December 1998Commentary


Eyeballs and Energy

I hereby proclaim 1999 as the year for landings - perfect "greasers" that kiss the runway gently and generate never-ending passenger praise. Even better, I'll tell you how to do it.

First, however, I want you to know what I do when a landing isn't perfect. I never apologize to anyone. I blame a bad landing on one of three gremlins that work for Mother Nature - runway attraction (hard landing), runway repulsion (floater), or runway skew (lateral force). However, I can avoid these gremlins if I properly manage my eyeballs and the airplane's energy.

On final approach, I concentrate my scan on the planned touchdown point and airspeed. Obviously, I evaluate wind drift and glidepath and make the necessary corrections, but my primary concern is the touchdown point and airspeed.

When I know I'll land on my planned touchdown spot - usually as I approach the runway threshold - I raise my line of sight until I perceive my sink rate and altitude. An observer might say I'm now looking at the far end of the runway, but that's not the case. I use my entire field of vision to evaluate sink rate and altitude. The far end of the runway isn't important, and it's seldom visible when I'm landing in instrument conditions.

This is critical. I shift my eyes slightly to the left and to the right to help me see important visual clues. Fixation on one thing is a major piloting error.

When I start the landing flare, I lower my line of sight and I look at the left half of the runway near the airplane. If I look too close, the runway appears blurred, and if I look too far away, I don't see the clues I need. I look at the closest portion of the runway that appears in focus. The point that separates the blurred and focused areas moves closer to the airplane as speed decreases.

I continue to move my eyes slightly while I flare and the airplane's nose moves toward a pronounced nose-high attitude. If I flare excessively, I'll balloon. If I don't flare enough, I'll land hard or, worse, touch down nose wheel first and wheelbarrow - which is extremely dangerous.

The difference between a firm landing and a greaser occurs the moment the visual cues appear constant - nothing is changing. Attitude is good, altitude is good, and the runway is poised just beneath the wheels. When this happens, I pull the nose up. I don't wait for another visual cue.

Bingo! It's a perfect greaser, and I immediately increase yoke back-pressure to maintain pitch attitude and keep the nose wheel in the air. The airplane will settle automatically as airspeed decreases, and the drag that results from the nose-high attitude will help decelerate the airplane and reduce brake wear.

You won't make consistent greasers if you look over the airplane's nose, with your neck stretched to the limit. To see the proper visual cues during the flare, you must look at the runway that's visible through the bottom left corner of the windshield. To become comfortable with this view, you should practice looking at the left side of the road while driving your car at freeway speeds. (Don't do this in traffic.) If you make a big change, such as closing the throttle, it's difficult to keep up with the rapid changes that occur, and a greaser results more from luck than skill.

The power that was there when you started the flare is not enough to sustain level flight. So, when you begin to land as I have described, don't close the throttle until the wheels touch down. This power setting will help you achieve the required nose-high landing attitude, because the resulting prop wash increases elevator effectiveness. If control forces make it difficult to raise the nose during the flare, you should use two hands on the yoke. You must fly the airplane, and this "two handed" tip has helped many pilots improve their landings.

The pre-flare power setting will cause you to float, but that's okay initially because your first objective is to master eyeball management and the touch- down. To eliminate floating, you make a slight, coordinated power reduction and pitch increase when you sense the airplane will float. This is the easiest part of the process. Good luck, fly safe, and Happy New Year!