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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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