I made this post to help those who are having trouble landing a light general aviation aircraft. This post is not designed to teach someone who has no landing experience to land, but rather aims to smooth out the landings of those pilots who already have some landing experience. As a beginning pilot, you often hear landing properly is difficult and many training hours will be required to refine your technique. This simply is not the case. In reality, landing an airplane is easy and can be performed after only a few hours of training. This being said, many pilots struggle with landings to the point of frustration. If you are having trouble with landings, or if your landings are not as clean as you would like them to be, the information in this post will help you move forward.
The Three Parts of a Landing
Landings are divided into three separate stages where different pilot actions must take place in order to achieve a smooth touchdown. These stages are final approach, level out, and float/flare. Each of these three stages are independent of each other and require individual mastery. If you cannot properly perform one of these stages, then you will not be able to land smoothly. So, if you are having trouble with landings, you can isolate the stage of landing where your problem is and work on perfecting that specific stage. More specifically, if you can fly a final approach but flare too high, then all you need to perfect is your level out. Following, I have described each landing stage and what needs to happen in each one.
The final approach stage of a landing aims to safely set up the aircraft over the threshold of the runway in a position where a level off and float can be made. Basically, the final approach puts the aircraft in a position where a landing can be accomplished. In order to do this, you must maintain three important variables:
- You must maintain the appropriate approach speed
- You must maintain proper glide path (Either with the PAPI/VASI or visually)
- You must maintain ground track with the runway centerline
Selecting and maintaining approach speed:
On final, the aircraft must be flown at a speed which will provide the best compromise between landing distance, control effectiveness on touchdown, and stall avoidance. There is no perfect speed for a specific aircraft which will provide the best result on touchdown in all flight situations. If your instructor tells you the approach speed for your aircraft is 65 knots, you must understand that speed is not set in stone. Approach speed will need to change as atmospheric conditions, and the aircraft’s weight change. In brief, a speed must be selected which is above stall speed to prevent stall, but is slow enough to prevent excess float on touchdown, which will cause increased landing distances. For more information on this, reference my post on Managing Risk in High Wind Landings.
Once an approach speed is selected, maintain it on final using your throttle hand. If your indicated airspeed is too low, add throttle to increase it. If your indicated airspeed is too high, reduce throttle to decrease it. This simple concept is critical to flying a proper final approach. Airplanes are not reactionary like cars. If you want to make a speed adjustment, it will take a few seconds for your control input to take effect. This is why it is necessary to think ahead when adjusting speed. You must understand that changing pitch will result in a change in airspeed, which will need to be compensated for by throttle. If you increase pitch with all other variables constant, you will need to add a bit of throttle. The opposite needs to occur if you reduce pitch.
Maintaining glide path:
Glide path control is best managed by use of the elevator (i.e pitch for glide path). However, in order to increase or decrease your aircraft’s glide path, adjustment of the elevator and throttle is required if constant airspeed is to be maintained. If you are too high on approach (As indicated by the VASI, PAPI, or visually) you will need to use elevator to reduce the pitch of the aircraft and reduce throttle to keep the aircraft at a constant speed. The opposite is true if you are low on an approach.
Maintaining Ground Track:
While in the air, maintaining ground track with the runway is accomplished only by the use of the ailerons. If the aircraft is left or right of centerline, use the appropriate amount of aileron to align the ground track of the aircraft with the runway centerline.
If the winds are aligned with the runway, or if they are calm, the nose of the aircraft will be aligned with the centerline and it will be easy to maintain ground track with the runway. If crosswind is present, a crab must be flown to maintain ground track with the runway centerline. This will mean the nose of the aircraft will not be aligned with the centerline of the runway for the final approach. This is normal and necessary. The angle required to combat the wind will depend both on the amount of crosswind and the approach speed of your aircraft. If you approach slower, a greater crab angle will need to form to keep ground track. Likewise, greater crosswinds will require a greater crab angle. Regardless of the crosswind, and the approach speed of your aircraft, you need to visually set a crab angle which maintains ground track alignment with the runway centerline.
At some point as you near the runway, you will need to reduce power to idle. I recommend reducing power just prior to your level out. There are however a few factors which may sway your decision on power reduction timing.
Approach stabilization: If you are not stabilized on your approach, you may want to adjust when you take power out. Specifically, if you are slow on approach, you should leave power in until you are closer to the runway. If you are fast on final, you may want to reduce power slightly earlier to prevent excessive float (Assuming runway length is a factor).
Type of landing: If you are worried about runway condition and are performing a soft field landing, it is a good idea to leave some power in through the entire landing to promote a slightly lower touchdown speed. If you are worried about runway length and are performing a short field landing, you may want to reduce power earlier to promote a shorter landing distance.
Flying the Final:
Ok, so I just gave you a bunch of information about how to fly a final approach properly. In reality, the human brain cannot process all of those things at the same time while dealing with the dynamic nature of an approach. So, if you want to realistically fly an approach with little experience remember these things:
- Use whatever amount of aileron necessary to keep the aircraft on ground track to the centerline
- Use whatever amount of throttle necessary to keep the aircraft on approach speed
- Use whatever pitch necessary to keep the aircraft on glide path
- Make small adjustments to correct changes
The Level Out
The level out takes the aircraft from the three degree downward approach angle to a zero degree level track over the runway. As the aircraft approaches the runway, the time will eventually come when you will need to pull back on the yoke to level the aircraft over the runway and stop the aircraft’s descent. This phase of landing is the most difficult to master.
In a perfect world, the pilot will provide enough back pressure on the yoke at the right time to bring the aircraft to a level pitch attitude a few feet above the runway surface. This will allow the pilot to fly level for a bit to bleed off the additional airspeed carried on final approach. This is the goal of the level out.
What you may do:
There are two negative outcomes you may experience during the level out. The first and most common occurs when you pull back with too much force on the yoke, or if start your level out too early. This causes the aircraft to climb away from the runway and gain altitude. If uncorrected, the aircraft will stall and will land hard on the runway. In extreme cases, it will cause the aircraft to fall several feet out of and air and will cause damage to the aircraft. The other negative outcome occurs when you do not pull back with enough force, or if you start your level out too late. This will most often result in a bounce. Bounces occur when the aircraft carries too much airspeed at touchdown, causing the aircraft to lift back off the runway.
What I recommend:
If you are bouncing your landings, or if you are landing hard, you are leveling out incorrectly. The most common cause of this is a misunderstanding of the necessary control inputs required during this landing phase. To help, remember these key points:
- The objective of the level out is to bring the wheels of the aircraft as close to the ground as possible without touching. This is something that the aircraft will not do on its own.
- In order to provide the proper control inputs, you must understand that there is no specific amount of backpressure you can provide on the yoke every time to achieve a successful landing. The control inputs necessary will change every landing and will be influenced by many factors. You need to visually determine the amount of pressure to apply.
- You need to apply whatever control inputs are necessary to bring the aircraft level over the runway as close as possible to it without touching. This may mean providing slight forward pressure immediately after initial level out to counteract downwash in ground effect, even if your instructor told you never push forward. Regardless, the goal is the same.
- You must make small adjustments, especially if the winds are not sustained. Because landing is dynamic, you need to be adaptable to varying conditions. You will constantly need to make small adjustments during the entire level out to keep the aircraft just off the runway.
If your final approach speed was above your aircraft’s stalling speed, you will need to spend some time floating down the runway to bleed off the extra airspeed you carried on final. This is completely normal and necessary. The length of time you will need to float depends on the amount of extra airspeed you carried on final. If you adjusted your approach for gusty winds, expect to spend more time in float. If you were worried about field length and reduced your approach speed, expect to spend less time in float.
During float, two important things occur. First, your airspeed begins to drop, which causes a reduction in groundspeed over the runway surface. This allows the landing to occur at a slower speed, which saves tires and prevents skidding. Second, it allows the angle of attack of the aircraft to increase. This promotes the well-known nose high landing attitude pilots are familiar with, and allows the aircraft to touchdown only on the strong main wheels.
How to float:
After you level out, you will be set up a few feet above the runway with some control pressures on the yoke. (What control pressures? I don’t know, they will be different every landing.) Now you will need to apply whatever control pressures are necessary to keep the aircraft a few feet off the runway for as long as possible. Because power was reduced on final approach, the aircraft will eventually slow to stalling speed if altitude is maintained. As the aircraft slows, it will require increased backpressure on the yoke to maintain altitude. This will cause the angle of attack of the aircraft’s wings to increase. As this occurs, the nose wheel begins to creep up and drag increases. Eventually a point will be reached where the aircraft will no longer be able to maintain altitude regardless of the amount of backpressure you put in. The result? BEEEEEEEP, SCREETCH. The aircraft’s main wheels will touch down on the runway with a nose high pitch attitude. That’s the idea anyway.
Correcting for wind:
In a perfect world, winds are always light and are sustained down the runway. In the real world, they almost never are. This is why it is necessary to learn to adjust your float for wind. Wind can affect an aircraft in float in two ways:
Changes in speed: If you are in float and the wind changes speed, your aircraft’s airspeed will change. This means your control pressures will need to change to keep the aircraft flying level a few feet above the runway. If you lose headwind, the aircraft will have the tendency to drop. When this is sensed, you must increase back pressure to hold the aircraft off the runway. The opposite is true if you gain headwind. In gusty conditions, you must constantly vary pressure on the yoke to hold the aircraft off the runway. Remember to make small corrections.
Crosswind: Crosswind pushes the aircraft off of the runway centerline. To correct for this, you must use aileron to turn the aircraft to keep its ground track aligned with the runway centerline. This will cause the nose of the aircraft to misalign with the aircraft’s direction of movement. If uncorrected, the aircraft will skid on landing, or may incur damage in extreme cases. To align the nose of the aircraft parallel to the runway centerline, use rudder to yaw the aircraft.
This is very counterintuitive and is difficult for student pilots to master. The main problem I encounter is the use of the wrong rudder pedal to align the aircraft. Because the aircraft is close to the ground when in float, it looks like it is taxing. During taxi, left rudder means left turn, and right rudder means right turn. You must remember that if the aircraft is even an inch off the runway surface, the rudder pedals provide yaw only. This misunderstanding causes students to use the opposite rudder pedal they should, making the misalignment worse. I often have had to push as hard as I could to fight students who insist on pushing the wrong pedal. The result of a proper crosswind landing will be contact on one main wheel, specifically the wheel on the windward side. This is normal.
Hope this helps,