Every pilot has long accepted a cold fact: His technical reputation rides, to a considerable extent, on the quality of his landings. (Bravery and skill in combat are altogether separate categories.) The judgments are rendered by passengers, other crew members, other pilots, and even the pilot himself. With every poor landing, at least his ego suffers.
Bad landings happen—all the time. To avoid them, the pilot must adhere religiously to the constants of landing an airplane while attending to each of the variables as they occur. They can’t always be avoided, though.
Blesse had flown about five hours in the F-51 fighter, but his first combat mission was at night, in a Mustang that was so heavily loaded with drop tanks and ordnance that it handled like a completely different aircraft. After dropping his ordnance, he was diverted to another airstrip. There, Blesse discovered firsthand how airfield configuration, layout, lighting, runway condition, and other factors can ruin a landing. In Blesse’s case, the variables kicked in with a vengeance; he encountered bad weather, poor lighting, slick runways made of Marston Mat (PSP or pierced steel plank), and a large truck on the runway. All of this resulted in a spectacular crash on landing.
It is worthwhile to examine some of these variables first, since there is much interplay among them.
Now, consider the F-15 air superiority fighter, a giant, powerful, and sophisticated jet aircraft equipped with a tricycle landing gear. One might assume that, compared to the Cub, landing it would demand much more skill. Yet no less an authority than retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, the former USAF Chief of Staff and commander of Strategic Air Command, voices a different view. He has said that flying and landing the F-15 deceives a pilot into thinking he has “good hands,” whether or not this is true. Much of the credit, said Welch, must go to the multiple computer inputs that are constantly moving the controls.
The Cub and the F-15 are perhaps extreme examples of the differences in type, but even aircraft in the same class often require somewhat different landing techniques.
Some airplanes are of such different configuration that their pilots must use polar-opposite landing techniques. Example: The contrast between the B-47 bomber and the V-22 tilt-rotor, which are at the two extremes of landing approach style.
Two ExtremesIn contrast, the modern tilt-rotor V-22 can fly directly to threshold of the desired landing spot in its conversion mode (nacelles at a 60 degree angle), then increase the nacelle angle to 90 degrees and make a vertical descent to touch down at zero mph forward speed.
The type of aircraft helps to determine the method of the approach, particularly the final phase. In a light airplane, with power reduced to idle, the pilot tries to make contact with the ground just as the forward speed of the aircraft declines to the point that the wing is no longer flying. He is, in effect, allowing the aircraft to settle on its own.
In those cases, pilots will hear the stall warning horn sound and probably utter a few expletives as they begin the last few feet of the subsequent rapid descent to the pavement.
This technique requires the use of milestones. One is the 50-foot radar altitude point, where a pilot brings back the power slightly, to gradually decelerate. Then, at the 20-foot point, he initiates back pressure to continuously cut the rate of descent to a minimum, so that, with perhaps half the power on, the main wheels roll smoothly onto the surface. The nose wheel is brought down gently, and the drag devices (spoilers, slats, etc.) are deployed.
Even in peacetime, some airports have hazards that are not easily perceived and that sometimes reveal themselves to the pilot only on approach. These can include the improperly parked truck, new construction, or obscured runway markings.
Fundamental runway considerations, though almost always factored into take-off computations, sometimes get short shrift in the landing process. These include the length and slope of the runway, field elevation, and the outside air temperature. Many a pilot has flown from a sea-level airport in the East to a Colorado destination, only to be surprised by the effects of the thinner air on landing.
Crosswinds can be nefarious and can affect the airplane in the landing pattern, during the flare, in touchdown, and in rollout. Some conventional-gear aircraft, such as the T-6 or C-45, were particularly vulnerable to crosswinds, even while taxiing. The lightweight Predator UAV is piloted by remote control, but was nonetheless so vulnerable to crosswinds—18 mph was too much—that the Air Force had to build a cross-runway for the UAVs flying from Creech AFB, Nev.
Even so, most pilots conduct their approaches and landings with a high degree of confidence. The pilot in the cockpit is certain that his or her own experience and technique will result in a smooth touchdown. The good ones remember that, given the almost infinite number of variables, something can always go wrong.
Perhaps the ultimate goal in the landing process is to attain a satisfying consistency. The pilot must have long since determined that he or she will fly the airplane—the airplane is not going to fly them. Therefore the pilot should perform each landing in as consistent and as exact a manner as possible. The term “exact” should be interpreted to mean keeping the airspeed, course, and altitude exactly as desired, with any minimum variation being quickly corrected.
Prior to entering the landing process, the pilot must possess full situational awareness of the condition of his aircraft, its configuration, the weather, the location of the airfield, the runway currently in use, the local traffic, and any surface activity in the immediate area of the runway.
One of the first constants is the mandatory use of a checklist. To someone with hundreds of hours in an aircraft, this may seem unnecessary—but is not.
Trim the aircraft so that it flies hands off, and continue doing this. In the landing pattern with so much happening so quickly, it is easy to forget to trim and instead maintain attitude, altitude, or direction with control pressures.
At the appropriate point for the airplane, begin your turn to the downwind leg, check for other traffic, and align your aircraft the appropriate distance from the runway. A pilot familiar with the aircraft will have already selected some point on the wing or the strut which confirms that the aircraft is at the correct distance. If traffic permits, the tower will give you clearance to land. All turns should be carefully coordinated with yoke (or stick) and rudder.
Clear yourself visually during the turns, and remain alert for instructions from the tower. Observe the runway and the projected approach path, looking quickly both in the direction of the runway, and away from it, in order to detect someone making a long straight-in approach.
On final approach, add the final increment of flaps, keep your speed at 75 mph, stabilize your flight path and the rate of descent, trim, and quickly check trim for hands-off flight. There are many arguments about whether to use power to control altitude and pitch to control airspeed or vice versa. Probably both need to be used in concert, and if you have properly stabilized and trimmed the aircraft, you’ll not be obliged to use much of either.
There is considerable shame in not going around when you should have.
As the aircraft approaches the runway surface, keep looking down the field and gently bring the nose up and the power off, maintaining a straight flight path using rudder and aileron. Just above the pavement, do as William K. Kershner, the late great king of instructors suggests: Look out about 100 feet ahead of the aircraft and try to keep it flying as long as possible.
You may then taxi over to the cheering throng of admiring fellow pilots.
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