[Comments or questions]
Copyright © 1996-2001 jsd
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 ApproachUse 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
Make a pocket checklist. Print up the
checklists you are going to need during flight and fold them in
such a way that they fit in a pocket. During preflight, put the
list in a convenient pocket.
- If you habitually use a lap desk, tape a copy
of the in-flight checklists to the lap desk itself.
- If space can be found, glue a copy of the in-flight
checklists to the instrument panel.
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
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
* Other Planning IssuesIn 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 RightLet'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).
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 ThumbEven 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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 AttackNow 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 TrimOne 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
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 ThingWe 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.
the glideslope angle,
angle of the aim point below the horizon,
- the pitch attitude,
i.e. the angle of the nose below the horizon, and
- the angle of attack, i.e. the angle of the aim
point above the nose.
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
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.
- The middle airplane is just right. All three
angles have their correct values. You got lucky.
- 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.
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:
Less-disastrous possibilities include the following:
Possibly your pitch attitude is too high (meaning
you might be about to stall).
- Possibly you are not really moving toward your
chosen aim point (meaning you are about to land long).
- Possibly you have both problems (long and slow).
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.
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.
- If you switch to an airplane with a longer, wider, and higher
snout, it might block your view during a normal approach.
- If you have a short torso, you might have trouble seeing the
aim point even if your copilot can see it easily.4
- If you use less than full flaps, it will
make the problem worse.
- An unusually large headwind will make the problem worse.
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.
I watch very closely the angle between the horizon
and the aim point, because this one is related to energy. Since
energy problems cannot be solved quickly, it really pays to notice
small changes in this angle as early as possible.
- As my second angle, I watch the nose relative
to the horizon. This is a strong habit. I always watch
the nose relative to the horizon, whether I am climbing, descending,
or flying level.
- The third angle (the position
of the aim point on the windshield) is particularly interesting
because it is related to angle of attack. It has the nice property of
remaining more-or-less5 constant from one approach to the next, whereas the
other two angles will change quite a bit depending on whether it is
a steep approach or a shallow approach. Committing this angle
to memory makes it possible to land without using the airspeed
12.4.3 Correct for WindThere 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.
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.
: Vertical, Horizontal Speeds Determine Angle
12.5 Other PerceptionsInstruments: 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
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.
the amount of headwind
- day versus night landing
- the model of airplane
- density altitude
12.6 Basic ``Normal'' LandingYour 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
The main aspects of the final approach were discussed
in previous sections.
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 ...
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
... your flight path becomes horizontal
- ... you reach the proper airspeed for touchdown
- ... you reach ground level
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.
... the airspeed you have before starting the flare
- ... the height at which you begin the flare
- ... the rate at which you raise the nose
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.
altitude, direction of flight, and attitude are just right, they
imply that your angle of attack, airspeed, and energy are just
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.
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
Continue skimming, gradually raising the nose, until the angle of
attack has increased to the point where you can land on the
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.
During the first part, called the
roundout, you are making the transition
from steadily descending flight to horizontal flight.
- During the second part, called skimming, you are
moving along horizontally, a foot or less above the ground, waiting
for the airspeed to bleed off so you can touch down at the proper
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:
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
Remember, good pilots are judged on their smoothness, not their
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
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 FlareHow do you recognize when it is time to begin the flare?
Let us begin by mentioning a few unhelpful answers to this question.
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
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.
- 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.
- Some people like to flare at about half the height of a typical
tree. Alas, trees work even worse than hangars, for similar reasons.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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 RolloutDon'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
are full of reports of pilots who made a decent touchdown and
then (a quarter mile later) stopped paying attention and had an
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 LandingThis 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:
- use the right configuration,
- touch down at the right point,
- touch down at an appropriately low airspeed, and
- use the brakes effectively.
12.7.1 Use the Right ConfigurationAs discussed in section 5.5, extending the flaps has
five main effects:
These influence the landing in various ways:
Flaps decrease the stalling speed.
- Flaps increase drag.
- Flaps increase the incidence.
- Flaps increase the washout.
- Flaps perturb the trim speed.
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
- Having a low stalling speed is always good.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Increased washout increases roll damping so the airplane
handles more nicely near the stall.
- 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?
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.
For any given airspeed8 you will touch down at a higher
pitch attitude. This means that if a gust during the ``skimming''
phase (after the roundout) causes you to touch down a little sooner
than you intended, you will still touch down on the main wheels.
This is good, because the main wheels can take a much bigger
load than the nosewheel.
- By the same token: For any given pitch attitude
you will touch down at a higher airspeed. In most respects, touching
down at a higher airspeed is bad, but one might make the following
argument: Since the sideways force of the crosswind on the fuselage
is largely independent of your forward airspeed, and since your
rudder authority etc. are proportional to airspeed squared, touching
down at a higher airspeed gives you more authority to combat the
crosswind. Therefore, if you are worried about running out of
control authority, you might consider using less flaps, maybe
even no flaps. The tradeoff is that even a modest increase in
touchdown speed means you will use up significantly more runway.
You must take this into account.
- As mentioned above, the stall speed increases.
This is 100% bad. Even if you want a higher touchdown airspeed,
you still would like it to be as far as possible above the stall.
Remember that the effect of the flaps on the incidence
(retract = nose-high = usually good) is different from the effect of
the flaps on the stall (retract = bad).
12.7.2 Touch Down at the Right PointIn 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.
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
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
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 RunwayThe 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 GustsProper 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.
Obtain a good estimate of the surface winds at the airport.
This could come from the ATIS, AWOS,
windsock, tower controller, other pilots, or whatever.
- Resolve the total wind into components, so you know what
headwind and crosswind to expect during landing. You can
use the methods of section 14.2.2, but rotate your
point of view so that you measure relative to runway heading, which
usually differs from your current heading (since you usually plan
the approach before turning onto final).
- Figure out what is the largest possible amount
of airspeed that you could lose to a sudden gust or windshear
on short final. (Gradual losses are no problem, and even sudden
losses on long final are a relatively minor problem.) Call this
amount the ``gust allowance''. If it is larger than the
headwind component, it means you are faced with the possibility
that the headwind could shear to a tailwind, and therefore you
should divert to a longer runway; you don't want to make a short-field
landing with a tailwind.
- Your airspeed on short final should be equal
to the short-field approach speed given in the POH plus
the gust allowance.
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
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
will consume more runway, about 4Your POH should contain a chart or table with more accurate
Note that in all cases, being able to accurately perceive the angles
is a big help.
12.7.4 Use the BrakesTo stop in the shortest possible distance, the procedure
is as follows:
The reasons for these steps are as follows:
Touch down on the main wheels as always,
- lower the nose wheel fairly soon thereafter,
- retract the flaps,
- apply the brakes, firmly but not skidding, and
- pull back on the yoke a little.
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 LandingFor 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.
the aim point is short of the touchdown point.
- the approach is steeper.
- the airspeed is less (at corresponding points
throughout the approach and roundout).
- the skimming phase is shorter or nonexistent.
- you lower the nose wheel sooner.
- you apply the brakes sooner and harder.
12.8 Soft-field LandingIf 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 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
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
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
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 LandingImmediately 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
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:
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.
Lower the upwind wing and apply downwind rudder.
- Land on the upwind wheel.
- As the lift dies away, the weight of the airplane will force
the other main wheel onto the ground.
- Then you can let the nosewheel come down.
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 AroundBefore 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.
If you think you might be too high and/or too fast to land
within the predetermined zone as mentioned
section 12.7.2, go around. Do not try to ``salvage''
the approach by using extra runway.
- If your attempted landing results in a bounce, go around.
Many accidents start with a harmless bounce; the salvage attempt
results in running off the runway or making a disastrously hard
- If there is a possibility of tailwind, make a low pass to
check out the windsock, then return for landing.
- If there is a possibility of wildlife on the runway, make a
low pass to scare them off, and another to make sure they are gone,
then return for landing.
- If the crosswind is so strong and/or gusty that you have
doubts about being able to keep the airplane on the runway, go
around. Indeed, don't just go around, go away. Find another runway
that is wider and/or more aligned with the wind.
- If another airplane pulls onto the runway when you are on
short final,15 break to one side and go around. Do not stay on the
centerline; break to one side so you can keep an eye on the
situation, since the other airplane remains a collision threat even
while you are going around. Do not try to land farther down the
runway (hoping that the other pilot will hold in position). Do not
try to land short (hoping that the other pilot will take off and get
out of your way).
- On an instrument approach, if you can't see the runway at
certain predetermined points, a go-around is mandatory.
- If you find yourself on final with the landing gear not down
and locked, or otherwise find yourself not in the correct landing
configuration, go around. This is usually a sign that you didn't
follow the landing checklist, and you need to take the time to
re-run the whole checklist, to see what other things you may
- Do not wait until you are sure you need a go-around; that's
the wrong question. The right question is whether you are sure
things are OK for landing. If you are unsure, go around.
- If ATC says go around, go around. If your copilot or
instructor says go around, go around. If you disagree, go around
and argue about it later. (There are exceptions; don't let yourself
get talked into attempting a dangerously late go-around.)
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
12.11 Learning to Land the Airplane
12.11.1 Maneuver by Reference to the EdgeAs 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
There are several good ways to learn to do this. Repeated
out-of-control attempts to land the airplane are not the recommended
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
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 TakeoffMake 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 AltitudeThe traditional (but not the best) way to learn about
landing the airplane is try it again and again until it comes
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
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
|Angle of Climb
||Angle of Attack
level VY (clean)
12.11.4 Practice Flaring and Stalling at AltitudeThe 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
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 EnvironmentAs 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.
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.
- Make the first pass about 10 feet above the runway
at approach speed.
- Then try it about 5 feet above the runway, at
- As you gain skill and confidence, try it about
2 feet above the runway, at approach speed.
- Then try it about 1 foot above the runway, at
Finally, after you know how to perceive and control
what is happening in the runway environment:
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.
- 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.
12.11.6 Learn Soft-Field Procedure FirstAfter 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
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
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
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
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 RolloutAfter 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
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.
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
- This provides additional practice handling the plane in the
proper touchdown attitude. You should try to learn from every
12.11.8 Recovering from an Evil ZoomConsider 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
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
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 FlareNothing 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
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
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 TouchAs 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
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 LandingsSome 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.
Review the checklist before the approach. Make
sure you are prepared for the approach, the landing, and the
- Use the right configuration (flaps, landing gear,
carburetor heat, cowl flaps, et cetera).
- On final, track the extended centerline. (That
is, don't just fly toward the threshold at some cockeyed angle.)
- On final, maintain the correct angle of attack.
Flying with a light touch will help you with this.
- On final, maintain a constant angle of descent.
That is, keep the aim point a constant angle below the horizon.
- Pick a definite spot along the runway. Pretend
it is the beginning of a very short runway, and try to land beyond,
but less than 100 feet beyond, that point.22
- At touchdown, the nosewheel should definitely
be in the air.
- The touchdown should be gentle enough that the
nosewheel stays in the air during touchdown and during
the first 50 feet of the rollout.
- At touchdown and thereafter, the axis of the
airplane and its direction of motion should be aligned
with the runway. In a crosswind, this means landing on the upwind
- At touchdown and thereafter, the airplane should
be sufficiently well centered that the centerline is between the
- Don't (accidentally or otherwise) apply the brakes
until there is plenty of weight on the wheels.
- Stay in control during the rollout.
- If you are staying in the traffic
pattern, doing touch-and-goes, you have to brief the landing checklist
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
- By the way, you should
make sure your line of sight to the threshold is
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!
- 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.
- 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.
- Obviously this discussion does not apply to tail-wheel
- 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.
applies to airspeeds that you can actually achieve, without stalling,
at the reduced flap setting.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- If that happens on long final, don't
- It doesn't work as easily
on Pipers, because they require much more force on the tail to raise
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.
- 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.
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.
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
take your hand away and start scratching your ankle; just open
your grip to the point where you are not quite touching the yoke.
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,
[Comments or questions]
Copyright © 1996-2001 jsd