How To Learn: Mastering the touchdown
When it clicks, you can land the airplane
Now that you've got a handful of flights in your logbook and know how to do your basic maneuvers, you're probably eager to move on to that last big hurdle before your first solo flight: learning how to land.
Landing is unlike any other maneuver you've learned thus far. It's not a procedure; it can't be memorized; and it cannot be learned by rote. It is one of those things in life that just comes to you after plenty of practice. Invariably, after an indeterminable number of frequently shaky attempts, you finally make one good landing, seemingly without rhyme or reason. At that moment, something clicks and you just "get it." Instantly your confidence builds. Landing an airplane is pure piloting, making it do what you want it to do, gently bringing an air machine back down to earth. And learning to land is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying achievements of flight training -- a milestone you'll never forget.
Learning to land is an exercise in controlling myriad variables. Variables that were trivial at 3,000 feet are now crucial 10 feet above the ground. Minor changes in pitch, bank, airspeed, and altitude can mean the difference between a smooth "kiss" and a "kerplunk."
One way to corral these variables is to make a good, stable approach to the aim point. (The aim point is located a few hundred feet before the touchdown zone, often slightly beyond the numbers.) An accurate and consistent approach reduces your workload and sets you up for a good landing. There is an old aviation adage that claims a good landing starts 10 miles out. What this really means is that a good landing is usually preceded by a good approach. That's not to say that your superior piloting skills can't salvage a good landing from a short and unstable approach; it's just much harder. Then again, you don't want to develop a habit of salvaging landings, as the success rate of that technique tends to be unpredictable.
A stabilized approach means the airplane is fully configured, stabilized at the proper approach airspeed and descent rate, on glide path, and aligned with the extended centerline before descending through 500 feet above ground level (agl). This stabilized approach will position your airplane at the proper airspeed, altitude, and sink rate to make a normal landing. To complete your landing, all you have to do is round out -- level off momentarily above the runway -- then flare, touch down, and roll out.
To make good approaches, just put into practice what you've already learned. Pitch and power control airspeed and descent angle. If you carry too much power at a constant airspeed your approaches will be flat, or shallow. If you carry too little your approaches will be steep, with high sink rates and "thrilling" roundouts. If you carry too much airspeed into the roundout, the airplane will float, be more sensitive to pitch inputs, and may have a tendency to balloon. Carry too little airspeed and the airplane may not have enough energy to break the descent. It may feel sluggish, stall prematurely, and land with a thud.
Tracking the extended centerline of the runway is easy once you learn to recognize certain visual cues. Note the relationship between the approach and departure ends of the runway. If the departure end of the runway appears to be vertically aligned directly above the approach end in your view, then your airplane is aligned with the extended centerline of the runway. If it is not, then your airplane is to the right or left of the centerline and a correction needs to be made.
Being fully configured is purely a planning issue. Plan to have your final flaps set as you begin your final approach unless you are too low and need to delay further flap extension, or plan to land with less than full flaps because of wind. Consistent, stable approaches cannot be underestimated. If you don't have things well under control at 500 feet agl, you're probably better off going around.
At roughly 10 to 20 feet above the runway, the roundout is initiated by applying gentle back-pressure. The roundout slowly and smoothly transitions the airplane from the nose-low approach attitude to the nose-high landing attitude. This nose-high attitude positions the airplane so that the structurally resilient main landing gear absorb the landing loads. The roundout also "breaks the glide," reducing the sink rate to nearly zero when the wheels are just above the runway. The roundout should continue seamlessly into the flare, as you continue pulling back on the yoke until the airplane touches down.
Although that's great in theory, for training it's better to think of the roundout as a three-step process: approach, level off, and flare.
As you approach the runway, the airplane will be in a nose-low attitude with a sink rate of approximately 400 to 600 feet per minute. At about 20 feet above the runway, start to increase the pitch very slowly to begin the roundout. The sink rate will decrease, and the airplane may begin to level off at some height above the runway, perhaps five to 10 feet. The airplane may float for a few seconds at this height, with little or no pitch change required.
When you see or feel the airplane begin to settle or sink slightly, that's your cue to flare, or very smoothly increase the pitch to obtain the nose-high landing attitude. This settling can be seen with your peripheral vision, or sensed with your "seat of pants" or kinesthetic sense. If everything is timed just right, the landing attitude should be reached just before or a few seconds prior to the main wheels touching down -- just as the aircraft arrives at its critical angle of attack, as evidenced by the activation of its stall warning device. Of course, the rate at which the roundout is performed is dependent upon the height of the airplane above the runway, the airspeed, the rate of descent, and the pitch attitude. When things are changing fast, your timing and reactions have to be quick and accurate. When things are changing slowly, your inputs can be made slower and with less precision.
Don't think that you're the only one who has difficulty timing the roundout. It's not easy. It takes time to develop a keen sense of sink rate, height above the runway, and airspeed. Moreover, in addition to judging all those variables, you're also trying to correlate the effects of your control inputs with the airplane's responses. And you're trying to do all of this under the pressure to make a good landing, and in a time frame of about 10 to 15 seconds.
Vision is one of the best tools that you can use to estimate height and movement during your approach and roundout. In fact, during the roundout, your peripheral vision is aptly suited for detecting sink rate, bank angle, and height above the runway. However, your primary focus should be out ahead of the airplane. You should be looking out over the nose at references that are far enough ahead of the airplane to be seen clearly, just as you do subconsciously while driving. If you focus too closely, nearby objects will tend to become blurred, giving the impression of excessive speed. The result is a tendency to round out too early and/or over-control the airplane. (Overly abrupt or quick roundouts can also be the result of a high sink rate on approach.) If you focus too far ahead, accuracy in judging relative motion and height is reduced, and your reactions may be late, as there appears no need for action.
It takes time to learn landings. You must absorb your sensory inputs and correlate your actions to the airplane's responses. Unfortunately, since the time from roundout to touchdown is a relatively short 10 to 15 seconds, regular landing practice doesn't give you much time to learn. What you need is more time to get the feel of the airplane in those last few seconds between roundout and touchdown. Some instructors make a series of low approaches just above the runway at minimum controllable airspeed. This exercise allows you to see the effects of the controls and develop a sense of motion and height. It also builds your confidence and skill, which helps ease the normal tension and anxiety associated with maneuvering so close to the ground.
With your instructor's help, first find a suitable airfield for practice. It should have a runway that is sufficiently long and preferably wide, with no hazardous obstacles in the departure path (as you may be climbing out at a lower altitude than usual). Your instructor sets up the training scenario by flying the airplane down to arrive at the threshold of the runway, in slow flight, with the main wheels a couple of feet above the surface. Your instructor transfers all of the controls, one at a time, except the throttle. While you fly, your instructor adjusts the power with the goal of keeping the wheels just above the runway. Since this is practice, it's OK if the wheels inadvertently touch down. During this time you'll be able to see how subtle pitch inputs affect height and how tiny amounts of bank affect lateral motion. Finally, with a safe amount of runway remaining, apply takeoff power while you initiate a go-around. These low passes can be practiced until you start to feel like you're in control.
Fortunately, most modern training airplanes don't have a propensity to ground loop. Nevertheless, these embarrassing "loss of directional control" incidents continue to plague general aviation. Remember, the landing process doesn't end when the airplane's wheels touch down. It is not complete until the airplane has decelerated to normal taxi speed or been brought to a complete stop when clear of the landing area.
The most most likely time for directional control problems is immediately after touchdown, because of the high speed and ground friction. During this time, it is vital that you remain vigilant and continue to control the airplane until it has slowed. Don't become distracted with extraneous tasks such as retracting the flaps, tuning the radio, or opening a window. This diversion of attention can easily lead to a loss of directional control incident. In general, you should not touch any control (unless absolutely necessary) until the aircraft is clear of the active runway and brought to a full stop. Then the after-landing checklist can be performed.
Learning how to land is a personal challenge. Your instructor will keep you from damaging the airplane while you poke around a few feet above the runway, but only you have the will power to make that first "greaser." Once you've done that, your first solo will be right around the corner.
Christopher L. Parker is a CFI and an aviation author, speaker, and FAA remedial training specialist. He is captain of a Canadair Challenger business jet based in Van Nuys, California.
Want to know more? Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.