Setting up a Good Landing
It’s grudgingly accepted amongst P-3 pilots that, while you may have spent the last six hours at 300 feet above the water in the middle of the night, if you slam the aircraft onto the runway, the backend crew will form an opinion of your flying skills from that landing and nothing else.
All Captain Kangaroo jokes aside, the ability to land an aircraft safely, especially after a long and tiring flight, is an obvious skill that every pilot needs. But what is a good landing? Is it a ‘greaser’ where your passengers barely know the tyres are rotating? Or is it a firm, timely touchdown after flaring at the correct aim-point? My answer may surprise some pilots out there – while a greaser is often nice to do, I believe a positive touchdown at the correct point is preferable.
Why? Well to pull off a ‘greaser’ student pilots will often unnecessarily hold off the touchdown, increasing the angle of attack by raising the nose as the speed bleeds off, in an attempt to gently lower the mains onto the runway. There are a number of potential traps here
Firstly, it is all well and good when operating on a nice long runway with plenty of room for your type. But do it every time and it will become the norm. So on your first cross country with an away landing at a dirt strip, a couple of thousand feet shorter than the runway at the local aerodrome, the end of the runway may seem a lot closer than you’re prepared for. Greasers can chew up runway at a rapid rate. Holding the aircraft off to minimise the rate of descent to achieve one brings the touchdown point further along the landing threshold. Add in other factors such as less braking action from gravel or wet runways and you may find that you run out of landing distance available. Remember the old adage: runway behind you is like fuel in the truck – useless. This holds true whether you fly a light aircraft or a large commercial airliner.
Secondly, as stated above, in order to pull off the greaser, the pilot increases angle of attack as the speed drops, minimising the rate of descent at touchdown. If overdone, this can bring the aircraft closer to the stall speed before touchdown. Further, if the pilot has misjudged the flare point and is higher than expected, a hard landing from a higher distance from the runway can result. Tail strikes in some types are also a danger as the angle of attack increases close to the ground.
Remember also that for each flare; the point of initiation, the amount of attitude change required and the amount of developing needed once stabilised at the final flare attitude depends greatly upon the airspeed of the aircraft at the flare point. If the aircraft is faster than normal, then the angle of attack and consequently the attitude will be less, requiring less attitude change to achieve the final flare attitude. If the student pilot is attempting a greaser at this point he or she may over rotate at the flare, causing a balloon, further increasing the chance of running out of runway and a hard landing, as the aircraft is now higher from the ground, and slowing fast.
In order to avoid the floater and possible hard landing, I believe it is preferable to aim for a firmer, positive touchdown. To do this, fly at the correct threshold speed every time so each flare is similar. Initiate the flare at the correct point, reduce power positively, and hold the attitude as the speed washes off without attempting to grease it on. A positive touchdown is your aim. Less runway distance is used, the aircraft will more likely land at the correct speed and attitude and the risk of a hard landing is actually reduced.
If your passengers give you a bit of stick for the firm touchdown, simply smile and explain that every landing they walk away from is a good landing – safe in the knowledge that you have applied correct techniques and achieved the required outcome – landing within the touchdown zone, at the correct speed. As always, discuss this with your instructor and get into an aeroplane and try it out.