Thoughts on Spots

Every spring the Greater Cincinnati Airmen's Club held a spot landing contest at Montgomery County (now Dayton Wright Brothers) Airport in Southern Ohio. It's a non-towered field about 30 minutes north of Cincinnati with a long paved runway pointing southwest into the prevailing wind. I'm sure some wise soul realized that challenging rusty, winter-weary aviators with a stiff crosswind might result in some bent tin. Non-toweredness, of course, is an essential element for any decent spot landing competition. I mean, who wants an air traffic controller screwing up your approach for some triviality like conflicting traffic? Afterward there'd be breakfast at the venerable greasy spoon on the field that, a few years later, sadly fell victim to the local health department.

You don't hear much about spot landing contests anymore and the anemic attempts I watch on practical tests (yes, even commercials) suggest accuracy landings have gone the way of spin training and dead reckoning skills. So I think we should get 'em back. They're fun -- OK, sometimes embarrassing -- but a surefire way to sharpen basic skills and not nearly as expensive as the current $300 hamburger run. That is, if you don't get carried away and put your nosewheel through the firewall.

There are probably as many sets of rules as contests but, classically, you close the throttle on downwind leg opposite a touchdown point, like a line laid across the runway, with the objective of landing on or beyond that target. Your score is the number of feet beyond the line where your main gear touches measured by highly unqualified observers who, in a pinch, just make up some numbers. Add power anywhere on the approach and you're disqualified; touch down before the mains are on or over the line and you're toast. "Landing," by the way, means being solidly on the ground with little or no lift left … full-stall, nose-high touchdowns in wimpy trikes, three-points in real airplanes like the 180 with the third wheel back where God meant it to be.

Other than that, at least "in the old days," it was Katie-Bar-the-Door: Angle your base leg in or out to cover more or less distance; use no flaps, some flaps or full flaps and maybe dump them right over the line for a spectacularly abrupt arrival; use partial slips part of the way or full slips the whole way around base and final to touchdown … with flaps, if necessary (OK, maybe you should check the manual or POH first); open the cowl flaps, windows, doors or emergency exits and deploy arms and feet as necessary to spoil excess lift. Or if you come up short on final, do a Stuka maneuver and dive for maximum speed. Prior to impact … remember you're a Stuka pilot, not a Kamikaze … swap that speed for lift and hold the airplane off in a long, long float that just might pay off as you cross the line.

But remember the power thing. If the judges hear engine noise on the approach, except a short burst to clear the engine, you're not only disqualified but the object of huge derision from the peanut gallery … guys you always thought were your friends.

In the '60s Mary and I were flying Ercoupe N341 and winning in a 'Coupe demanded uncommon skill. No flaps, doors, emergency exits or even rudder pedals for slips. Actually, coming down wasn't the problem since an Ercoupe has the glide ratio of a Thermador stove. In fact if you didn't turn immediately onto base leg you'd end up in the weeds. So you'd plan to be high on final and employ the "Larry Whitesell Law of Ercoupedynamics": Making brisk (read semi-violent), full-deflection movements with the wheel "spoils lift and spills the air out … " or something like that. You won't find this particular law in Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators but, then, the Navy didn't have any Ercoupes.

As you can imagine, this lighthearted Saturday afternoon outing inevitably degenerated into an arm waving, insult hurling, epithet shouting and occasionally fist throwing confrontation. Long-time flying buddies loudly assaulted each others' flying abilities, veracity, eyesight and parentage. And in pursuit of a really tacky trophy, nosewheels, friendships and even marriages came unglued.

It was glorious fun and we need more of them … contests, friendships, trophies and marriages, not nosewheels, propellers, bruised feelings or broken noses.

What brought all this to mind were some pictures of an accident at Cincinnati West Airport a few years ago. Still a fed, I was in the 180 boring holes in the sky one Saturday in October when I heard some bad stuff on 123.0. Two airplanes had collided and crashed on final at Harrison. So I called Cincinnati Approach and asked them to phone my supervisor; I was five minutes away and would respond if the office wanted. I knew they would; accidents generate loads of paperwork after the on-site investigation. So off-duty FAA inspectors are only too happy to leave it to the guy who has the standby that week. I usually responded when I could. Off duty, like on weekends, I was usually flying anyway and I knew nearly every pilot in the area. Besides, I was the only one with the holy water in her flight bag.

Arriving over Cincinnati West Airport I saw the wreckage of two airplanes, one on top of the other, in a gravel pit on about a quarter-mile final. And I remember muttering, "Damn, nobody walked away from this one."

I'll paraphrase the NTSB report that tells the story … or part of it: A Cessna 152 and a 172 were flying left-hand patterns in closed traffic for Runway 01. The pilot and two passengers in the Skyhawk saw a 152 make a touch-and-go after their departure and assumed the smaller airplane would remain behind them in the pattern. The 172 made position announcements on downwind, base and final; the 152 made one call on the downwind leg.

Since the 172 pilot was making a powered approach, he extended his downwind and made a relatively wide turn onto base. The turn to final was at about 400 feet with full flaps and at final approach speed, probably about 65 knots. Everything was normal until the pilot felt a "thud" and the controls became unresponsive.

The 152 pilot said he didn't hear any of the transmissions from the other airplane and he flew an abbreviated, power off pattern, turning from downwind to base as soon as he passed abeam the runway numbers on the runway. Turning close in final at 300 feet he suddenly saw the other airplane below and felt the impact.

Witnesses saw the two airplanes lock together in flight and then make a slow, spiraling descent into the gravel pit. Amazingly, the pilot and passengers scrambled out of the 'Hawk as it caught fire and then helped the dazed pilot out of the 152. Everybody walked or limped away with a few minor injuries … a blessing (but what a waste of two perfectly good airplanes).

OK, here's "the rest of the story."

The local flying club, Harrison Social Flights (is that a great name or what) was having their annual picnic and a spot landing contest. Fine except nobody briefed anybody else on the rules, or maybe there weren't any. So the guys in the 172 were flying their "normal" powered approach like the FAA recommends. The older man in the 152 had been flying for many years and made his approach the way he was taught for a normal pattern … power off and stay in close enough to make the runway if you lose the engine. And in a spot landing competition this is de rigueur. Screw the FAA and their hang-up with powered approaches in little airplanes … and I guess I can't totally disagree.

The problem, of course, is that neither airplane knew for sure where traffic was. Radio calls were random, at least for one airplane, and the 172 guys assumed the other airplane would stay behind them. After all, weren't they number one in the pattern? The guy in the 152 was determined to fly his own brand of approach and may have been "making a statement" about the proper way to fly a pattern. Especially about how this accuracy landing competition should work. Understand that much of this is my take, but I know these guys pretty well and I've spent lots of time trying to mediate plenty of traffic pattern squabbles.

Incidentally, the way to deal with somebody who's creating havoc in the local pattern is to be nonconfrontational and, on the ground, express your concerns with him politely. This will have absolutely no effect and the next time you share the sky he'll still be acting like a jerk. Bite your tongue and resist the temptation to make some smart-ass remark on the frequency -- no matter how appropriate -- because it won't work any better than making a rude gesture to somebody who just cut you off on the highway. At last it's time for the surefire, time honored and deliciously soul-satisfying solution. After our friend puts the airplane to bed and is approaching his car, stroll over with a few friends and beat the hell out of him. This works best at night.

A couple years ago I did a "709" (FAA re-exam) for a new private pilot who'd had an accident at a local non-towered airport. I suspect that on downwind leg she mistakenly turned on the fuel pump because the engine in her new A36 roughened and sputtered and she came semi-unglued. Fearing it would quit any minute but intent on following other traffic (anybody remember "mayday, mayday"?), she carried gobs of power, speed and altitude all the way to the runway threshold. Inevitably she ate up all 4,000 feet and ended up off the end with massive damage but no injury. She truly didn't understand what had happened and how she should have handled it.

No wimp, she was a determined and sincere gal with a great husband who also owned and flew a turboprop for business and pleasure trips. We chatted about what kind of instruction she needed to prepare for the test, which would be in a 172 since the bent Beech would be "indisposed." I suggested she work on normal and emergency landings, especially thinking about that "sweet spot," the decision point at the corner of downwind and base where you make the decision to turn. From there on it's a constant, second-by-second decision-making process: Am I getting above the slope … settling below … right on? It changes every second. You gotta keep the pitch nearly constant for a desired airspeed because if you let the "picture" change there's no way to tell how you're really doing on that slope.

Do this, I said, with normal approach power settings with the goal of constantly decreasing power. Add power and you're admitting you screwed up (but do it if you need to). Then practice it with no power at all from that decision point. You'll learn to judge accurately, playing the path over the ground and judicially using the flaps because, theoretically, there's no power to bail you out. Misjudge and you'll find it would have been the weeds or an overshoot.

Well, she came back to the office a couple days later to report that none of the instructors knew what I was talking about with the term "decision point." My worst suspicions about CFIs out of (nameless) aeronautical universities racking up enough time to get in the right seat of a CJ were true. When I got myself under control -- sort of -- I went storming down to the school and, when I left, everybody understood the concept of "decision point."

She did OK on the retest, well enough to pass, and then we worked on emergency and accuracy landings both from high altitudes and low until she was confident in her ability and I was satisfied she wouldn't bend another airplane. FAA inspectors aren't supposed to be doing this but I can't help (never will) sharing what I've learned. I'm a "Pete Rose" flier (who, by the way, grew up less than a mile from our house on Cincinnati's west side). Pete evidently wasn't a "natural" baseball player and I don't think I was a "natural" pilot. Determination and practice turned him into a great ballplayer; they worked pretty well for a klutz like me, too.

Postscript I did my best to convince this lady that she should ask her husband for a Cub, a Champ, a Citabria or a Husky … hell, a Stearman. I mean, what kind of fun can you have tooling around in a Bonanza with 100 hours total time? It didn't work. She got some training at one of the big simulator companies and is flying the "family turboprop." What a shame.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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