We all have to learn how to perform short- and soft-field landings as part of the training for the private pilot certificate. The short-field landing is one of the most difficult maneuvers because of the precision required to pass the task. You have to maintain the approach speed to accuracy and land the airplane within 200 feet of a designated landing point.
But precision landings should not be forgotten after your designated pilot examiner signs your certificate. With good short-field technique and proficiency you can fly into scenic, serene areas inaccessible by any means other than small airplanes. While the subject of short-field landing skills might conjure up visions of mountain strips tucked away in scenic alpine valleys, the truth is, even those of us who live in the flatlands can benefit from honing our short-field skills. Whether it’s landing at a short field that’s home to your shade-tree mechanic, making use of that short crosswind strip when the longer main strip is closed for repair or just stopping in at a cozy out-of-the-way airfield, having the skills to fly your airplane to within shouting distance of its performance capabilities makes the airplane more useful and you a better pilot.
The point you must be sure not to miss is that landing on short airstrips consistently and predictably requires skill and proficiency. While floating 1,000 feet down the runway on your 7,000-foot home runway might seem a meaningless bit of sloppy flying, when it comes to short fields, it could be a terrible mistake.
Optimizing Landing Distance
You can practice short- and rough-field landing techniques at any airport. Having a few thousand feet of extra runway is a great margin of safety, and with the runway distance markers, you can easily determine how short each landing is. It’s not worth pushing your luck on a 1,500-foot runway just to prove you can do it without knowing how short you can consistently land the airplane.
The first thing to do is figure out the direction in which to land to make your landing as short as possible by carefully evaluating two main factors, the first being wind speed and direction and the second the slope of the runway. Though there are relatively few occasions where slope enters into our Lower 48 flying, it’s likely we all have one or two favorite destinations with runways that have a bit of a slope to them.
For airports that are sloped, it is almost always best to land uphill. “Every 1 degree of grade gives you 10 percent more runway length,” says Lori MacNichol, owner of McCall Mountain/Canyon Flying Seminars. A 10 percent decrease in the landing distance would require about 10 knots of headwind component for most airplanes. So if you’re landing on a gradient of 3 degrees, landing uphill essentially gives you a 30 percent improvement in runway length. You would need a lot of wind to counteract that.
Uphill/downhill landing strips might be the exception to the rule, but wind is everywhere we fly. Its effects are stronger and more critical than many pilots understand. You don’t think so? Check out the National Transportation Safety Board accident reports, which are filled with mishaps caused by the pilot in command making poor wind-related decisions.
When it comes to wind, the rules in theory are relatively simple. Know its speed and direction before you land (or take off), and factor that information into the plan. A landing on a 1,800-foot-long strip with a 10-knot headwind is doable for many light singles, but landing on the same runway with a 10-knot tailwind could be a recipe for disaster.