Proper planning prevents poor performance. I’m not sure who to credit with the adage, but it very much applies to consistent landings.
A good landing starts with good planning and a good pattern. Your standard entry of course is a 45 degree (ground track) entry to the midpoint of the downwind leg. If operating at a towered airport, you’ll have to comply with ATC instructions and be prepared for something non-standard.
In the event you’re approaching the airport from the opposite side of the runway, it would also be acceptable to enter on a midfield crosswind at pattern altitude. Yes, I’m an advocate of this alternative method versus over-flying the field and making a descending turn toward the traffic pattern opposite the direction of approaching traffic with obvious blind spots and additional low-level maneuvering.
Establish the aircraft on downwind with the aircraft trimmed for level flight at the recommended speed and configuration. The recommended downwind speed in any aircraft should allow you to make adjustments in speed for spacing if the pattern is busy.
After beginning your descent abeam the designated touchdown point (always choose a touchdown point for consistent landings), make the appropriate configuration, speed and trim changes. Turn your base leg when the intended touchdown point is approximately 45 degrees behind the wing. The turn from downwind to base will likely be more than 90 degrees if any wind is present (remember your Rectangular Course). The turn of more than 90 degrees will ensure you maintain a constant distance from the runway by crabbing into the wind – to avoid drifting.
The 45 degree point is a critical position for consistent landings because you’re close enough to ensure the airport is made in the event of an engine failure, but also have enough room to fine-tune your descent. As stable and fine-tuned as you can possibly be prior to your turn to final, the more likelihood of a good landing.
If you appear to be too low, make a shallow turn to final. If you appear to be high, delay the turn and make a medium-banked turn to final to sacrifice more vertical lift. While varying the bank angle to compensate for altitude on base leg is perfectly acceptable and necessary for consistent landings, remember, the goal is always to roll out on final with the airplane on the extended center line. Rest easy, this takes practice to develop awareness of the proper visual cues.
Your final glide path should remain constant to landing with consistent airspeed. Now, the wind variable – the stronger the wind, the slower the rate of descent needed to maintain a constant glide path and vise versa with less wind, but airspeed does not change. To increase the rate of descent while maintaining airspeed, decrease power. To decrease the rate of descent while maintaining airspeed (stronger headwind), increase power. But remember, all power changes require a pitch change and all pitch changes will require a power change. This fine-tuning should be just that. If you’re forced to make large power and therefore, pitch changes, or they happen to be self-induced (which will happen to all of us), it’s time to go-around.
After turning final it’s now time to focus on your aiming point to ensure your designated touchdown point will be made – the aiming point is NOT the intended touchdown point, it’s strictly for reference and is where the descent path visually intersects the runway. It will be located in front of your touchdown point as you will travel forward during the flare. Theoretically, if you were to not flare the aircraft, the aiming point is where the aircraft would meet the runway. The aiming point does not move – the distance between the aiming point and horizon will remain constant. This fundamental concept of aiming point and its relationship to touchdown point is critical to your mastery of landings.
The aiming point can be between lights or a particular spot on the runway. During the approach, align the aiming point with a place on the windshield. If the point stays on the same spot on the window, then you’re maintaining a constant glide path. If the aiming point moves down on the window, then you’re drifting above the glide path and will likely overshoot. If the aiming point moves up on the window, you’re below the appropriate glide path and may undershoot. Additional pitch and power changes will be necessary if you experience any movement of the aiming point.
The flare or round-out should be started 10-20’ above the runway. As you approach the runway and begin to slow by increasing pitch, gradually decrease power. As the airplane slows, shorten your focus. In the beginning of the flare, you are trading airspeed for altitude in the form of a shallower rate of descent. By increasing the pitch, descent rate is slowed so that you can allow the airplane to settle. Back pressure, however, will need to continue to increase until there is no more airspeed to trade. At this point the airplane will settle to the ground as the airplane wings stall…ideally, the same time full back elevator is reached.
Landings are a delicate exercise in energy management. We rightfully tend to focus on the danger of mismanagement in the slow direction, but high speed can be just as harmful. I happen to believe it is mismanagement in the high speed direction that often leads to sloppy base to final turns resulting in cross-controlled situations at low altitudes. Precision should be the goal.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Finally a word on practice. A wise person once told me you can’t practice anything effectively unless you have goals and a method to measure progress. In terms of making more consistent landings, this means examining your landings with a critical eye. Some things to consider:
- Speed – are your pattern speeds correct and consistent through all legs
- Aiming & Touchdown points – are you maintaining the discipline to select aiming and touchdown points for every landing and making those touchdown points
- Flare & Touchdown – are you appropriately trading airspeed for altitude in the form of a shallower descent in the flare and touching down as the wings stall
- Runway alignment – are you on center line with the longitudinal axis parallel to the runway
- Go-Arounds – are you following your own rules for a stable approach and executing a go-around when appropriate.
Judge your improvement on the quality of your “bad” landings. And practice under a variety of conditions (wind, configuration, time of day, etc.) to better hone your visual cues and mastery of the airplane.
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