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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Really Short Field Technique: Nailing your spot every time

There's another new video over at YouTube by your friendly CFI today:

As the title might lead you to believe, it deals with short field landings. Don't let the FSX deter you: the principles are the same whether you're landing on a simulated runway or a real one, and recording it in FSX allows you to see it from multiple angles so you can connect what's going on in the cockpit to how it looks outside. In fact, I could--and actually do plan to Real Soon Now--devote an entire post or series of posts on how flight simulation has real benefits in flight training (even if you're already a pilot), but let's get to the meat of today's topic: landing where you want to, not where the airplane wants to.

(Actually, it's probably more accurate to say that you're not so much landing where you want to, you're convincing the airplane that where it wants to land just happens to be exactly where you wanted to be in the first place.)

It is an unfortunate but eternal truth that whenever anyone else is in the plane, the skill of the pilot is judged only by the quality of their landing. The landing itself (unless it is extraordinarily bad) is such a small part of what makes a successful flight that it has almost nothing to do with how good a pilot the person is. Nevertheless, nonpilots don't know all the little things that have to come together to have a good flight. You'd think that that would mean that pilots, since they do know about all those little details, would be less critical and more understanding, but they're even worse because right after the wheels touch the pavement they're thinking, "I could have made a better landing than that."

Short field landings are not going to be the gentlest ones you ever make. On the off chance you do make a greaser of a short field (it happens, though rarely), it has more to do with being lucky than good. That's because in a short field approach and landing, there are a lot of things working against you. Don't worry if you have some plunkers: what's important is getting down and stopped. In fact, when I'm teaching short field landings and the person taking the lesson really lands it smoothly, my response isn't usually, "Wow, that was great!" but something more like, "Were you trying to land on the other 1000-foot markers?" as I point out that they're several hundred feet past where they were supposed to touch down. Those two things (landing smoothly and landing long) tend to be connected.

What are all those things that are working against you? Well, first, you don't have the extra cushion of energy to milk it down to the ground. If you do have a lot of extra energy, you're doing it wrong.

Second, short field approaches are steeper than a normal approach. Less airspeed means the wings are producing less lift. When you combine less lift with lower groundspeed, you end up much steeper than normal, which makes it harder to judge the timing of your flare. To make matters even worse, in order to maintain a lower airspeed, the nose will be somewhat higher than you're used to.

Third, the flare itself is a more aggressive maneuver. In a normal landing, the flare is a gradual process as you go from slightly nose down through level and on, a few degrees at a time, to a nose-high attitude. In a short field, you've kind of already started the flare, and the lower airspeed that makes the wings produce less lift also makes the elevator that much less effective.

Despite all that, short fields aren't actually all that difficult, and I almost always find that after a student has mastered them, their regular landings are greatly improved as well. That's because the key to a good regular landing is a good approach, and the key to a good approach is airspeed control. Short field landings make you better at controlling airspeed because the margin for slop isn't there any more.

The second key to a good short field is developing your eye for your aiming spot. (While this is somewhat important during a normal landing, it becomes critical in a short field one.) The aiming spot will never be the same as your landing spot unless you fly the plane straight into the ground, in which case the aiming point converts to a point of impact. How do you know when you're aiming at the right spot? When the point in the windshield that doesn't move up or down is just before the runway threshold (in a real short field landing) or the point on the runway you've been told to land on (usually the 1000-foot markers if the runway has them).

Notice how in the video at the 4:30 point the O in the -->O<-- I drew doesn't move up or down and is far enough before the threshold that I'll end up with no flying left in the wings right at the beginning of the runway. (Naturally, you don't want to be so far away that you stop flying before you reach the runway at all. That's why the Practical Test Standards gives you 200 feet after, but ZERO feet before.)

Watch that part several times if you need to, and don't feel bad if it takes you a while to figure out where that spot is in your own flying: I personally found that one of the hardest things to master, and didn't start to get all that good at it until long after I had my license. Then again, that's probably because my own flight instructor never told me what an aiming point was and how to know where to put it, so if you get this down you'll be ahead of the game. If in your own flying it seems that there is no spot that doesn't move, it's 99.9% likely that's because your nose is wandering up and down. Focus on your pitch and your point will come into focus magically.

I've also created another video to help you find your aiming point. This one is devoted just to that, so it might be easier for you:

These two A's (Airspeed and Aiming) will, if you take the time to practice them mindfully, be the hammer that allows you to nail that spot all day. If it has worked for you, leave me a comment and let me know. If it hasn't, then leave me a comment so I can try to make it clearer for you. In any case, have fun and happy landings!

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