How to make the perfect landing; overcoming mental blocks

They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one; and any you can use the aircraft again is a great one! We have all had our beautiful ‘greaser’ landings, and we have all porked a few, too. So whats the tips to keep your number of take-off and landings the same?

How much do commercial pilots make
The Key workcycle here is: ‘Aim point – Aspect – Airspeed – Centre line’

Why is it important to make a good landing?

Being able to make a great landing is the hallmark of a professional pilot; whether you fly recreationally for fun, privately for travel or business, commercially or as an airline pilot in Regular passenger transport operations, every pilot wants to finish their flight on a positive note.

It can be frustrating that often the things that pilots get judged on the most are often out of our control (tail or head winds affecting in flight times, in flight turbulence, airport delays and of course, the landing), so leaving customers satisfied with a great landing is the best way of having them walk away feeling satisfied. There is a running joke that goes something like ‘All a pilot needs to do is;

  1. Sound good on the radio
  2. Look good in the uniform
  3. Land the plane smoothly
pilot jacket
No matter what level you make it in aviation, pilots will always debrief the flight; especially the landing.

Lets be honest here, we can definitely improve our chances of a smooth landing by using the correct techniques our instructors and check captains show us, but if I am honest we all know there is a small component of ‘luck’ sometimes when it comes to dealing with things like gusts, wind-shear and crosswinds. If you have the hands and feet for it, you can quickly adapt and apply the correct control inputs to minimise the effect of these environmental variations to make the touch down as smooth as possible. But sometimes, it all happens a bit quickly and that leaves us a bit red faced, especially when farewelling passengers from the cockpit door.

If you work in the airlines, a smooth landing is critical to business operations; too many hard landings and you will get dissatisfied customers and yes, it will be noted on your employment file. As a tourist or scenic operator, this can have a direct impact on both your and the companies reputation, and quickly effect the bottom line of the companies profitability. Furthermore, if you are an aeromedical pilot, a smooth landing is often a requirement for patient transfer; you may have a spinal injury or other fragile patient like a neo-natal case, where a heavy landing could seriously damage or permanently disable them!

My top 7 recommendations to make a good landing

There are a few great tips you can remember to make sure your next landing is a greaser. Keep these in the back of your mind, and perhaps write them down so you can have a quick refresh during the cruise before you make your next approach and landing

1. Energy management

Energy management is important to set up a good landing. Remember, the landing doesn’t start on short final; the landing actually starts WAY back on your crosswind leg of the circuit, or on 10 mile final! You need to position the aircraft through key ‘gates’ in space and time, with the correct energy level. This means thinking ahead about your descent point, and the time taken to slow and configure the aircraft. Whilst the distances get longer for faster, and heavier aircraft, a simple rule of thumb works brilliantly; a three degree profile requires 3 nautical miles for every 1000ft of height to loose, and using 5nm to slow down and configure the aircraft works well and should be conservative for anything under 200,000lbs MTOW. Obviously light aircraft such as Cessnas you can slow down on a dime, and won’t need to be so conservative, and faster aircraft such as biz jets may require even more. Its important to know your aircraft, flight manual and procedures and then use your standard operating procedures or SOPS.

2. Flying the correct profile

Flying the correct profile is almost always going to improve your landings. In aviation we typically fly a 3 degree or 5% profile all the way down to the ground; this is what our instrument approaches are built off, and this is what our T-VASIS, PAPI and ILS Glideslope information is going to tell us. Obviously some approaches are going to be steeper due to obstacle requirements, and the general line of thinking is the steeper the approach, the more difficult the flare and landing; think back to your initial training to your glide approach, EFATO and PFL lessons – to maintain the appropriate glide speed for best L/D. We had to select an attitude roughly equivalent to the cruise attitude – this provided the best range and hence best ability to safely land. But what was the profile? I can tell you know, its usually a bit steeper than the normal approach – because we usually keep a small amount of power on during the approach.

A typical glide approach for a GA aircraft with a glide ratio of around 1:10 to 1:15 (that is about 2nm per 1000ft) is around 6.6 – 10%, or in other words a 4 to 6 degrees glidepath – or around 50% steeper than a standard approach. During these glide approaches you may have been taught to use a ‘two-stage’ flare – one to check to the standard 3 degree approach picture, and then the second being your standard flare cue to arrest the rate of descent and land as you normally would.

3. Flying the correct approach speed

This might sound like a no brainer but its the criteria that gets busted the most. If your pressed on a tight approach, say you haven’t planned the descent properly, ATC has mucked you around or you are doing a non-standard circling approach and you have set an incorrect power setting, you can find yourself too fast or too slow.

Typically, approach speeds are 1.3 times the stall speed of the aircraft, but the authoritative answer is the pilots handbook and operating notes, which will be taught to you by your instructor and assessed by your simulator instructor or line check captains.

Too fast and you will float in ground effect, awkwardly try to positively put the wheels down (perhaps too firmly?) with an incorrect timing sequence (worst case with the nose wheel first or in a flat attitude as a result of your speed resulting in a lower angle of attack). Its just awkward and no one likes that feeling, as you approach your pre determined go around ‘gate’; – whether that be distance go to markings, a pre set timing (eg 3 seconds) or physical feature (such as the taxi way one third of the way down the runway). You will chew up runway, be hard on the brakes, and hard on the engines for reverse thrust if you have it. Worst case you run off the end of the runway, or result in a hot brakes scenario. Best case you go around and make a safer approach, but often I have seen my students land somewhere in between, feeling a bit embaressed.

Too slow and you risk stalling the aircraft on approach, or stalling in the flare when you gently check the rate of descent and raise the attitude. You ‘run out’ of energy and she continues her trajectory toward the ground, resulting in ‘dropping onto the runway’. This can result in some serious G landings and has written off a number of aircraft, and peoples backs. This is similar to ‘chopping the throttle’ before flaring on a blown wing aircraft at heavier weights, it will literally just drop out of the sky onto the runway and your landing will suck!

Just stick to SOP, keep it standard and fly the correct procedure for the type of landing you are trying to achieve. Know your numbers, and use your work-cycle to quickly correct any deviations.

4. Flying the correct power setting

Again, this might sound like a no brainer but remember back to day 1 of flight school: Power plus Attitude equals performance!

If you are on the correct profile on approach to land (correct aimport and aspect), then it literally means that power = airspeed. When we fly finals, we ‘lock’ our aim point to a particular location (either the piano keys, 500ft or 1000ft markers depending on the size of your aircraft) and say that attitude controls aimpoint. Therefore, we are only left with power (and configuration i.e. flaps) to control airspeed. Making sure we fly an appropriate power setting for the configuration of our aircraft, weight and profile will ensure our airspeed will not deviate. The last thing you want to be doing is chopping or bashing throttles, so try to set a ‘best guess’ and then let it settle. If you are still too fast, take a positive correction and wait to see the trend – don’t performance fly and chase instrumentation indications: set the attitude and power from first principle.

As an example, I get my students to set somewhere around 1500 RPM in the Cessna when they turn base, and then as they configure and slow on finals it generally doesn’t need to be touched unless they need to correct profile for incorrect timing or angle of bank around the base turn onto final. Flying a flap less approach changes this; it might sound counter intuitive but I typically get them to fly a wider circuit to give them more ‘time’ on final so the power setting is a bit higher initially, around 1800 RPM. If you are flying a short field or max effort approach, as you slow on final you may be ‘on the backside of the drag curve’ with full flap and so need a higher power setting as you come down short final to sustain a slower approach speed.

5. Understand illusions

Illusions are caused by the different shapes and sizes of runways, as well as different lighting conditions. For example, if you are flying to a runway which is much narrower, or longer than you are used to – put simply the runway is going to look smaller. This gives you the illusion of thinking you are high, when in actual fact your closer to the ground – the tendency is a late or weak flare, and a heavy landing as a result. Pre-loading yourself with the knowledge that you may need to flare a tad earlier will help you make a better landing.

At my first approach (in a Cessna) to an international airport, I think I flared at 50 feet! This was because the runway was just so big and wide, I lost all appreciation for how high I actually still was above the runway. I cruised down the runway awkwardly trying to ‘milk the flare’ and use a bit of power to save the approach as I stepped down to eventually land. Awkward! I knew I only needed just over 1000ft to land (and I had 7000ft) so I pressed, but a more professional pilot would have simply recognised a violation of their pre determined go around criteria and gone around for a second, safer attempt. Remember you always want to have the aircraft in a known state and configuration; making stuff up like waffling or milking down a high flare puts the aircraft into an unknown state – this increases the risk you are going to plonk it on, run off the end of the runway or even stall the aircraft.

6. ‘Raise your Gaze’ in the flare

My final tip is the clincher. I use the keyword ‘Raise the Gaze’ with my students, which prompts them to shift their gaze from the aimpoint, right out to a far away feature beyond the end of the runway. They then attempt to continue flying the aircraft ‘Straight and level’ along the runway 1cm in the air (much the same as leading into a fully configured stall as you do out in the training area) as they very gradually increase back pressure and close the throttles to gently get the mains to kiss down first, and then they can lower the nose wheel down. Of course in a cross wind scenario, we lower the into wind (or low wing) main wheel onto the runway first. Raising the Gaze is the best way to get a great landing, and of course realise that max effort / short field approaches, approaches onto wet runways, or approaches for some types like large jet aircraft may require a firm, positive touchdown to ensure adequate friction patch for the mains to begin auto braking and establish directional control before reverse thrust engages; you don’t always want a ‘greaser’.

Use a standard work cycle

Use a standard workcyle to manage your workload on approach. Personally, I use and teach the work cycle ‘Aimpoint – Aspect – Airspeed – Centre line’. First I check the aim-point to make sure I am point at the correct spot; I want my intended landing position about a third to a half of the way up the windscreen (this position will depend on your height and the design pilot eye position for the aircraft, so test and adjust as necessary – usually its about an inch or so below the standard position of the horizon for straight and level cruise). Next I check the aspect; this could simply mean ‘eye balling it’ to make sure the runway looks like its at the correct aspect (or the way the runway ‘slopes inward’), checking the TVASIS or PAPI lights or Glide slope indication, or during an instrument approach cross checking my profile by altitude and distance to run. Next I check the airspeed and its trend, and if needed adjust the throttles, and finally I check centre line to make sure my bum is on the extended runway centreline.

Conclusion

Hopefully you can take on board these 6 tips on how to pull off the perfect landing, and never get another complaint from a passenger, check captain or copilot ever again. And remember, if you did pork the landing – it was definitely because of that last minute gust of crosswind and was nothing to do with your piloting abilities 😉

What are some of the best (or worst) landings you have ever done? Don’t be shy!

Ken

Ken

Ken is a passionate aviator, a professional pilot and flight instructor. He has over 14 years of flight experience on hundreds of aircraft ranging from recreational, aerobatic, historic, commercial and military aircraft, training hundreds of students along the way. Find out more.

Ken has 23 posts and counting. See all posts by Ken

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