So, you want to land a plane AND you want to do it well, so all your passengers know you’re an awesome pilot. Here’s how:
Step #1 – A good approach is important to a good landing
What makes a good approach?
- Proper airspeed. Arriving with too much airspeed means you must lose that extra speed during the landing; this leads to to floating, ballooning, and long landings. Arriving with too little airspeed can be dangerous, resulting in either a stall too high above the runway, too great a descent rate (vertical speed) or landing short of the runway. Find a pitch attitude that gives you the proper approach airspeed and keep that pitch (but cross-check your airspeed). Use elevator trim, so that you need as little input as possible to keep that pitch and airspeed.
- Proper glidepath: you want to choose an aim point (usually the runway numbers) and adjust power to smoothly take you to that point. While PAPI and VASI lights are useful for checking our glidepath, you should develop the ability to judge your glidepath without them (not every runway has them, you won’t have them in an emergency, and they sometimes don’t work). If your aim point is moving up in your field of view, then you are undershooting and need to add power. If your aim point is moving down in your field of view (and/or disappearing under the nose of the plane), then you are overshooting and need to reduce power or add flaps. Remember that in most aircraft, power or flap changes will require you to work to keep the same pitch/airspeed; if you add power, the aircraft naturally wants to pitch up and slow down. Small corrections early are much better than big corrections later.
- Alignment with the centerline of the runway: is your airplane lined up with the centerline of the runway? If not, use your ailerons to get you there.
- Momentum down the runway: if you keep yourself aligned with the runway with small corrections, then your momentum will be down the runway. Don’t confuse momentum down the runway with nose pointed down the runway. With any crosswind, the two are not the same.
Step #2 – Transition
In most training airplanes, configured for a normal landing, your approach speed and glidepath will result in a slightly nose-low attitude. You need to get the airplane into a level or slightly nose-high attitude close to the ground. You do this by raising the nose while keeping the airplane centered over the runway and keeping your momentum down the runway. I try to start my transition when I am 10-20 feet above the runway. You want to raise the nose enough ro reduce your descent rate, but not so much that you start to climb. This is the point at which you may lose the ability to see the runway over the nose of the airplane. In that case, adjust where you are looking slightly off to the side, but still down the runway (try a point on the side of the runway about 75 feet down)
Step #3 – NOT landing, with style
Now, you want to keep the airplane from landing as long as you can, while keeping it close to the runway, in the center of the runway. During this period, you have to be patient. You aren’t trying to force the airplane onto the ground, you are letting it land when it’s ready, letting the airplane slow down naturally. To do this requires increasing back pressure on the yoke as airspeed decreases; if you pull back and the airplane starts to climb, relax that extra pressure, but DO NOT allow the nose of the airplane to go below level. We are protecting the nose wheel. As you raise the nose, it’s not unusual for the airplane to yaw; use a little rudder (usually the right) to align the nose of the airplane with the runway. Ideally, the stall horn will come on and the airplane will stall just an inch above the runway…. a good landing. When I first learned to land, my natural tendency was to think “I’ve landed, now I can relax!”. Don’t! Keep some back pressure on the yoke and let the nosewheel come down gently. Work the rudders to keep you on that centerline.
There are two things I find helps pilots in this phase:
- Practicing soft field takeoffs. This gives you a feeling for that nose high attitude near the ground and needing to adjust to stay on the centerline
- Playing a “game” to try and not land. See if you can adjust pitch and power to keep the airplane flying just inches above the runway down the centerline of the runway just above stall speed.
Take a look at this video from Sporty’s for some good reference.
So, you’re having trouble judging height above the runway? You either keep running into the ground when you think you are well above the runway, or stalling a foot above the runway and rattling your teeth. This is very common; some of it is just practice, but try and use your peripheral vision a little. In a Cessna, you can see the tires with your peripheral vision and you can also see other things, like runway lights to help judge your height.
Ballooning is climbing back up into the air, as you are trying to land. It’s caused by a combination of the following:
- Extra airspeed on approach – see step #1
- Overcontrolling or too strong of back pressure on the yoke. Hold the yoke like a pencil, not a baseball bat. You want fine motor control for small corrections. If your hand, arm, and wrist are all tense, that’s not possible. Relax your grip. In some airplanes, extra nose up trim during the transition can help this as well.
- Extra power. Just an extra 100rpm can greatly increase the tendency to float and balloon. Make sure you are completely at idle.
Now, if you do balloon, your response is important. If you’re a couple of feet above the runway and still have extra speed, relax and reestablish the proper landing pitch attitude and the airplane will settle back down. However, the natural human tendency is to overcorrect and push the nose down. DO NOT DO THIS. The nose should never go below a level attitude. Think of relaxing back presure, not pushing.
If you’ve ballooned several feet into the air and airspeed has decayed to near stall speed, at the very least you may need a little extra power to slow your descent back to the runway. In worse cases, or if you are running out of runway, then a go-around is the right solution. Come back and try it again.
Bouncing is like a balloon where you touched the ground first. The causes, challenges, and solutions are mostly the same. However, in many cases, the bounce is made worse by the fact that the nose wheel gets involved in the landing, either by touching down nose low or level, or by coming down hard as you relax back pressure. Make sure you keep the nose up.
- Nose wheel safely off the ground
- As slow as possible (full stall)
- As close to the ground as possible
- Direction of motion directly down the runway
- On the centerline of the runway
- Longitudinal axis of the airplane aligned with the runway
- The nose wheel is not designed to take the force of landing directly. If the nosewheel gets involved in the landing, it also increases the likelihood of bounce or wheelbarrowing.
- The slower the forward speed, the less energy needs to be dissipated in order to stop.
- Our goal is to stall the airplane, but we want to do this only very close to the ground
- We want the momentum of the airplane to keep us on the runway. If our direction of motion is anything but down the runway, it increases the likelihood that we depart the runway (bad)
- Starting on and staying on the centerline gives us the greatest margin against leaving the runway.
- Reduces the sideloading stresses on the main landing gear. (and is really important if you fly a tailwheel)