aileron) to get the fuselage aligned with the direction of motion even in the presence of a crosswind.

Finally, after you know how to perceive and control what is happening in the runway environment:
5)
Fly down the runway one foot or less above the surface, at a low airspeed. This will be discussed at length in the next section.
Note that it is a very, very bad idea to fly 10 feet or even 5 feet above the runway at a low airspeed. It is OK to stall the airplane at 3000 feet AGL, and it is OK to stall it at 0.5 feet AGL, but it is definitely not OK to drop it in from 10 feet AGL.

12.11.6   Learn Soft-Field Procedure First

After you are comfortable with high-speed flight in the runway environment, and with flaring the airplane at altitude, and handling it in the touchdown attitude, it is time for the most important exercise.

Fly the approach to a nice long runway. As you flare, advance the throttle a tiny amount. The idea is to generate enough power to allow you to fly down the runway in ground effect, a small distance above the ground. This is the soft-field landing procedure, but it works just fine on paved runways, too.20 Strive to maintain one foot of altitude. You should be able to hold this altitude within a few inches. As you become more proficient, try maintaining ever-lower altitudes with ever-finer precision.

The amount of power required is very small, perhaps only 100 RPM above idle. Because the airplane is in ground effect, induced drag is greatly reduced. Because the airplane is moving so slowly, parasite drag is very small.

Gradually raise the nose to the proper touchdown attitude, and keep flying down the runway at ``zero point five AGL''. If a gust comes along and drops you the last six inches, it will be a perfect landing.

Remember to keep a careful watch on the runway edge; in the proper touchdown attitude you won't be able to see the centerline and if you persist in trying to look out the front you will wander off to one side and mow down the runway lights.

Also, keep your wits about you — don't fly the whole length of the runway and run into the trees at the end. Make a timely decision to add power and go around, or chop the power and land.

Take the time to look down at the runway, to double check your perception of height. Look at the lateral wingtip against the horizon. Get rid of the notion that the landing is something that happens at a point in time. Landing is a process that lasts a goodly amount of time.

12.11.7   Nose-High Rollout

After landing, the nosewheel is supposed to stay in the air for a while. For practice, you can make it stay in the air quite a bit longer by adding a tiny amount of power. That creates a situation analogous to the hesitation takeoff described in section 12.11.2.

Even if you don't add power, try to keep the nosewheel off the ground for as long as you can (provided you've got enough runway). This has two advantages.
  1. When the nose is up in the air, the airplane produces relatively high drag. This called aerodynamic braking. It allows you to slow down without wearing out the brakes. On the other hand, aerodynamic braking is not as effective as real brakes, so if you are approaching the end of the runway, lower the nose and retract the flaps. This puts more weight on the wheels, and therefore allows you to apply the brakes more heavily without skidding.
  2. This provides additional practice handling the plane in the proper touchdown attitude. You should try to learn from every landing.
Another suggestion: You will sometimes (alas) touch down with a too-low nose attitude, so that the nosewheel hits almost immediately. If this happens, gently raise the nose to the proper attitude. Again, the purpose of this is twofold: aerodynamic braking plus a reminder of what proper touchdown attitude looks like. If this causes you to become airborne again, it means that your touchdown speed was much too high, which is a valuable lesson. Just stop raising the nose, wait half a second, and the airplane will re-land.

12.11.8   Recovering from an Evil Zoom

Consider the situation where you flare too much, too late. That is, you fly down quite near the ground and, while your airspeed is still several knots above the stall, you pull back on the stick quite a lot. The pitch attitude will become very much nose-up. If you allow this pitch attitude to persist, the airplane will zoom up a few feet and then stall. At this point, there is no way to prevent a crash. The usual stall-recovery procedure (diving to regain airspeed) will not work. You won't be able to dive enough, because the ground gets in the way.

This is a common and very serious mistake. It is a particularly evil type of zoom. (Some other books call it ``ballooning'' but that seems like an insult to all the beautiful hot-air balloons and helium balloons in the world.)

Obviously you want to stay out of situations from which no recovery is possible. The solution in this case is simple: you absolutely must observe the pitch attitude. If you see a large nose-up pitch attitude, begin a recovery immediately. Do not wait to hear the stall warning horn. Do not wait to feel aerodynamic indications of a stall. Push the nose back down to the attitude that corresponds to slow flight (roughly 15 degrees nose up in typical airplanes) and apply full power immediately. You know that the airplane can fly level at full power in this attitude, so if achieve that attitude and that power setting soon enough (before you have lost too much airspeed) you will be fine. It is important to practice this procedure, as discussed in section 16.17.6.

Do not try to salvage the landing. Go around!

You cannot recover from an evil zoom simply by reversing the process that got you into trouble. During the upward zoom and the downward ``reverse zoom'', the airplane loses so much energy due to drag that you will not be able to arrest the descent in time for touchdown. To say it again: If you see a bad nose-up situation and try to recover just by pushing the nose way down, the airplane will dive right into the runway nose-first. This is an example of a pilot-induced oscillation, as discussed in section 16.3.

You can reduce your chance of falling prey to an evil zoom by thinking about the pitch attitude at all times. You need to control attitude in the short term, as a means of controlling altitude in the long term.

12.11.9   Salvaging an Imperfect Flare

Nothing is perfect. Sometimes the flare is noticeably imperfect, yet not so bad that a go-around is required. The number of possible imperfections is enormous, but it is worth discussing how to handle the most-common cases.

Remember that for any given airspeed on short final, there will be exactly one ideal altitude at which to begin the roundout, and one ideal rate at which to raise the nose.

Scenario #1: Suppose you begin the roundout a little bit too late, and/or raise the nose too slowly during the initial moments of the roundout. You can detect this by noticing that the ground is rushing up toward you and will reach you too soon.

Solution: Raise the nose at a slightly higher rate than usual, fast enough to arrest the descent in the available time. This results in an almost-nice roundout, just a little bit squared-off. At that point you have the right altitude (a few inches) and the right vertical speed (zero), but your airspeed will be too high. If there is enough runway available, just skim along until the airspeed bleeds off, then land. On a short runway, go around — the sooner the better.

Scenario #2: Suppose you begin the flare at about the right time, but you raise the nose at too great a rate during the first part of the roundout. (This can be considered a very mild version of the evil zoom discussed in the previous section.)

Solution: If you notice this early enough, you can salvage the situation. You should temporarily stop raising the nose. Hold a constant pitch attitude for a few moments. This constant pitch attitude will not correspond to a constant airspeed, nor a constant angle of attack, nor a constant vertical speed. The airplane will lose energy, lose airspeed, and develop an ever-increasing rate of descent. You may think that lowering the nose is the ``obvious'' way to undo the error, but you should resist the temptation; by the time you have manage to lower it, you will be at too low an altitude with too great a descent rate. Therefore, just hold a constant pitch attitude. Adding a smidge of power (a) will keep things from happening too fast, and (b) means you will have more energy at the end of the roundout. (If you add too much power, then at the end of the roundout you'll have more energy than you need, causing prolonged skimming as discussed in the previous scenario.) As you fly along at constant pitch attitude, at some point you will see a combination of airspeed and descent rate that you recognize from your previous normal landings. At that point, resume raising the nose at an appropriate rate.

Scenario #3: Suppose you begin the flare too early. Your first indication that something is wrong might be the following: You are flying a nice circular looping path that will be tangent to the ground; that is, you will reach zero altitude at just the time you reach zero vertical speed. However, alas, you notice that in order to do that, you are raising the nose at a rate that will lead to a stall before the roundout is completed.

Solution: Add a little bit of power. During the rest of the maneuver, raise the nose at a reduced rate. (Once again, if you add too much power, it could eat up a lot of runway.)

12.12   Fly with a Light Touch

As discussed in section 2.7, it is vitally important to fly with a light touch. This is good practice in all regimes of flight, but it is particularly important on approach. In particular, imagine you are conducting a short-field approach, which means you've got no excess airspeed. Suppose on long final everything is just right: the right direction of flight, the right pitch attitude, the right angle of attack, the right airspeed — and in particular, the right trim.

You can — and should — confirm that you've got the right trim by letting go of the yoke.21

Now suppose that on half mile final the airplane spontaneously pitches down.

The airplane is trying to tell you something! It is trying to tell you that it lost some airspeed — presumably because of a windshear. This is a very, very common thing to happen on final. You are presumably landing into the wind, and the headwind is almost certainly stronger at pattern altitude than it is on the ground. Therefore you are virtually guaranteed to encounter a decreasing headwind during the final descent. This will rob you of some airspeed. If you are lucky, it will happen so gradually that nobody notices. If you are not lucky, it will happen suddenly. A few knots will suddenly disappear from the airspeed indicator (which you may not notice) and the airplane will want to pitch down (which it is your duty to notice).

The all-too-common temptation is to pull back on the yoke, trying to maintain pitch attitude and (vainly) hoping to maintain constant angle of descent. This is not smart.

Remember: the airplane is trimmed for a definite angle of attack. If you pull back on the yoke, you are forcing the airplane to a higher angle of attack (and a lower airspeed). Since you were already trimmed for short-field approach speed, this is definitely not a good idea.

To reiterate: the yoke is not just a control carrying commands from you to the airplane — it is also a valuable sensor carrying information from the airplane to you.

You should make sure the airplane is at all times trimmed for the right airspeed (or, rather, angle of attack). You should be aware of (and wary of) any force you apply to the yoke, forcing the airplane off its trim speed.

Additional discussion of airspeed management, including compensation for windshear, can be found in in section 12.7.

12.13   Critique Your Own Landings

Some of my students learn faster than others. The ones that learn the fastest are the ones who have internalized a set of high standards (and even higher goals) and who have learned to critique their own performance. These folks give me a good feeling. I know that they will continue to get better even when I'm not in the plane — a pleasant contrast to those who get gradually worse when left to themselves, and depend on the instructor to get them back in shape.

The standards for a good approach and landing are reasonably easy to remember: If you can do all those things, you don't need an instructor to tell you it was a good landing.


1
If you are staying in the traffic pattern, doing touch-and-goes, you have to brief the landing checklist before takeoff.
2
To calibrate your thumb, you can use the following rather specialized facts: The standard face-plate on a household light switch is 4.5 inches tall. At a distance of 5 feet, 4 inches, it subtends four degrees. Therefore, measure the switch (just to make sure) and then stand with your eye 5'4'' away and see how your thumb compares.
3
By the way, you should make sure your line of sight to the threshold is unobstructed. At night, if you can't see the green threshold lights clearly, you should suspect there is an obstruction between them and the airplane. Add power!
4
Extending the flaps will help. A booster-cushion on the seat may help. A modest slip might help you see past the side of the nose. A landmark abeam the aim point often comes in handy. If the problem is severe, you might want to choose a different model of airplane.
5
Of course this angle is not exactly constant; it depends on flap setting, it depends on whether your seat is adjusted extra-high or extra-low, and it depends on the amount of headwind.
6
Obviously this discussion does not apply to tail-wheel type airplanes.
7
A student pilot might be tempted to always extend full flaps so that all landings would have the same incidence and would therefore look the same, but a sophisticated pilot should be able to deal with the difference between full-flap and partial-flap touchdown attitudes.
8
This applies to airspeeds that you can actually achieve, without stalling, at the reduced flap setting.
9
In a Cessna, if you pull the throttle all the way out and then bend it down, it's stuck at idle and you can't fix it without tools.
10
If your previous aim point was halfway down a long runway, you could just choose a new aim point 600 feet ahead of the old one, but you should feel guilty about doing so. If you ever have to choose a new aim point, you should take it as a warning of poor pilot technique.
11
On some airplanes, the flap handle is distressingly close to the landing gear handle. Make sure you grab the right one. You don't want to retract the landing gear by mistake.
12
You might think the wind would always blow airplanes off the downwind side of the runway, but more often than not they end up on the upwind side.
13
It is a common mistake among beginners to roll the wings level just before touchdown (even though they had been maintaining the correct slip up to that point) — perhaps in the effort to make it ``look like'' a normal no-crosswind touchdown.
14
Also: Heaven help you if try to ``stretch the glide'' by pulling back on the yoke. If you stall out of a slip you will enter a spin, and there will not be enough altitude for a recovery.
15
If that happens on long final, don't over-react.
16
It doesn't work as easily on Pipers, because they require much more force on the tail to raise the nose.
17
While you are looking out the side, don't forget to make a note of how the wingtip looks against the lateral horizon. That is provides very useful pitch and bank information.
18
As discussed in section 2.12.6, you must multiply the calibrated (not indicated) stalling speed by 1.3, and then convert the product to an indicated airspeed.
19
For other, similar aircraft, the numbers will be similar. In a radically different type of airplane (e.g. a jet interceptor with short, highly-swept wings) the numbers will be radically different.
20
As discussed in the previous section, do not attempt this maneuver until you are proficient at judging altitude and maneuvering in the runway environment. Do not do anything that puts you at risk of a low-altitude stall until you are within a foot or so of the runway.
21
Don't take your hand away and start scratching your ankle; just open your grip to the point where you are not quite touching the yoke.
22
On a long runway, on a day with gusty crosswinds, this is the least important of the criteria. I'm willing to compromise a little on spot-landing performance if necessary to get a soft, slow, well-aligned touchdown.

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