Reviewing Your Landing Technique

ArticlesTrainingSafety

Posted on Feb 8, 2021 by Trip Taylor

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.

Throttle Jockeys

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.

High Rollers

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 even fatalities.

Anglophiles

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 airport boundary.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 induced oscillation.
  3. 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 detailed below:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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