172 landing

The one tip that finally helped me land better

4 min read

It seems like every pilot is obsessed with making better landings, and why not? No matter how safely we conduct a flight, our passengers will judge us based on the final five seconds. Plunk it on and you’re a bad pilot; gently kiss the runway and you’re an ace. It’s unfair, but it’s reality.

172 landing

Making great landings consistently is easier said than done, and it’s easy to fall for the latest “miracle cure.” I won’t offer any of those, because good landings result more from practice, discipline and hard work than quick fixes. But sometimes the right visualization is the key: if you can truly understand all the interrelated events that happen during landing, it’s easier to make the correct control inputs. Since everyone thinks a little differently, what works for you may not work for another pilot. That was certainly true for me.

Early in my flight training, I was really struggling with landings – like most student pilots. The takeoff went fine, the pattern was smooth and the initial approach was stabilized. But the last 25 feet was all over the place, often ending with a balloon and then a hard landing.

My flight instructor told me it was perfectly normal, but that didn’t make me feel much better. He offered a number of tips you’ve probably heard: fly a stabilized approach, focus on the end of the runway, make smooth control inputs. All of these are good tips, but they weren’t enough for me to consistently grease the landing.

Then one day he hit on the concept that made it all click for me. I was trying to do about five things simultaneously, in a matter of a few seconds: stop the descent, increase angle of attack, bleed off airspeed and stall the wing 2 inches above the runway. That’s a lot to ask of any pilot, especially one with 10 hours. Instead of this hopeless effort, my instructor suggested I break the landing into three distinct phases: final approach, roundout and flare.

Flare graphic

To an experienced pilot, that may sound embarrassingly obvious. But to me, it was a breakthrough. While these three phases happen in quick succession, they are separate and the goal of each is different.

  1. Final approach: be stabilized by 500 ft. AGL (on glide path, at proper approach speed and descent rate less than 700 fpm) or go-around and try it again. It is exponentially harder to make a good landing if you don’t cross the threshold in the right “energy state,” meaning at the right speed and altitude. Too little energy and you’ll stop flying too soon and plunk it on; too much and you’ll float or balloon.
  2. Roundout: you can’t land without first arresting the descent, so don’t be in a hurry to start pulling back and getting the wheels on the ground. As you cross the threshold, gently pull back to slow or even stop the descent and get stabilized over the runway. This was the phase I was really missing, as I went right from the approach to touch down. It really helped my landings to focus on rounding out before I started to flare. It may only take a second or two, but it matters.
  3. Flare: now for the part most student focus on, where you increase angle of attack and gently touch down. Since you are already stable over the runway and your descent has been slowed, you can carefully feel for the runway – no need for quick control inputs. And the tip to look at the end of the runway is really important here, since it will offer the proper visual cues.

An important corollary to this tip is to be patient: just set the right pitch attitude and wait. Don’t keep pulling back on the yoke if the wheels don’t hit the runway immediately, as that’s a great way to balloon. In a typical training airplane, a 4000 ft. runway is plenty long, so wait for the final few knots of airspeed to bleed off as you feel for the runway. Forcing it on never works.

In larger airplanes, this tip can be modified slightly – and bush pilots may scoff at such a slow motion landing. But for most pilots on most runways, breaking the landing into three phases and being patient will go a long way. It may even be enough for your passengers to clap.

3 replies
  1. Ryan Yoder says:

    Also, follow these steps but stay in trim. Dial in some nose up trim to relieve some of that control pressure. As you increase the nose up attitude, trim it off. That attitude will not ever get less nose up so trim it off. This reduces workload and gives you more fine motor control over the flare. Patience is key. I have a Mooney and it is especially important to be patient when setting it back down as it likes to float with extra airspeed.

  2. Sean says:

    The best tip I received for learning to nail my landings was practicing staying in the flare and not landing. I went with an instructor and practiced trying not to land and stay in the flare as long as possible by alternating between throttle and pitch. After the third time I got so I could keep the plane floating down the runway for an indefinite time. Soloing would have been much more confident if we had done this early on. I nailed all my landings on my check ride and you could barely feel the wheels touch.

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