Private Pilot Training: Three Worst Landing Mistakes
Pilots, especially the ones who did not have quality private pilot training, are more likely to have an accident when landing than any other time. Skids off the runway, collapsed landing gear, wing tip strikes, ground-loops… all are rooted in three fundamental mistakes. When you hear what these mistakes are, you may not see at first that they are so bad.
Flying with my friends in a pretty red, white, and blue Cessna 172, we were going for lunch at a small country airport in Northern California’s Central Valley. I greased that landing on. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. The glow disappeared a few seconds later when a gust picked me up and put me on a taxiway. I will never forget the smirk on the face of the pilot taxiing in the opposite direction as he held short for me to exit onto the ramp. I will always remember the half-smile and shaking head of the other pilot as he waited for me to taxi clear. I made up some half baked explanation for my passengers. In just one landing I had made the three most common accident-producing mistakes in aviation.
As soon as I could, I started analyzing and researching this region of flight until I was certain that I understood and could prevent any thing remotely similar. I found out that the National Transportation Safety Board writes that forty five percent of the weather related accidents are caused by wind gusts and crosswinds. At the time, I thought more like 90%. I want to tell you about some very straightforward techniques inside private pilot training, that, had I mastered them, would have kept me out of trouble. Before I can do that, I would like to explore the causes with you.
If you have an angle of attack (airplane nose high enough or low enough) that produces no lift, no gust can pick your airplane up. My mistake was that the nose was neither high enough nor low enough. By focusing on a smooth landing, I had landed at a shallow enough angle of attack that the sudden increase in lift put me back in the air again.
A wing can produce no lift if its angle is in one of two regions. If the wing is level, it will not produce lift. A wing that it really pitched very high, above its stalling angle, produces no lift in a strong wind. If you keep your airplane off the runway until it cannot fly any more, then the wing will be pitched up above a stall angle and no gust can make it fly again. Once I let the nose down, the angle of attack is too low for a gust to pick me up. This does not address the problem of a crosswind.
A strong crosswind creates a problem for the pilot by either pushing the plane to the side faster than the pilot is slipping into the wind or overpowering the landing gear’s traction once the plane is on the ground.
That is why I have always landed using crosswind landing techniques. Keep the plane over the center of the runway with ailerons and pointed down the runway with rudder pedals. This way you know that your airplane will always stay in the middle of the runway. This is cross controlling.
Failing to control the approach glide is the major cause of over shoot and landing too fast. Mastering the approach glide can prevent more problems than I can count.
Controlling the approach glide is quite easy to do. Keep in mind two fundamental but simple principles during any approach. Changes in pitch attitude impact airspeed almost immediately. Second is that the path an airplane follows through space can be changed very quickly with a change in power.
Because constant indicated airspeed is essential to good approach glide control, you must make a pitch attitude change when you make a power change. Remember: pitch down when you power down to maintain constant indicated airspeed.
Once you have found the combination of power and pitch that gives you the desired approach indicated airspeed, adjust your glide path until it projects to the right place on the runway.
I would like to talk you through an approach. We’ll say that your approach speed in landing configuration is 60 KIAS. Looking out the window (as I know you do 99% of the time during an approach) you notice that the point on the ground that appears to be staying in the same spot on your windshield is one of the approach lights about 500 feet short of the runway. You decide that you would rather glide toward the near end of the runway. You add two hundred revolutions to the engine and pitch up slightly to project your glide farther. After a few moments, you notice that you are now gliding toward the first runway exit. Making a smaller but opposite correction, you reduce your RPM by 100 and pitch down slightly while maintaining the canonical 60 knots. Almost unconsciously and very gently, you either add power and pitch up or reduce power and pitch down to stay at sixty and on the glide path. You are at the right place and right airspeed to make a great landing.
The common landing blunders too often made by pilots are failing to do these things: keep flying as long as possible, cross control before and after landing, and fly a precise approach glide.