Recently I read an article about a landing accident. The accident was a result of one of those stupid things people do when everyone is watching (this implies that when you do something right, no one is there to see it!).
No one really knows why it happens this way. Maybe it’s "Murphy’s Law." In any event, Albert Einstein may have hit it right on the head when he reportedly said, "There are two infinites: the universe, and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe!"
Although I would never attempt to debate Albert’s wisdom, I would like to point out that as pilots there are a number of things we can do to keep from being the next Darwin award recipient for botched landings.
Let’s begin by discussing the concept of standard operating procedures (SOPs). SOPs is the term the "big boys" use to describe their procedures for doing things right, and doing them the same way every time.
Why would we want to do them the same way whenever possible? The main reason is that standardization of procedures leads to repetition of actions when flying the aircraft, and that in turn leads to proficiency.
Approaching a landing using a standardized procedure is critically important to safety, since operating close to the ground means there is little time to recover from unusual or emergency situations.
For example, pilots should try to enter the traffic pattern at the appropriate altitude AGL and proper airspeed every time. Descents while in the traffic pattern (circuit) area are not only dangerous, but they are often distracting to the pilot making them.
Flying the circuit involves aircraft configuration changes, relatively slower airspeeds, and vigilance for other aircraft. Anything else is potentially distracting. If you use flaps in the circuit or for landing, try to put them on at the same location in the circuit every time. This consistency will help you to remember to actually extend flaps at the appropriate time.
Turns should be coordinated while in the circuit. Only on rare occasion are slipping turns really necessary, and at all other times they simply signify botched descent planning. At no time should a skid be made at low altitude due to the increased potential for a stall/spin incident. Also try to keep the circuit as small as possible; ideally, close enough to the runway so that an engine failure would not preclude gliding to the runway.
I know this can be impossible to do at times, especially with other traffic in the circuit, but stay close when you can.
At least one pilot I know has a philosophy for landing where he always reserves the right to make a go-around if necessary. A wise philosophy perhaps, but I prefer the philosophy of planning for a go-around and always reserving the right to land.
The go-around, after-all, is a "get me outta here" maneuver that keeps a landing from becoming an accident.
Only if everything is going okay should the landing be attempted. Multiple go-around points can be selected and thought of as "gates." If you have everything under control by the time you reach each subsequent gate, you may pass and continue to the next. If something is amiss, then you need to consider a go-around.
Since there is much that can be done by the experienced pilot to safely salvage various segments of the descent to landing, most go-around gates will be on or near the final approach to landing.
Selecting go-around gates is at least dependent on piloting skill, aircraft responsiveness and environmental conditions. If all gates are passed successfully, then the landing may be safely attempted.
Experienced pilots will typically pick a single go-around gate that is near the intended point of touchdown. However, I recommend that less-experienced pilots plan for more than a single go-around point so they do not pigeon-hole themselves into one course of action.
I’ve flown with many pilots through the years and one thing I’ve found is those that verbalize the status of the landing at short final make better landings than those that don’t! Verbalizing comes in many shapes and forms, but the basic commonalities are it should include the status of centerline alignment, airspeed, and glide path.
My personal method of verbalizing these is to say, "On centerline, on airspeed, on glide path." If one or more of these is not as it should be, then I acknowledge that and decide if my current go-around gate allows enough time to fix the problem.
On centerline means slightly different things depending on how close the aircraft is to the landing. If I am still on short final, I may maintain "on centerline" with a crab in a crosswind condition. However, if I am approaching the round-out, then I’m transitioning from the crab to a side-slip so that the longitudinal axis is aligned with the runway centerline.
A couple of words about the crab-and-kick method of transitioning from crab to side-slip just prior to touchdown; it’s a terrible idea! The reason for transitioning to the side-slip earlier in final approach (at least by the time round-out is started) is to assess the control necessary to accomplish a safe landing.
You can crab to maintain centerline in all kinds of nasty wind conditions, but holding the centerline in the side-slip is more challenging. Also bear in mind that just because you can hold the centerline in a side-slip at 30 feet AGL does not necessarily mean you can hold it at touchdown. This means that if it is very difficult to hold the slip at 30 feet, you may need to consider a different runway.
A safe landing also requires proper follow-through on the controls after landing. This is where the ailerons are deflected into the wind to control drift, and rudder used to control weather-vaning and maintain direction control.
These control deflections serve the same purpose for controlling a landing as they do for controlling a takeoff. During landing, as the airspeed decelerates, deflection of the ailerons needs to increase since that flight control is becoming less and less effective.
In windy conditions, the aircraft must be "flown" all the way to the tie-downs. If you are not up on control positioning for taxi, look it up!
A good landing is started in the circuit and approach. Work to standardize how you fly these. Also, go up with a flight instructor once and a while for a reality check. Over time we tend to accept lower and lower performance in the absence of objective input to guide us back to that apex of performance we once achieved.
Control during the landing needs to be precise, so practice those maneuvers that transfer to the tasks of rounding out and flaring. Slow flight is one such maneuver. The roundout and flare require the aircraft to be flown in slow flight. One way to improve the transition control from roundout to flare is to make simulated landings at altitude, while descending to an imaginary touchdown altitude.
The aircraft should be close to the desired pitch attitude, airspeed, and in the proper configuration prior to simulated touchdown. Just before "touchdown" go-around. Do this several times with an instructor calling out your approach to the simulated touchdown. Solo practice in this manner is probably not a good idea since it may require too much of your attention on the altimeter.
Although not exhaustive, these tips may help to keep you off the Darwin list of botched landings. Practice leads to proficiency, but only if that practice is correct. So get some objective feedback on your performance from time to time. Make a point to approach landings from a standardized circuit and approach configuration. Also keep the go-around in mind. You are always "cleared" for the go-around, but keep at least one go-around gate in mind so you make that go-around in time!
This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 160 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.