Since the approach speed is likely only a few knots above stall, it is critical to fly accurately. MacNichol challenges her students to stay within 0 knots below and 1 knot above the target speed to enable the shortest landing possible while minimizing the risks. That demands a lot more accuracy than the commercial pilot practical test standards, which only require you maintain your approach speed within plus or minus 5 knots. But why not push yourself to make every approach and landing as accurate as you can, even when you’re landing on a 5,000-foot paved runway?
Flying a stabilized approach is always important, but it’s critical for short-field landings. If you get too high to correct the path with power you can slip the airplane, but keep in mind you’re probably better off going around and re-establishing your approach path than trying to fix an approach that is not stable. And avoid getting low on the approach, particularly when there are obstacles around. In addition to helping you clear any obstacles near the runway, a steeper approach makes it more likely for you to reach the runway in case you have an engine failure.
If you have any doubt about the safety of the approach, go around. If the approach looks good, however, the goal is for the touchdown to be precise, without float, much like a Navy pilot’s carrier landing, but at the same time soft enough to prevent getting stuck in the soft surface. If you feel your descent rate is too high, you can arrest the descent with a short blast of power to cushion the touchdown. Once your wheels touch the ground, immediately pull the power to idle, maintain back pressure on the yoke or stick to keep the nosewheel off the ground and retract the flaps to minimize the landing roll. If you’re landing on a rough strip with a slight grade, you will likely need minimal, if any, brakes to stop the airplane. But on a hard surface, you may need to apply heavy brakes to get the airplane stopped in the shortest distance.
Know the Airplane
While taildraggers such as the Super Cub, Husky and Cessna 185 are excellent short-field performers because of the tailwheel configuration, which gives good prop clearance, along with their good stall and slow flight characteristics and the ability to put on oversize tires, the range of airplanes you can use for short and rough fields is wider than you may think. We spoke to a number of owners of tricycle-gear airplanes who regularly fly their airplanes into gravel and grass strips not much longer than 1,000 feet.
Regardless of the type of airplane you fly, you need to be intimately familiar with how the airplane behaves in different configurations in order to land safely at these types of airstrips. Know its characteristics when you’re flying at its slowest approach speed, when it’s hot and when it’s high, and you’ll be able to precisely land your airplane as short as is safely and routinely possible. It should go without saying that you can learn a lot of this at altitude.
When you’re ready to test your skills, select an airport with a level of difficulty appropriate to your level of experience and the airplane you fly. Also, since many short and rough airstrips are in mountainous terrain, density altitude is a very important consideration that will degrade performance. Just because you can land your airplane within 1,000 feet at sea level doesn’t mean you can do it at an 8,000-foot density altitude. As you know, airspeed and ground speed are two very different things. At 8,000 feet field elevation it might seem as though you’re going fast on final approach even when you have the airspeed pegged at your usual, slow value. That’s because you are moving over the ground faster, much faster in fact, than you would at sea level, thanks to the density altitude. That high ground speed means longer ground rolls on landing.
So, how do you get good at short-field landings? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall — practice. Most certified flight instructors can effectively teach you how to make a short-field landing that will allow you to pass a check ride, but it takes an instructor skilled in short-field techniques to help you get to the next level. You don’t need to go to a 1,000-foot strip to practice these techniques. In fact, you shouldn’t. Stick to your home airport, and instead of making the aim point the end of the runway, make it the 1,000-foot mark or some other handy runway marking. No sense in taking the chance of landing in the rough short of the runway when there’s plenty of runway ahead of you. Then, once you’re ready to test your skills in the real world at a challenging airstrip, take along a highly qualified instructor who is also familiar with the area and the runway in question. With an experienced guide along to give you pointers and help you make smart decisions, the risk is lower and the learning opportunities are greater.