Ground Rush. (Part One) Landing an Aeroplane. An Aviation Training Blog by Owen Zupp.

Owen Zupp - Saturday, June 16, 2012

Ground Rush. (Part One)

 

The Right Approach

 

By Owen Zupp

 

 

What goes up, must come down and for every successful flight, its end is marked with an equally successful return to earth. Only occupying a fraction of the flight time, the landing continues to provide a focal point for pilots, passengers and the chap on the hill with the telephoto lens. Why is it when the wheels meet Mother Earth, sometimes it’s a kiss and sometimes it's a slap? Often the answer lies well before the touchdown.

 

Method or Mystique?

 

Many words have been written and hours of briefings undertaken in search of mastering the ability to land. Some have been scientific and even mathematical in nature, while others have been far more general. For pilots, part of the problem is that landing is a mixture science and art. It involves the hard figures of approach speeds, aircraft weight, and available runway length, but also the judgement of when the appropriate control inputs need to be initiated and then modulated to guide the aircraft back to earth. Blend into the mix the varying ambient conditions of wind and temperature and the pilot is challenged by a genuine act of complex co-ordination.

 

As such, the input of a flight instructor and the age-old art of ‘practice makes perfect’ are often the best means of managing the individual’s manipulative issues. However, there are a number of fundamental matters that each pilot can attend to that will make the instructor’s lot much easier and go a long way towards improving the approach and landing phase.

 

Often very unfairly, a flight is judged or remembered because of the landing. The preflight planning, standard operating procedures and navigational finesse that brought the aircraft safely over the runway threshold are too often overlooked when the flight terminates with a less than gracious arrival. This culture can serve to exacerbate the pressure to perform that some pilots feel and ultimately climbs into their concentration, eroding their performance further. This is human nature, yet if we look at automation; it doesn’t suffer from such subtleties.

 

Advanced modern aircraft equipped with sensors and coupled autopilots routinely conduct ‘Autolands’ as the pilots watch on in the role of a monitor. These emotionless autopilots resist the tendency to over-control and are without trepidation as the ground looms large ahead. It is purely an exercise in calculation and function, timed precisely for a successful outcome. Even so, automation on aircraft may still have defined limitations such as crosswind, beyond which the pilot must intervene. As such, the need still remains for the pilot to be the manipulative master of the aeroplane and yet regardless of experience, the landing phase can turn and bite. Some of the reasons are those faced by student pilots every day.

 

 

The Goal.

 

It is firstly worthwhile to review what is sought from landing an aircraft. The smooth ‘greaser’ landing should not be the ultimate goal, though it can be a rather satisfying side-effect. In fact on wet runways, the aircraft manufacturers recommend a firm or positive touchdown as an extra defence against aquaplaning.

 

Safe landings are about arriving at the aim point, on the centre-line at the required airspeed and aligned with the runway. As long as the touchdown is not unduly heavy, bounced or askew, the goal has been achieved. The degree of comfort will be enhanced with a lower rate of descent at touchdown, but this should not be the driving force. Undue focus on the smooth touchdown can lead to the consumption of significant amounts of valuable runway as the pilot ‘feels’ for the ground. And even after such an effort, if contact not been made by the time the airspeed has eroded below flying speed, the aircraft will thump onto the ground anyway. Wasted runway, wasted effort.

 

Safety must always come first. Finesse will come with experience and maintained with currency. When the goal of the landing is clear in the mind, it serves to reinforce and clarify what is being sought on final approach; aim point, speed and centre-line.

 

Relax.

 

Before the manipulation skills even come into play, the mind has to be on the job. For any phase of flight the pilot must be well rested as fatigue will erode the performance and safe conduct of the flight. As the landing by its very nature comes at the end of a sector, fatigue may be at its very worst, so rest should always form a critical element of pre-flight preparation. Yet beyond the physical fatigue, pilots can induce a degree of mental fatigue by focusing too much upon the landing well before it is even an issue. This can serve to distract the pilot from the tasks at hand and eat at the holistic viewpoint that is needed for sound flight management. It is best to preserve the mental energy until it is actually needed.

 

Tell tale signs can also start to creep in and instructors over the years have seen them on numerous occasions. Often nervousness manifests as the landing pilot starts to discuss the prevailing weather conditions in a negative sense as if to offer an excuse for the upcoming performance. There is no argument that hot, gusty conditions, or low visibility present their own challenges to the landing, but idle banter doesn’t help. Review the conditions and consider how they may best be countered before the aircraft is flying down final. Do the gusts warrant a speed additive on final? Where is the crosswind coming from and what actions are required to be aligned with the runway at touchdown? May a higher flap setting lower the nose for better visibility in passing showers? Respond to the conditions with an assessment and a plan rather than nervous tension.

 

 

 

White knuckles are another sign that the landing holds some demons for the pilot. Strangling the control column does not threaten the aircraft into flying better and actually destroys much of the pilots ‘feel’. It can lead to subconscious control inputs and poor trimming of the aeroplane. Both of these actions can interfere significantly with the flaring process where there are major changes in pitch and power. 

 

Similarly, a pilot’s posture can interfere with the landing. Whether through fatigue or stress, pilots can often slump or lean to one side as they fly the final approach. This can play havoc as landing is about appreciating the perspective of the runway ahead and a constant ‘picture’ is one of the best aids. At the flight’s commencement the seat was adjusted in an unrushed manner based on the best outlook, so any slumping or leaning is going to adjust that set of visual cues.

 

Often these traits are subconscious and build gradually beneath the surface as the landing draws closer. In the training phases, there is an instructor present to offer a wake up call, but once licensed, pilots must take this task upon themselves. Whether flying an ILS or sliding down a visual approach, use a cue to prompt a self review. It may be the selection of the final stage of flap, a certain height or capturing the Glideslope, but at some point take a moment to remind oneself to sit up straight and relax. Take a breath, adjust the posture and relax the grip on the control column to feel if the aircraft is really in trim. You are now physically ready to land the aeroplane.....

Check back soon for Part Two of 'Ground Rush'.

 

 

 

 

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