In practice, there are, as we all know, forces of the local geography we need to understand too. Tall trees on short final, a nearby body of water, hangars or other buildings located near the runway and numerous other features can all add unpredictability to the wind near ground level. Be prepared for wind variability, and be ready to go around if things aren’t working out. Another try or another, longer runway might be the solution.
MacNichol has a training program designed to teach pilots how to fly safely in the mountains. The program is predicated on the concepts necessary for safe flying in the mountains, but most of its principles apply equally well to less exotic locations. MacNichol begins by flying a series of stalls in different configurations and completing an aircraft performance worksheet. Based on the numbers from the performance sheet, several parameters for speed and power are established, among them the optimal approach speed for short-field landings. And this speed is generally very slow. The approach speeds for the modified Super Cub and Carbon Cub MacNichol uses are between 35 and 40 knots, much slower than the conventional singles many of us fly.
But the point is, regardless of what you’re flying, speed is critical to short-field landings because the slower you are going when you touch down, within a margin of safety, the shorter the landing distance will be. Full flaps will allow your airplane to safely fly slower while maintaining a safe margin from the stall, and full flaps is a recommendation you will find in the section of the airplane information manual that talks about short-field landings.
Before you land at a short and/or rough field, get to know the runway first. Just as floatplane pilots routinely overfly their intended touchdown spots, searching for debris and half-sunken hazards, we land-plane pilots are smart to overfly an unfamiliar short field to get a look, literally, at the lay of the land. How is the surface? What are the winds like? Are there any hazards (potholes, ditches, cables) you might not be able to spot from your view on short final? There’s a lot of good information to be gleaned.
You need to also carefully consider the approaches to the runways. Are there obstacles? Is there high terrain? If you need to go around, should you make that call early on the approach because of high terrain? What is the best way to turn if you do need to go around? These considerations are best made before you need to make the call.
Power management is also key, though answers here might not be so clear. Many manuals recommend reducing the power to idle once any obstacles are cleared. But if you reduce the power to idle, you will destabilize the approach and be more likely to touch down hard. A hard landing is fine for short fields, but on rough fields you could get yourself stuck. A more desirable tactic is to set up a stabilized approach with some power. A stabilized, power-on approach will allow you to maintain a steady pitch while managing the power to guide you to a specific point on the runway.
That specific point is called the aim point. Most often, the aim point will be near the approach end, but a careful scouting mission may determine that the approach end is too rough, in which case you may need to adjust your aim point further down the runway. (Take the runway length into consideration if your aim point is not near the approach end. If there isn’t sufficient runway length and the runway condition is questionable, don’t land.) Patches or lines on the runway of different colors may be signs of dips, ditches or other rough spots you should avoid.
With the aim point in mind, get yourself configured with full flaps and at the target approach speed early to set the airplane up for a stabilized approach.
While the school of thought varies from pilot to pilot, using pitch to maintain the airspeed and power to control the approach path is generally preferable. Use the aim point as a guide in the windscreen. If the aim point appears to descend in your field of vision, you are getting high and need to reduce the power. Conversely, if the aim point appears to float up in the windscreen, apply more power to get back on your approach path. Make small, timely corrections to maintain as stable an approach as possible.