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The Art of Landing

The Art of Landing

By Chris Webb

Editor’s Note: Ah, the elusive perfect landing. We have all been there, right? Nice stable approach, airspeed and altitude nailed, no wind and we are lined up with the numbers as precisely as can be. 50 feet, 20 feet, 10 feet, the swish. A small gust of wind pushes us onto the runway with a thud rather than the squeak that we were expecting. We know and understand that landing an airplane is part skill and part luck. As Chris explains this month, there are a few things that we can do on the skill side of things to minimize any surprises on the luck side.

All flight maneuvers have three basic parts: the entry, the maneuver, and the recovery. Even the various maneuvers have steps to follow in each of them. The thing that makes landing so difficult is that it does not appear to have any part, just one fluid motion from the traffic pattern to the wheels touching down. So, let’s do just that: let’s take the complicated, dynamic, fast-paced maneuver known as landing and simplify it. After all, how do you run a marathon? One mile at a time.

There are four parts of the landing process: the traffic pattern, the round out, the flare and the rollout. We can say that the traffic pattern is similar to the batter’s stance in baseball in that it needs to be as constant as possible. A batter doesn’t know what kind of pitch is going to be thrown, and we don’t know exactly what the winds will do on the ground near the runway, so we need to be prepared and set ourselves up for the best possible outcome.

The traffic pattern is all about getting the airplane at the correct airspeed, the right power configuration, appropriate flap setting and the proper attitude and altitude with checklists done; all of this before rolling out on the final. The power and attitude should be set, allowing a stabilized approach to the runway. A stabilized approach is when the airplane’s flight path is constant, meaning the airplane isn’t rising and dropping and the wings are leveled. To do this, the pilot needs to pick an aiming spot. It can be any spot on the runway that can be used as a reference. It’s a measuring stick on how constant the flight path is. With this visual reference, we can evaluate our approach. Is this aiming spot raising or lowering? Drifting to the right or left? Of course, minor corrections are needed once winds are introduced, but the flight path should be very constant.

When properly executed, the traffic pattern should bring the plane to roughly 50 feet above the runway at the proper airspeed and attitude. It will be at this point that the pilot will begin to transition from a relative nose-down attitude to a nose-up attitude — this is the round out. Since the nose is beginning to be raised up, your aim spot will be blocked. The pilot needs to shift their eyes from the aiming point to further down the runway. The plane hasn’t landed yet. The pitcher has just now thrown the pitch.

The flare begins as the nose is brought up to the edge of the horizon and ends when the wheels touch the ground. The purpose of the flare is to get the main landing gear positioned to touch down first. In an ideal landing, shortly after bringing the nose up, the wheels touch down. If the wheels are not on the ground after the nose is brought up, then the plane is not ready to land yet, so either the round out was started too high, or there was too much flying energy (airspeed and attitude). In either case, these are elements that need to be controlled and fixed during the traffic pattern phase. Going back to our baseball analogy, by the time the pitch is thrown, there isn’t time to readjust your stance. So, go around and try again. 

NOTE: During the landing process, you need to be very careful about changing or amending the manufacturer’s recommendations as set forth in the POH. There are many suggestions and pointers out there about airspeed on final, and while some of these suggestions may make sense or are applicable while flying a certain airplane, they might not be transferable to others. You may be taking a bad habit with you without even realizing it!

In these later phases of landing, there should be minimal time looking at the airspeed indicator. Rather, the majority of your attention should be dedicated to observing what the aim spot is doing. Changes in pitch and power should only occur on what is being observed, not in anticipation. For example, do not lower flaps simply because you are on base leg or final. Are you fast or slow? High or low? Then make the necessary adjustments to maintain the glide path.

You have flown a stabilized traffic pattern, which brought you over the numbers. You begin the round out by easing the yoke back, and you continue the correct, smooth, graceful pull of the yoke to bring the nose up. You reduce power. The wheels, smoothly and under control, lightly touch the runway. Now is the time to cheer out and clap, fist pump or high five yourself, right? NO! The landing isn’t over, and the plane is still “flying”! You still have to slow the plane down. Then, there’s the taxi to parking and shut down. This is the rollout. Once the engine is off and you’re out of the plane, then you can do your victory dance.

The landing process demands a lot of attention from the pilot. It does not require strength or speed, but it does require planning, a little agility, and timing. Unfortunately, sometimes, the landing is the only part of the entire flight that the passengers, spotters, and friends get to watch. It’s their last impression of the flight, and it’s yours as well! You will not find nearly as many videos online of airplanes mid-flight and the countless number of calculations, decisions and troubleshooting the pilot must go through, but there is an abundance of landing videos out there. Make your landing video-worthy and suitable for remembering.