Finishing Well

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In early June all members of the Civil Air Patrol in the Southwest Region, which includes the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, received the following message from the Southwest Region Commander, Col. Joseph Jensen:

"I am sorry to report that we have recently had two hard landings in the Southwest Region resulting in damage to CAP aircraft. Fortunately, no one has been injured. Immediate corrective action is required to maintain the safety of flight operations in the Southwest Region."

The message went on to require all CAP pilots and nonpilot aircrew members (i.e. observers and scanners) in the Southwest Region to complete the FAA FAASTeam online courses, "Maneuvering: Approach and Landing" and "Normal Approach and Landing" (faasafety.gov). It also mandated that approach and landing procedures, go-arounds and emergency landing procedures be briefed to aircrews in each Southwest Region flying unit, and that approach and landing procedures, go-arounds and emergency landing procedures are to be special emphasis items on all CAP check rides for the next 12 months.

Over the years I have often been surprised by how shaky many pilot's landings are. I can almost feel the tension starting to rise as we approach the airport, peaking as we turn on final approach. Many pilots seem fidgety and uncomfortable, and sometimes take actions that make no sense to me. It seems to be a shame to carefully plan a flight, takeoff and fly successfully to the destination, only to end with an embarrassed look on your face because of a shaky (or worse) arrival.

The numbers back up the impression that landings are a sore spot for many pilots. The AOPA Nall Report for 2007 shows that there were a total of 392 accidents while landing, accounting for almost half of all accidents (40.3 percent). Takeoff and climb come in a distant second, with only 160 accidents, which represents about 16 percent of the total for the year. The good news is that due to the slow speed and proximity to the ground, only eight of the 392 accidents were fatal. This puts landings at the very bottom of the fatal accident list along with preflight/taxi and go-arounds. Still, the cost in damaged egos, scared passengers and higher insurance rates is significant.

It seems to me that one of the reasons that many pilots do not finish a flight well is because they don't understand the essence of a good landing. They have been carefully trained in the basic skills required -- how to fly the pattern, what speeds to fly, where to turn, where to look, how to know where you will land, and how to flare. In fact, this is all covered very well in the previously mentioned FAA website. However, a lot of pilots seem to lose track of the fact that the actual landing is all about energy management -- how much energy do you have at any moment on the approach, and how does that compare to the energy you need to successfully complete the landing.

There are three sources of energy during the landing: speed, altitude and power. However, since the engine is typically at or near idle, most of the energy is coming from speed and altitude. As you approach an airport to land, one of your prime considerations should be how much energy you need on this approach and landing. A landing on a calm day in smooth air requires very little margin. A bumpy, gusty day with wind shear or a significant crosswind requires more energy to be prepared for possible losses in airspeed (energy) due to gusts or decreasing headwind on short final. On the other hand, increases in headwind or updrafts can significantly increase an airplane's energy and cause problems when trying to land on a short runway.

Let's say you carefully researched the destination before your flight. As you arrived in the vicinity of the airport, you listened to the ATIS, AWOS, controllers and other pilots as appropriate to get a good idea of the landing conditions.You carefully entered the pattern, watching for other traffic and announcing your position on the appropriate frequency or as requested by the controller.

Your first energy decision point typically comes as you turn final. If you find yourself low and/or slow, additional power will make up for your energy deficit. On the other hand, it is very possible to get turned in early by the controller or to turn early due to misjudgment on your part. Another common mistake is to try to save time by keeping the speed up and over do it, ending up on final with lots of extra speed. If you turn final high, fast or both, you will have lots of extra energy. If the surplus in energy is such that it will require extreme maneuvering to even have a chance of making the runway, now is the time to go around for another shot. Otherwise you can use reduced power, flaps, S-turns or a slip to achieve the desired approach path and energy state.

Short final is where energy management can become challenging. A good landing in most airplanes other than jets actually involves a paradox. You want to get the airplane on the ground, and yet to accomplish a good landing, your goal has to be to keep it flying as long as possible. How you accomplish this again depends on how much energy you have.

If your energy is low (low airspeed/below desired flight path), starting the landing flare early will put you in a very precarious situation that can result in a stall and a hard landing. It is best to delay the flare and add power. As soon as you start to flare, the remaining energy will bleed off quickly and the airplane will touch down shortly after you begin the flare. This is very difficult to do well, as the timing must be perfect. Otherwise the result will be touching down on the nosewheel (flaring too late).

If your energy is high (high airspeed/above desired flight path), you should start the flare a little higher. This is when patience becomes a virtue. You have to resist the temptation to get the airplane on the ground quickly, as this usually results in the nosewheel touching down first, followed by "wheelbarrowing" until the airplane goes out of control. The best way to avoid this is to act as if the control wheel does not go forward. You basically have only two control decisions. If you are getting too close to the runway while you still have excess energy remaining, then add just enough back pressure to stop the descent. If you are too high, don't do anything. With idle power the airplane is going to start to settle towards the runway.

Thus the landing process becomes a series of gentle applications of back pressure on the control wheel, followed by doing nothing other than correcting for any crosswind. The one thing you don't want to ever do is put the wheel forward. Just watch and wait for the airplane to start to settle. Done correctly, this will result in a gentle landing on the main gear first at the slowest possible speed.

This approach does not work in jets, because they tend to float seemingly forever, so it is best to let a jet land shortly after going to idle thrust rather than holding the airplane off the runway. It is also not appropriate to use this method under gusty crosswind conditions. Again, once the airplane is in the proper landing attitude it is best to let it settle to the runway quickly.

If you are having trouble landing smoothly, try raising your seat or even sitting on a cushion. It is important to have the correct viewing angle over the nose, and I have helped some pilots who were having trouble landing smoothly simply by having them raise the seat or sit on a cushion.

Another reason many pilots may be shaky on landings is lack of practice. With the infinite variations in landing conditions that are possible, it is difficult to become fully proficient in the limited hours required to get a pilot's license. Yet many pilots, once they get their private pilot license, don't practice landings anymore, and the typical personal flight provides little opportunity to hone landing skills. If you are not totally confident in your ability to land the airplane in all possible conditions, schedule time with an instructor.

Once your basic landing skills are good, schedule a day with challenging wind conditions, or ask to try some more advanced landing maneuvers. One of my favorites is a soft field touch-and-go without letting the nosewheel touch the ground. Touch down in a nose-high attitude for a soft field landing, then smoothly add power to initiate the takeoff while adding back pressure to keep the nosewheel in the air. To accomplish this successfully you will need to develop an almost instinctive response to the rapidly changing pitch and yaw forces as you add power with the nosewheel in the air.

While improved landing skills may not save many lives, it will save lots of money and many bruised egos. It is each pilot's responsibility to achieve and maintain the ability to safely land an airplane. The next time you are tempted to go for a $100 hamburger, consider investing $100 in landing practice instead. That way the next time you take your family for those expensive hamburgers, you can enjoy the compliments on finishing the flight well.