Mountain Top Landings

Don't get tricked by the illusions of hilly terrain.

Tip Hilltop Runway

Tip Hilltop Runway

There are many visual illusions that can present themselves during flight. One scenario that can mess with the normal cues during the approach and landing phases is a runway that is located on a hilltop.

I recently flew into Catalina airport on Catalina Island to enjoy one of their fantastic buffalo burgers. While the airport is a fantastic place to visit, it does present special challenges and many local flight schools require a special checkout in order to land their rental airplanes at Avalon.

The airport at Catalina is located at 1,600 feet and the approach end of runway 22 drops sharply down all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to its precarious location, the first 2,000 feet of the 3,000-foot runway is sloped at 1.8 degrees tricking some pilots into thinking the runway is about to end when it is really not. Several airplanes have ended up off the end of the runway, which also drops off quite sharply into a canyon, because of a botched approach or landing attempt.

When coming in on the downwind leg, I always get the sensation that I am already nearly at the runway height. Monitoring the altitude and making sure that the altimeter is set to the local barometric pressure is critical when landing at this and any hilltop airport. Trust your altimeter.

Make sure you come in on the downwind leg at the pattern altitude and use a well-established approach procedure for the airplane you fly. Bringing the power to a specific setting, in most single-engine airplanes about 1,700 rpm, adding in flaps on each leg and targeting a certain speed on what is left of the downwind, base and final, are great tools that you should already have in your pilot toolbox. Use them.

Don't make your target touch down spot too close to the approach end. There may be downdrafts at the end of the runway because of the down-slope and if you get slightly behind the power curve you may not be able to power yourself above the lip. If, on the other hand, you end up too high, you can always go around and try it again. So stay slightly above the targeted approach path until you are guaranteed to make the runway.

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