Soft Field Techniques

Tips that will serve you well on your checkride

By Dave Wilkerson

Ahe FAA practical test standards (PTS) for the private pilot certificate call for students to demonstrate knowledge of the elements of soft-field takeoffs and landings and perform actual soft-field operations. Most instructors seem to drill students in short-field operations more often than in soft-field takeoffs and landings. Even some pilot examiners consider soft-field takeoffs and landings little more than slightly modified normal operations.

Though they are similar, significant differences exist between soft-field and normal operations, and your examiner is required to probe your soft-field skills. The most common queries have to do with the conditions that would cause you to opt for a soft-field landing or takeoff. Examiners tend to be experienced as pilots and know firsthand that tall grass, soft sand, mud, snow, or other less-than-solid surfaces slow pilots down. Your examiner has probably lived through a few rough fields pounding at the landing gear with all of the mercy of an IRS audit.

It is easy to determine what your examiner expects of your knowledge and flight demonstrations. The PTS lists soft-field takeoff and climb as one task and soft-field approach and landing as another. The takeoff includes 10 elements, while the landing covers nine. In both cases, you must begin by showing that you understand the parts of each operation. For the soft-field takeoff, examiners and the PTS concentrate on how you position the flight controls and the flaps. Examiners know that not all airplane flight manuals address soft-field takeoffs, but those that specify a technique do so for a reason. The manufacturer knows the nuances of its product best, so it's always wise to follow the POH's recommendations. Details like flap settings and power application vary from model to model. For example, many single-engine Cessnas call for 10 degrees of flaps for soft-field takeoffs, while others specify up to 20 degrees. You should be intimately familiar with your airplane and know the correct settings.

But the takeoff is only half the task. When your examiner says, "Let's do a soft-field takeoff," you should know that the request includes the climbout. Knowing the manufacturer's recommendations for this part of the procedure will save you grief. Some manuals instruct pilots to keep the flaps at the recommended extension until they have cleared any obstacles. Others might advise that the flaps be fully retracted once you are airborne. Manufacturers' procedures vary, and the FAA expects pilots to perform them with the precision outlined in the PTS. That means we must all be familiar with our airplane handbooks.

Examiner opinions on the depth of testing in soft-field operations vary by geography. Those in urban environments with a plethora of well-maintained, hard-surfaced runways and those who never stray from highly civilized airports may regard soft-field operations as a white-scarf throwback to yesteryear. (These examiners, I think, are few.) During my decade of charter flying, I needed soft-field techniques far more often than short-field ones. My rural environs not only hosted unimproved landing sites but also presented numerous 1940s-era runways suffering from 1980s airport budgets. Hard-surface runways succumb to poor maintenance and weather exactly like potholed city streets. Your examiner might want to know that you recognize that crumbling runways call for pilots to get the airplane off the ground as quickly as possible with minimum landing gear punishment. That means soft-field takeoffs.

Conversely, landing on such surfaces can be a costly surprise; thus the PTS expects you to consider the wind conditions, landing surface, and obstructions when selecting the most suitable touchdown point for your soft-field landing. Unless you have personal knowledge of the runway in question, examiners expect you to use the Airport/Facility Directory and notices to airmen as part of your routine soft-field aeronautical decision-making process. The slightest concern about the runway surface is plenty of reason to ask the unicom operator or other pilots in the area about the runway condition. Examiners consider taking such precautions vital to good aeronautical decision making where soft-field landings are concerned, and they base their concern on the high percentage of accidents that occur in the landing phase.

You might note that your PTS doesn't say anything about where on the field you should land other than that you should select "a suitable touchdown point." That's because the condition of runways that demand soft-field techniques can vary immensely along their lengths. No one expects you to know every possible pitfall, but you must know enough to avoid obvious dangers such as shadows on the landing area that might indicate deep holes or furrows. Standing or running water are also poor candidates for landing points. Landing on a soft field demands a pilot capable of gathering information, planning, and executing the plan.

After landing, you will presumably need to depart the airfield, and examiners love to see applicants ask themselves, "If I can get in to land, can I get the airplane out again?" Few events are as embarrassing as having to have your perfectly good airplane trucked out of some deceptively muddy place because you, the pilot, did not ask that question. Your examiner might want some evidence that you will never face that embarrassment.

For both the soft-field takeoff and the soft-field landing, the PTS alludes to your ability to maintain crosswind correction and directional control. You must also prove that you can make any necessary wind-drift correction, especially for the takeoff. These elements are critical because soft-field operations focus on that never-never land of transition from sky to ground or ground to sky - those nameless moments when the airplane is subject to both the aerodynamics of flying machines and the tribulations of ground vehicles.

Most pilot applicants know that soft-field operations mandate nose-high attitudes for takeoff and for landing, but the details can be controversial. For a soft-field takeoff, how high should a pilot hold the nose? During a soft-field landing, how much aerodynamic braking is enough? Expect your examiner to ask such questions. In your answers, remember that controllability is the overriding concern. Examiners often hear applicants recite that a nose-high attitude transfers weight to the wings as quickly as possible on takeoff, then in flight see them succumb to the "more is better" philosophy that leads to scraping the tail-tiedown ring as a sacrifice to the god of lift. These souls forget that drastically increased angles of attack create so much drag that the ground roll increases dramatically. The Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-3) reminds applicants, instructors, and examiners that, "As the airplane accelerates, enough back-elevator pressure should be applied to establish a positive angle of attack and to reduce the weight supported by the nosewheel." The idea is to reduce, not eliminate, weight on the nosewheel. The misconception that the FAA requires the nosewheel to be off the surface during the soft-field takeoff places airplanes in danger. Completely eliminating the nosewheel's friction with the surface surrenders much controllability just when pilots need it most.

Examiners apply similar principles to soft-field landings. By their nature, soft-field landings invite hydroplaning when wheels touch down on wet grass or soggy runways. Soft-field landings call for pilots to have the wings support the weight of the airplane for as long as practical in order to minimize drag and stress on the landing gear. Examiners rarely see applicants maximizing aerodynamic braking after touchdown by filling the windscreen with sky, but it does occasionally happen. It is during landings that examiners depend on the Airplane Flying Handbook's call for the nosewheel to be clear of the surface. According to the book, pilots should "hold sufficient back-elevator pressure to keep the nosewheel off the ground until it can no longer aerodynamically be held off the field surface." Again, that does not mean sacrificing the tail tiedown ring.

While the techniques for soft-field operations vary, the principles do not. Examiners love to see applicants attend to details and demonstrate a good understanding of the underlying principles. Those principles, well ingrained, will help give you a lifetime of flexible, safe, and enjoyable flying into and out of all kinds of airfields.

Dave Wilkerson is a designated pilot examiner, writer/photographer, and historian. He has been a certificated flight instructor for more than 23 years and is a single- and multiengine commercial-rated pilot.