When this monthly column was proposed, I
wondered how many I would write before I had
to tackle one about landing a Cirrus. COPA
President Emeritus Mike Radomsky once told me, “Trip,
you can’t really teach anyone to land, you are just there
when they figure it out.”
Based on recent statistics, some instructors aren’t sticking
around long enough for some in our midst. Landing
accident statistics account for a large percentage of
all accidents in most fleets. The Cirrus fleet is not an
exception in the frequency of accidents, but is an outlier
in the number of landing accidents with a fatal outcome.
Fortunately, the current fatal accident rate remains low, however landing accidents and incidents continue to
occur much too frequently.
Cirrus Aircraft created a landing syllabus and offers videos
on their training portal. These will aid the Cirrus pilot in
honing their landing skills. The leadership of COPA and
Cirrus Aircraft issued a safety alert letter (included in this
issue of Cirrus Pilot) urging all pilots of Cirrus airplanes to
take advantage of the training offered. Cirrus and COPA
will both give you an incentive for doing this.
As you ponder your landing technique, allow me to share
with you some common situations I have witnessed as
pilots land their Cirrus aircraft.
I am no longer surprised when a new Cirrus pilot exhibits
a bizarre reaction to being too high and a little slow on
final for one of their first landings. Oftentimes, the pilot will
add throttle when in that situation. Perhaps this reflects
the pilot’s mental relationship of the airplane’s throttle to
the accelerator pedal on a car. That is a poor analogy and
one we need to dispose of immediately.
Prior to the addition of power, the airplane that is a little slow
and high on final possessed the correct amount of energy
to make a successful landing. Rather than increasing power
to address the lower speed, a better approach would be
reducing pitch; correcting the low airspeed condition and
increasing the descent rate to fix the too high condition
as well. Adding throttle/power introduces more energy to
a situation that needs no more energy. All that is required
is a redistribution of the energy that is already available.
Landing an airplane, any airplane, is a study in the
management of energy. We have all seen the diagram
of the four forces acting on an airplane in flight. Lift and
thrust add energy to our system, while drag and gravity
oppose lift and thrust to reduce the energy in our system.
Altitude above the ground is stored energy, while airspeed
represents kinetic energy.
Our goal in landing is to reach the ground at the moment
the total stored and kinetic energy reaches the minimum
energy required for flight.
I used to be one of these pilots. I thought I was hot stuff
since I could always roll it on smoothly. I just flew the
airplane down to the ground and landed with a very low
descent rate, well above stall speed. I wasn’t landing, I
was setting the record for lowest low pass.
That technique is hard to execute in crosswinds and on
choppy days. Misjudging this can lead to a visit to the
three-bounce propeller-strike repair shop. It’s also hard
on tires and brakes. Most importantly, if things go wrong,
the airplane carries excessive energy into a collision, and
that could be the difference between a crack up where
everyone walks away, and one with serious injuries, or
John Fiscus (CSIP to the stars), reminds many pilots that
the runway centerline is only for professionals. If you aren’t
consistently landing on the centerline, I will hazard a guess
that it is almost always on the left side of the centerline.
You might ask why that is. Though it may be tempting
to blame it on the English or Australians for driving on
the left side of the road, the reason is less rooted in the
desire to develop a posh accent than it is in physics.
Out in front of our airplanes, a spinning disk of about 60
inches in diameter and 40-50 pounds exerts an influence
on our path. Although the propeller pulls us through the air, it also does some less desirable
things at low airspeeds.
We are all familiar with the propensity
of the airplane to go left on takeoff
due to the torque effect. Less well
observed is the effect that the
propeller has on an airplane flying
slowly while transitioning from level
flight to landing flare. To familiarize
yourself with this rotational effect,
borrow a bicycle wheel, hold it by the
axle and spin it clockwise in front of
you. Next, raise the wheel in front
of you by tilting it up (simulating an
airplane flaring over the runway) and
notice the pronounced tendency
to turn left. When landing, we are
slowing, and as a result the rudder
becomes less effective. While we are
flaring, the propeller becomes more
effective at turning us left due to the
gyroscopic effect we experienced
with our bicycle wheel experiment.
Consequently, I find that most
landings require a small input of right
rudder in the transition from round
out to flare for landing. Do it right
and John Fiscus might call you a
pro, and that will make you feel like
a true celebrity.
It’s All About Balance
A lot of things are happening during
a landing. We are arresting the
descent, positioning the airplane to
land, managing energy, and watching
for hazards. Runways being vast
expanses of level ground, airport
designs tend to use all the available
cleared level land. This means
the land at the sides and ends of
the runway are often undulating,
tree-lined or marked by dramatic
precipices. All of the above conspire
to create favorable conditions for
wind direction changes, sink, or turbulence
as one crosses over the
The well-established approach can
get messy and the pulse quickens
as these localized effects present
themselves close to the ground.
The pilot must learn to compensate
appropriately. In my experience, a few
common reactions can be observed:
- The pilot becomes slightly tense,
and as a result, shortens the
focus point. It appears to be a
natural reaction to shorten our
look ahead when we become
nervous. On landing, this leads
to predictable over-controlling
and less than graceful landings.
Where to look has been widely
discussed. The aim point should be
well ahead of the airplane, but not
too far. Perhaps 1,000 feet down
the runway is far enough. Most
importantly, once you determine
that distance from experience and
practice, do your best to recognize
the natural tendency to shorten
your focus when you become
nervous and force yourself to look
further down the runway.
- The tension from the dynamic
changes causes the pilot to use a
“death grip” on the side stick. The
overly firm grip and adrenaline
from anxiety conspire to rob you
of the needed fine motor control.
The result is over-controlling the
airplane and subsequent pilot
- Sometimes the situation becomes so intense that the
pilot exhibits a “freeze up” or “fight or flight” response.
Training helps us recognize this situation and practicing
go-arounds helps abet the fight or flight tendency.
Gaining the insight to recognize the changing conditions
can be difficult. Though I have never heard what I am
about to share in a professional treatise on landings, I
find that learning to find the airplane’s “balance” is helpful.
Assuming the airplane is at the correct speed and on the
correct glide path, most pilots will notice that the airplane
“feels” very different based on the way the airplane is
trimmed, the amount of power being produced and the
pitch attitude of the airplane.
A subtle observation that has helped me tremendously
is that I want to feel as though I am “balancing” the
airplane with the elevator control as I approach the runway
threshold. Though nuanced and hard to describe on paper,
I believe that consistent landings share this “balanced”
control feel. Here is an attempt to describe it:
The pilot can “feel” some of the aircraft weight on the
control. That is, the pilot notices a slight drop in pitch
attitude if he/she relaxes pressure on the elevator
control. If power is reduced, the pilot should be able to
compensate with a slight increase in elevator pressure
without a ballooning effect and a gain in altitude.
Two scenarios in which this balance is not achieved are
- Approaching the runway too low results in too much
power required and excessive nose up attitude. The
result is that the pilot appears to be balancing the
airplane with the throttle allowing the glide path, round
out, and flare to be an exercise in power management
rather than pitch management.
- Approaching too steeply with too little power becomes
a fairly dynamic maneuver with lots of elevator inputs.
Correctly flown, the balance is achieved when the
power makes a very minor contribution to the overall
energy state of the airplane, and its reduction makes
a very small “up” input of elevator control to maintain
the correct glide path.
Finally, I ask all Cirrus pilots to take seriously the joint
communication from COPA and Cirrus Aircraft and
schedule a day with a CSIP to complete the landing
syllabus. We are convinced that this training will make
a difference and are eager to share good news with
our members as the statistics reflect the efforts you
make to improve your skills.
This article was initially published in the July / August 2015 issue of COPA Pilot.