Posted on Apr 4, 2020
by Ed Benson
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If your landings are consistent and you can accurately judge your height above the runway during the round out and flare, just keep your eyes where you’re looking. If your landings could be better, read on.
As a flight instructor, I’m occasionally called upon to “troubleshoot” when a pilot is suffering inconsistent landings. Of course, in primary training the subject of where to look when landing always comes up.
I’ve had some pilots, including at least one flight instructor, advise that the pilot should gradually shift his view to the far end of the runway during the flare. I can think of two good reasons why this is not a good idea. First, the far end of the runway is going to be at least a half-mile away and may literally be miles away. When looking at a point that distant, the angles involved in judging a foot or two of altitude are simply too small.
Take a look at these two examples:
These were taken just past the numbers on runway 2 at Copperhill, Tenn. (1A3), a 3,500-foot runway. The photo on the left was taken with the camera roughly at eye height in a Cirrus. I climbed a ladder to take the photo on the right. (I inserted a panel into the photos with my computer to make them more realistic.)
Can you tell, looking at the far end of the runway, how far up on the ladder I was? One foot … two feet … ten feet? I was about five feet up the ladder to take the second photo. I think it’s clear the visual information available looking at the far end of the runway makes accurate height judgment extremely difficult.
Second, in many airplanes you will simply not be able to see the far end of the runway in the landing attitude. Our planes are blessed with above-average visibility, but in a slow enough landing even a pilot of average stature at some point may see something like Figure 2.
To accurately judge height, we need to pull our vision closer to the airplane, while simultaneously diverting it toward the runway edge. Exactly how far ahead depends on the plane’s speed, but I encourage my students to look 30 to 50 feet ahead of the plane, more or less at the runway edge.
Note: A study performed by engineering students associated with the University of Michigan Flyers in the early 1970s in which a device that measured eye movement was placed on the heads of pilots who were making good landings agreed with the recommendations of this article. At that time a lot of instructors were stressing that the student should look well down the runway in the flare. When those same instructors wore the device that measured their eye movements and where they were looking, it was found that they focused near the left edge of the runway, about 200 feet ahead of the airplane.
Why not closer? It might work better, except for the fact that the ground becomes blurred. Flight instructors sometimes note that their student’s night landings are better and more consistent than their daytime landings. The common explanation for this is the student’s vision is being pulled closer to the plane by the landing light – usually (and not coincidentally) right about where they should be looking in the first place!
If you go out and practice looking ahead and to the side, our bodies tend to follow our eyes. If shifting your view to the left runway edge is new to you, you may find the nose of the plane being “pulled” that way. It’s subtle, and once you’re aware of it, it should be easy to compensate for.
Now, go have some fun!
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