What does “good landing” mean? Which ingredients of the landing qualify it as being a “good” one and elevate it above a simple, survivable return to Earth? And we should strive for “good,” not just “acceptable.”
Here are some of the universally agreed-upon factors that separate a good landing from a not-so-good one:
- Touch down on or near a predetermined spot in the first quarter of the runway.
- The speed at touchdown is the minimum that is practical.
- Touchdown is on the mains (assuming a tricycle-gear airplane), with the nose held off until it’s purposely lowered.
- There is a minimum of float, which means the speed at flare must have been correct.
- First, last, and always, it is a graceful, smooth maneuver.
A good touchdown starts on downwind. Has anyone not heard the old-school cliché? It’s one of the first phrases out of a CFI’s mouth. What does it mean, and how does it affect the landing? While there are dozens of factors involved in a proper setup on downwind, the most important is consistency. When the power reduction is made opposite the end of the runway, whether for a power-off landing or an extended power-on approach, the process always occurs in the same place, at the same speed, and in the same manner.
What this does is establish a datum—a stable point of reference from which everything else can be judged. If the height, position, and speed vary from landing to landing, then we have nothing on which to build our landing experience. If nothing after the initial power reduction is the same as on our last approach, we don’t know what to adjust to make our landings better.
AIRSPEED CONTROL IS EVERYTHING. Every airplane ever produced has gone through an extensive flight test program that established a best approach speed for the airplane and presented it in the pilot’s operating handbook. If we’re faster than that number, we won’t glide as far and we’ll float more in flare. If we’re slower, we won’t glide as far and we’ll have much less float in ground effect—possibly none. So, we stand the chance of hitting the runway really hard.
The speed that an aircraft is carrying as it crosses the threshold speaks volumes about what is going to happen next. If fast, the aircraft is going to skate along on top of ground effect, giving any wind just that much more time to mess with it. Excess speed makes controlling the flare more difficult and greatly increases the likelihood that the aircraft will balloon back up, then drop in hard.
In general, the airspeed isn’t consistent or adequately controlled when the pilot is not controlling the nose attitude in relation to the horizon. In a reduced-power situation, as on landing, the nose attitude is the primary speed control. Unfortunately, too many of us think that the airspeed indicator controls the nose, when just the opposite is true. While the two are linked together, the changes in airspeed are first indicated by an attitude change. So, we control speed by first setting a nose attitude, letting the indicated airspeed stabilize, and then make small attitude changes to adjust the airspeed as needed.
The most common problem in controlling the nose attitude is that a pilot “looks” over the nose but doesn’t actually “see” what’s out there. So, we pick a feature on the nose—maybe the top edge of the spinner or a row of screws on the cowl—and make small adjustments in the space between that and the horizon. Once the relationship between the nose and the horizon is firmly entrenched in our visual memory, speed control becomes second nature.
KEEP THE SCAN GOING. All the time that we’re flying, we should have a continual scan going that ties together all the factors we’re trying to control. Most instructors have a short mantra that they use. Maybe it’s chanting rpm, altitude, attitude, pattern (ground track) or using the acronym PAST—power, altitude, speed (another way of saying attitude), track (our path along the ground).
The mantra is a way of instilling a scan that is constantly in action. Our eyes and our attention are continually scanning through the windshield, then across the panel and back again. It’s a circular motion in which we’re relating the nose attitude and what we’re seeing around it—and our path across the ground—to what is seen on the instrument panel.
The scan is in motion every instant that we’re in the airplane, but when we’re flying the pattern and making a landing, the ingredients of the scan become that much more important.
DON’T USE THE THROTTLE AS A CRUTCH. Yes, the FAA likes to see a stabilized, power-on approach; however, when we do an approach like that, we have to ask ourselves, “What would this same approach look like if the engine were to quit?”
There’s a tendency to set up landing approaches so that power is required, which obviously makes that approach easier. However, if there is even just a little power on during final, it changes the glide ratio considerably. Sometimes just a few hundred extra rpm more than doubles the distance the airplane will glide compared to a power-off approach. If all landings are made that way, we never develop the visual references or skills needed to make a completely power-off landing. So, if we suffer an engine failure, we’re on a test flight and have no idea where the aircraft will wind up.
At least a percentage of all landings should be power off, right from the downwind. Enough should be made that we know exactly what to expect if the engine should quit.
PICK A SPOT AND USE IT AS A REFERENCE. The runway is not a reference. It is a destination. “Reference” denotes a given point on the runway and, if we expect to have any accuracy in our landings, we need a reference point on the runway. It’s the location toward which we point the glidepath. However, without realizing it, when on final and getting close, some pilots stop looking at their reference point and begin looking at the runway itself. Until we’re in ground effect and flaring, we should continue to use whatever specific reference point we selected. Once we’re in the flare, we’re looking down the runway, trying to gauge height and position.
There are several schools of thought as to what we should be looking at during the flare. Some say to fixate on the far end of the runway. Some say to look several hundred yards ahead. I favor looking a hundred yards or so ahead (that’s about two runway lights) and try to glance at both sides of the runway, switching focus from one side to the other. It gives better depth perception and alignment information.
As for the runway reference point used—on final, use the numbers. Or the threshold. Or a distinctive feature, such as a dip or discoloration, if the runway does not have normal markings. Whatever it is, we focus on that point during the approach and, if necessary, adjust power so that point appears to be neither moving up the windshield (or appears to be moving away from us), telling us that we’re low, nor down the windshield (appears to be coming toward us) and we’re going over it. We want to keep it stationary.
We will not land on that point. The glidepath will be pointed at it, but we will land beyond it when the flare and float carry us down the runway.
THE SLIP FOR FINE TUNING. The forward slip is the best tool in a pilot’s toolbox for landing on a predetermined spot on the runway. And, no, slips are not dangerous (assuming the POH doesn’t prohibit them with flaps extended). Most landings benefit from a slight adjustment to glidepath, and the slip provides that. It’s an efficient altitude eraser and is perfect for correcting glidepaths that are slightly high.
PRECISION OVER THE THRESHOLD. The speed and height over the threshold determine where the aircraft will touch down. Almost regardless of the airplane type, if we come over the threshold at a reasonable height (15 to 20 feet) and on speed (not fast), we will always touch down 500 to 800 feet down the runway. So, we’ll be down and rolling when we hit the 1,000-foot markers. If we do that every time, we can count on needing only slight braking to turn off with no more than 1,500 to 1,800 feet of runway behind us. Most single-engine aircraft only need 500 to 750 feet of ground roll, so the trick is to avoid being too fast and floating down the runway.
ADVERSE YAW CHANGES WITH ANGLE OF ATTACK. A good landing is one where the airplane is traveling straight, with no lateral drift, when it touches down. This is difficult to do if we’re maneuvering in ground effect with aileron only. Adverse yaw increases as the airplane slows down—so remember to use your feet and stay coordinated when maneuvering in flare.
HOLD IT OFF. Control the touchdown by continuing to hold the aircraft off until it’s just about out of speed. And then, don’t just let it flop down. That’s ugly. Put a little grace in it and, as the mains touch, fixate on the nose attitude; use just a little more back-pressure to hold the nose there. Then slowly let it down as the speed bleeds off.
CONTROL YOUR NOSE ATTITUDE DURING FLARE. With most modern airplanes, it’s easy to just level in the flare and let the airplane make the landing itself. However, part of flying is being proud of your skill—and nowhere is that skill more evident and needed than in the flare. Those last few seconds before the airplane touches down are the most critical, and that’s when our ability to control the nose really comes into play. The image of the nose painted against the runway edges, the sky, and horizon contains every element having to do with the touchdown.
We want to clearly see the nose as it relates to the edges of the runway, because that’s how we’re going to keep the aircraft straight. Also, as the airplane settles and the runway edge tries to visually climb up the side of the nose, that’s how we’ll know we need to gently increase back-pressure to hold it off.
The image of the nose against the horizon is what gives us our deck angle/attitude information. As the airplane touches down, it’s that image that lets us hold the nose-high touchdown attitude for a few seconds before we purposely (and gracefully) let the nosewheel touch.
An approach and landing is where we show ourselves how well we can actually fly. Each landing should be the latest entry in our self-scored contest to do better than we did last time.
By Budd Davisson
Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A. Visit his website.
Photography by Chris Rose
Source: AOPA – Flight Training