Fairytale Endings

A perfect landing is the measure of a pilots skills, even though we know that is unfair.

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Is landing an art or a science? That's what the pilot of this King Air is about to find out as he maneuvers for a landing on a scenic runway out west, in the mountains.

Once the King Air gets down, go flying with Tom Benenson as he explores landing through the eyes of a flight instructor. There are a lot of fine points here. Then Russell Munson, our conventional landing gear expert, will regale you with tales of how to make peace with a tailwheel. Russell should know because he is on his second Aviat Husky, which is a world-class tailwheel airplane. (The first one was destroyed on the ground by a thunderstorm last summer.) Les Abend has been flying Boeings for a long time, and still does. As is true of a lot of airline pilots, his first gig in a jetliner was in a 727, which has always tested the landing mettle of pilots. He tells all.

Finally, Richard Collins explores landing in airplanes with tricycle landing gear. Richard thinks that where you look when you are landing makes a lot of difference. He also considers the landing in two stages.

After you read all four you'll see that there is a common thread and that none of these aces claim to make perfect landings every time. Landings are a good thing to study, too, as more airplanes are damaged during landing than any other phase of flight. And we'll leave it up to you to decide whether your landings fall in the art or science category. Or, maybe, there's some of each in every landing.

Teaching-and Making-Smooth LandingsBy Tom Benenson

It isn't fair that people judge our piloting skills by the smoothness of our landings. But they do. If yours are like many of mine you'd rather no one watch when the rubber meets the runway. But if you review how you were taught to make landings as a student, more of your landings will be greasers and they'll be more a matter of proficiency than luck.

The trick to teaching-and performing-smooth passenger-pleasing landings is to make every landing approach as consistent as possible. They say the secret to a good landing is a good approach. I'll amend that a bit: The secret to making good landings is to make consistent approaches with a stabilized final leg. We all learned-or should have-the power and flap combinations (and the gear-up or gear-down configuration) that result in the desired airspeeds for each leg of the pattern. Knowing the required settings gives us more time to concentrate on the approach and less time spent adjusting power settings. It's important to review the landing checklist and complete those items possible before entering the pattern. The downwind leg should be flown at a consistent distance from the runway, neither too close nor too far away (something between one-half and three-quarters of a mile). Judging the distance can be done by knowing the length of the runway. If the runway is 5,000 feet long, then one-half mile would mean being displaced by about half the length of the runway. Traffic permitting, the airspeed on downwind should be below the top of the flap operating speed, which is accomplished by flying at the predetermined power setting.

Opposite the touchdown spot, the power is reduced (again to a predetermined setting) and the first flap extension performed. As you continue downwind select your touchdown target-the numbers are tempting, but it's prudent to select a point a bit farther down the runway. Landing short of the runway is embarrassing. During the downwind leg you should be aware of drift caused by any crosswind. Recognizing and correcting for drift was the purpose of all those hours of ground reference maneuvers.

As you turn onto the base leg, check for traffic making a straight-in approach. Not every pilot is good about announcing their position and intentions, and there's no requirement for radio contact at pilot-controlled fields.

As a general rule the turn to base, traffic permitting and depending on the strength and direction of the wind, should take place when the touchdown target is behind the airplane at about 45 degrees. During the base leg, the airplane is slowed to 1.4 times the stall speed in landing configuration (Vso) and the flaps are lowered to the next setting. Don't neglect to re-trim that airplane after each flap and power change.

Turning to final, the airplane is slowed to 1.3 Vso and any additional flaps are deployed once it's obvious that the airplane will reach the runway. As an example, if the stall speed in landing configuration is 50 knots, then the recommended final approach speed would be 65 knots. Although the FAA likes every landing to be made with full flaps, the choice of how much to use is up to the pilot. Full flaps should be used for any short field landing, but if sufficient runway is available, the choice of flap extension depends on the conditions.

As you fly down final you'll have your last chance to run your GUMPS check (gas, undercarriage, mixture, prop and speed) to be sure that everything's set for the landing. On final, if your touchdown target point appears to move up the windscreen, it means that the current glidepath will result in landing short of the touchdown point; conversely, if the touchdown point appears to move down the windscreen, the glidepath is taking the airplane past the desired landing spot.

In the flare, the nose of the airplane may block your view down the runway, so the height above the runway has to be judged by looking ahead and to the runway edge. Ideally, the airplane will run out of altitude and lift as the wheels kiss the ground. There's nothing more satisfying-even when flying solo-than to hear that small, welcome, but unfortunately infrequent, chirp.

Finally, during every landing approach the prudent pilot is locked and loaded to perform a go-around if it becomes necessary. Pilots shouldn't assume that every approach ends with a landing-smooth or otherwise. Happy Landings!

Landing a Taildragger By Russell Munson

After tricycle gears became almost universal on light aircraft in the mid-1950s, tailwheels were relegated to sport and "bush" airplanes in which the lighter weight and lower drag of the tailwheel was appreciated, and the extra prop clearance on rough airstrips saved many a ding.

Tricycle gear airplanes are easier to land than taildraggers. You know that. Cessna even once boasted in advertisements that you could drive them on. And, indeed, if your idea of landing an airplane is to drive it on, a nosewheel is your best friend. The truth, however, is that landing either type of gear with grace and precision is not all that different. It's just that you can get away with being sloppy in landing a trike. The same carelessness in a taildragger could put you in the weeds. Those who learned to drive on manual shift cars and to fly on tailwheel airplanes didn't know any better, but out of necessity we learned to handle our machines with greater precision than some of our Hydramatic, Land-O-Matic friends.

Tricycle gears are more forgiving because the airplane's center of gravity is in front of the main gear. On a "conventional gear" it is behind the main wheels. In the air this makes no difference, but when the airplane transitions from being an air machine to a ground machine the difference is huge, and the need for precision becomes crucial. With a nosewheel ship you can get away with a little sidedrift on touchdown. Onlookers might roll their eyes, but the airplane will naturally tend to straighten itself out because of that center of gravity location. The opposite is true in a taildragger. Think of taking a corner too fast in an old tail-heavy VW Bug. That weight in the back will swap ends before you can say, "What's a groundloop?" In a taildragger you don't touch down with any sidedrift. Ever. Period.

Airplanes should be landed at the lowest appropriate speed. In taildraggers that usually means a full-stall, or three-point landing in which all three wheels touch the runway at the same time just as the airplane stalls. The gear geometry was designed to put you at that angle of attack at that moment. From a stabilized approach with an airspeed of about 1.3 Vso, you flare, slow, and gradually, smoothly keep pulling the stick back while you skim about a foot above the runway, the nose coming up, still slowing. If you time it right, and are looking in the right place (not in front over the nose, but a little more to the side) to judge your height, you will stall in that three-point attitude just as the wheels chirp and the stick is all the way back. And you keep it there. That ensures that the airplane stays stalled. If you relax back pressure, and if you happen to drop it in from a little higher than a foot and perchance bounce, the combination of the two acts will lower your angle of attack and have you flying again in a very awkward way. In that case, catch it with power and try again if enough runway remains, or go around.

In crosswinds, I prefer approaching in a slip, that is, the upwind wing lowered enough to eliminate drift, and applying sufficient opposite rudder to prevent the aircraft from turning. Approaching this way keeps me aware of exactly what the wind is doing all the way down. If the crosswind becomes so strong that I can't stay on the centerline even with considerable control deflection, I know early on that I won't be landing on that runway. Some pilots prefer the crab method on final to track straight, and then with rudder kick out the crab at the last moment before touchdown. This might be better for heavy airplanes, or those with low wings and short tricycle gears, but in light taildraggers it makes life more complicated. The timing of the kick out has to be just right. Do it early and the aircraft begins to drift with the wind before you touch down; too late and you land sort of sideways. Either is bad news.

Established in that slip with a steady crosswind, you track the centerline and make a two point full-stall landing on the upwind main gear and the tailwheel. As the airplane slows on the ground you keep feeding more aileron into the wind, the downwind main gear settles, and you stay that way with the stick all the way back. Keeping the ailerons deflected into the wind as needed does two things: The up aileron on the upwind wing reduces the lift on that side, reducing the tendency for it to rise in gusts, and the down aileron on the other side adds some drag to counteract weather cocking.

What about strong, mean, gusty, bitchy, twitchy winds that keep you bobbing and working the throttle on final to stay on a constant glidepath? That's where the wheel landing shines, and it actually gives you a little more control than a nosewheel airplane provides. As you ride down final adding half the gust factor to your normal speed, you level off as in the beginning of a flare, but hold the attitude there and let the airplane land on its main gear with the tail still up. If there is a crosswind you land on the upwind main wheel only. In either case the trick is to add forward stick pressure at the moment the wheel or wheels touch the runway. You can be pretty aggressive with the forward stick to the point of having a negative angle of attack, more so than with most tricycle gears, which keeps the wheels plastered on the runway no matter what. Some will disagree, but while in this position I retract whatever flaps I may have used to reduce as much as possible the remaining lift in the wing. If the wind is not too gusty, you can keep adding forward stick pressure to keep the tail up until it settles by itself as you slow, or you can relax the pressure and let the tail come down sooner, bringing the stick firmly all the way back and keeping it there as soon as the tailwheel touches. If the gusts are up and down, you can keep the tail up as long as you want, runway length permitting, by keeping the stick forward and adding a little throttle to keep the tail up. This way you can time when you want to bring the tail down as you wait for a lull. The thing to remember, though, is that the airplane is most vulnerable while the tail is coming down, so you must be quick with corrective rudder and differential braking as necessary during that period. It is amazing, though, how much wind a proficiently flown taildragger can handle. Light airplanes are not happy landing with a tailwind component. It feels unnatural, and it is. In a taildragger, forget about it, especially a quartering tailwind. Just go somewhere else, or ask for a different runway. If you must land with a tailwind for some compelling reason, keep the component under 5 knots, and make it a three point so that the tailwheel can do its part to help keep you straight.

We have just touched the basics here, common practices that have been handed down for decades. There are many nuances and variations to all of the above, which is part of what makes flying a taildragger fun and challenging. And I think it will make you a better nosebumper pilot, too. One last word of advice: For your transition to "real" airplanes make sure your instructor is an expert with these charming creatures. Airline Landing Secrets That Are Not So SecretBy Les Abend I wiped the chilly sweat off my palms onto each pant leg of my jeans and then slithered into the right seat of the 727. Two of my classmates had just completed their required three bounces in the airplane, allowing them the opportunity to progress to the Line Operating Experience (LOE) phase of our training. Unfortunately, some of their landings were bounces. My classmates' performances had incurred the wrath of our volatile chief pilot who was also acting as the check airman. It was now my turn. And unlike my classmates, not only did I have zero jet experience, but the biggest airplane I had flown was a Twin Otter. In addition, all eight hours of my simulator training hadn't quite put me on the high side of the stellar scale. I was certain that the local California TV news station would soon have video coverage of billowing, oily-black smoke rising from the desert runway that we were using in Palmdale. It wasn't until I unclenched my teeth and took a deep breath that I realized the medium thud that occurred later was actually my first landing in an airliner. The best compliment of my feat came in the form of a rare moment of silence from our anguished chief pilot.

The experience that I described occurred almost 25 years ago. I was a new-hire 727 copilot with a freight carrier that is still in existence. The exhilarating dynamics involved with landing a large jet have stayed with me 'til this day.

So, is there a trick to putting an airliner onto terra firma? Well … maybe … but like any skill, landing a big jet takes practice. The 727, in particular, has a notorious disposition for humbling airline pilots despite their best efforts. The fact that the wings are swept back to a position that places the tips almost even with the tail, and that the main landing gear position seems to defy the center of gravity, may contribute to the airplane's landing idiosyncrasies.

One of the main differences between landing almost any large jet and landing a Skyhawk is simple: Attitude. And I'm talking literally and figuratively. First and foremost, having the belief in one's abilities to conquer the task is paramount. If the thought of flying a large jet seems daunting rather than just challenging, perhaps one should stick with the Skyhawk.

The other attitude pertains to the personal sight picture when seated in a big jet on the ground. The most striking element is the distance from your eye to the concrete. It is usually much higher in a big jet. This perspective is important simply because your mind needs a reference as to where the wheels will be upon touchdown. A flare is a flare in almost every airplane. But if you begin the process of flaring a 747 at five feet above the ground rather than at least 50 feet, the result will be less than pleasant. Although the casual observer may see it differently, from the cockpit the landing attitude appears only slightly higher than the attitude of the airplane while parked on the ramp.

As with any airplane, a stabilized approach is half the landing battle. We airline types strive to have the airplane properly configured, with the appropriate airspeed on the proper glidepath by 1,000 feet agl. In addition, having the airplane in a hands-off trim condition while applying only minor adjustments to power settings also contributes to a stabilized approach.

The flare is initiated at an altitude that will slow the descent rate-around 50 feet in a 727. Most large jets have an automated altitude call-out system that assists with the visual cues. Once the descent reaches an acceptable rate, the objective is to maintain a constant attitude until the wheels touch the pavement. If one were to attempt a full-stall landing in an airliner, the effect would be to drive the main landing gear into the ground-and probably through the wings.

The 727 requires a little extra attention for just that reason, especially the longer 200 version. Although some pilots claim to push forward at the last moment during the flare, I'd like to believe that most of us just relax the back pressure. Regardless, the 727 will always have the last word. Even if an experienced pilot thought that the good landing formula had finally been printed on the checklist, the airplane will tell him otherwise by rewarding the individual with a denture-jarring touchdown on the next attempt. Unfortunately, the love/hate relationship with the durable old Boeing is over. The airplane is gone from almost every passenger airline's fleet.

As a side note to landing a large jet, a slight crosswind is always helpful. Why? Attempting a smooth touchdown on one wheel is easier than making it happen with two.

Despite our best efforts, landing a large jet becomes more of an art than a science. But that's true with any airplane. We all have good days and bad days. Regardless, I am still amazed that despite adding the ingredients that make for a safe and comfortable flight, pilots are judged by how they handle that last few feet of airspace. There will never be any secrets there.

Landing Piston TricyclesBy Richard L. Collins Making smooth touchdowns is challenging because so much action is crammed into a relatively short period of time. None of us make good landings every time and some fly airplanes that are harder to land than others. At least that is my excuse.

A primary requirement when landing a tricycle-gear airplane is a mental picture of an acceptable landing attitude. This is easy to see. When the airplane is at rest on the ground it isn't in a landing attitude. The nose has to be higher than that to keep from hitting on all three wheels at the same time. Take this picture into a landing with the thought that the airplane isn't ready for touchdown until it is in a minimum acceptable nose-up pitch attitude. To get it right, I have to think of the landing in two stages, both equal in importance. The first stage is the setup. That means having the flaps as desired, crossing the threshold at the proper height and the proper speed, and having considered any unusual items such as a cross or gusty wind condition. The most important thing then is to transition to the second stage. To shift gears, if you will. Getting back together with Earth is, right at the last, a matter of processing what you see and making the proper control inputs. There's no glass cockpit help here.

When the airplane crosses the threshold at the proper height it is not yet in ground effect and if there is extra speed because of gustiness or carelessness, this is the place to get rid of it. An airplane decelerates faster out of ground effect and if the airplane enters ground effect at the same speed every time, the second stage of the landing is more predictable.

Then, working on the touchdown, everything becomes hand and eye (and foot if there is a crosswind) coordination. If, with the airplane in the landing attitude, there is no view of the runway ahead, lean a bit to the left and sit up as straight as possible to get the best view of the runway. I try to look maybe 50 feet ahead. When the view tells me the ground is getting close I start increasing the back pressure on the control wheel. This is best done continuously with a final slight increase in back pressure the instant before the wheels touch the runway. That makes for the smoothest possible touchdown. The worst landings follow what I think of as a wrestling match with the airplane. That might happen when I flare a little high and have to reduce back pressure. Or when I add too much back pressure and the airplane balloons, necessitating a reduction of back pressure or, heaven forbid, forward pressure on the wheel. Landings are just best made with a continuous increase in back pressure up to the moment when the main wheels touch. This is a see and feel thing. If you see the altitude increasing slightly, the best way to patch that is to stop increasing the back pressure until the airplane starts settling again. If you come to the realization that the airplane is high and the speed is low, power might be necessary to soften the blow delivered by the runway. I can sit here and write about it, but it is the sort of thing that each pilot has to learn by seeing and doing.

If your landings go through a rough time, don't be ashamed to go out and practice landings even if you are a grizzled veteran of the runway. Do them to a full stop and take the time to analyze what occurred when taxiing back for takeoff.

Once I land, I lower the nosewheel immediately for a better view. I know that a lot of people like to hold the wheel back and use aerodynamic braking and that's fine. I just prefer that better view and use the brake pedals for slowing down.

Flaps are part of most landings and should be used mainly as necessary. I have heard pilots say that certain airplanes are "hard" to land. I always ask if they have tried landing with half or no flaps. In such a configuration the airplane is closer to the landing attitude when it enters ground effect, which means the pilot has less to do to get that squeaker landing.

Using less than full flaps means a somewhat higher approach and landing speed and there is less drag to steepen the approach. But, especially when the center of gravity is flirting with the forward limit, a lot of airplanes are simply easier to land with less than full flaps. Easier means you are more likely to get the full six points for that touchdown.