Hitting the Bull’s Eye

Ken Babione

The next time you're practicing in the pattern, try these basic tips to help you win that next spot landing contest — or at least touch down in the correct zip code.

First, you'll need to buy in to the premise that, on approach, pitch really does control airspeed and throttle the rate of decent. This isn't just some aerodynamicist's egghead theory — it's a key ingredient to every stabilized approach and will help you better control where you set down. Once you understand this principle, spot landings suddenly become much easier to master.

There are some exceptions to this rule, of course. If you're a little high on final approach and carrying full flaps with the throttle already pulled to idle, for instance, raising the nose slightly will actually make you fall faster. Don't raise it too much, of course, or you'll bleed off the reserve airspeed you need for the roundout and flare — or worse, you'll stall while you're still at 200 feet.

Your goal with a spot landing is to set the airplane down on a specific point (or reasonably close to it), but that means on a normal approach you'll have to aim for a spot that's actually a little shy of your target. How far, of course, depends on the wind speed and direction, as well as how precisely you're maintaining your approach airspeed and the proclivity of your airplane to float in ground effect. Practice is the key to finding out how each of these will affect where you land.

You can tell you're aiming for a certain spot on the runway because it will be the only thing in the windscreen that isn't moving. Everything you will pass over will appear to be sliding down in the windscreen and everything you will land short of will seem to be shifting upward. The sweet spot in the middle is your aiming point.

However, since you'll float in the flare as you bleed off airspeed, you'll need to put your aiming point a certain distance before the spot where you actually want to set the wheels down. On shorter landing strips, for instance, you might have to aim for the cornfields just shy of the approach end to ensure you roundout and touchdown where you want to on the runway.

Next you need to worry about setting down on the centerline. The tip here is to put the centerline stripes directly between your feet on final and pretend you're going to slide your heels onto the runway on either side of the dashed white line. Pilots flying in the left seats of airliners and large business jets prefer to keep the centerline running up the inside of their right leg on final approach, but in a light single or twin, putting the centerline directly between your feet works great — whether you're flying from the left seat or the right. (And it's the same in a crab or a slip, by the way, except that your toes will be pointing in one direction or the other.)

Two more tips about landings: Never bank the airplane beyond 30 degrees in the traffic pattern (after all, a stabilized approach is what you're after — not to mention it's a time-tested way of inviting a stall-spin accident). If you need to "crank it over" because you just flew through the localizer, what you really should be thinking about is a go around.

And keep in mind that every approach should end in one of two ways: either you'll land or you won't. In those cases when you won't, push the throttle full forward and adjust for proper pitch, start raising the flaps when appropriate and head back to traffic pattern altitude for another try.

Hopefully this time you'll hit your mark.


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