Teaching Landings More Effectively!

I recently spent a beautiful evening watching students in the pattern challenging their young instructors and abusing their aircraft. Almost every approach was clearly defective long before getting anywhere near the runway; inconsistent configuration, altitudes or ground track; and poor airspeed control with “lucky line-up.” Despite all these obvious problems they all continued to an “arrival” that also kept the lawn mowing crew nervously looking over their shoulders. Without any mastery of the critical sub-components necessary for landing they continued grinding out (and reinforcing) more errors all the while beating up the equipment and hoping for some kind of magical improvement – remember that definition of insanity? And 56% of accidents occur in the pattern – where we spend only 5% of our time. This lunacy also discourages and drives away many students with an assault on their self-worth and sanity. There is an easy remedy here and it is not complicated. It does however require a “culture change” (which can be difficult). We need to teach landings later  in training – and only after full mastery of the required basics. And instead of only teaching landing in their final form, try some “centerline slowflight.”

The common joke among flight instructors is that the only maneuver we actually teach is landing. This is partly because (if we are honest) most pilots are unable to consistently land well (except me?) But this joke is also true because “landing well” incorporates almost every aircraft control skill – plus judgement and risk management- with time pressure, low altitude and ego. Ironically, the critical importance and focus on landing also results in landings being taught very poorly during initial training.

Most schools and instructors teach landings way too early and only in their final form. They begin landing before the individual components have been mastered by the pilot in training. Usually this is a misguided attempt to motivate the pilot in training and demonstrate “fast progress” and success. But many times there is a worse motivator;  an ego-boost for the instructor or image-builder for the school demonstrating low-hour “success” (scare quotes because the specious low standard).  Unfortunately what usually happens is that the new duty of the CFI becomes “protecting the plane” while the student “figures it out” with a series of frustrating “hints and near misses” that I was witnessing. Is it any surprise young CFIs run for the airlines? Is it any surprise 80% of students drop out?

Dishonesty in teaching landing often starts on the first flight (and with the best intentions).  We have all heard (or said) “You landed on that Discovery Flight – See how simple that was?” (I once thought this was helpful myself- duh!) This dishonesty actually seriously damages the total process of learning to fly and results in many problems later. It can actually be a major cause of students quitting; “If it is simple why can’t I get it? – I must really suck at this!” It is so much better to begin the flight training relationship by honestly stating “learning to fly well requires hard work and commitment but the satisfaction and payback are incredibly worth the effort. Landing well is neither simple nor easy and pilots will probably spend the rest of their life mastering and refining this skill set.” We humans actually love challenges but only if there are clear, manageable steps and the results are demonstrably worthwhile (the *are* in flying). With proper guidance, students master landing more easily – in less time and ultimately more thoroughly – if they start later with “incremental mastery.

To start correctly, it is essential to carefully define and demonstrate that the objective of a “safe landing” looks like – on speed, on point in the proper landing configuration, etc. It is necessary to burn the media hype of “the greaser” and all that associated crap. Aim instead for a manageable, safe, landing with consistent, attainable, goals. A full explanation of all the skills and components gives motivation for working hard and incrementally mastering ground tracking, speed control and configuration changes when you are practicing together out of the pattern. Only after your pilot in training takes over all these essential components (see incremental mastery) are you are ready to begin “pattern work.” YOur pilot in training must earn landing practice by demonstrating mastery (not just because the clouds are low on the third lesson and the CFI has to pay rent). A relationship of trust in essential in this process because if your student imports all the crap they see on YouTube they will make this process longer and qeven more “exciting.”

Once in the pattern, I enforce the “rule of three”  – and transfer this to students as a necessary tool. This is simply calibrating the evaluation skills every good CFI already possesses. To be successful (and safe) the learner must see and remedy “high/low, fast/slow, not configured”  and terminate their attempt with a go around if necessary. The pilot in training must have evaluation skills too. There is absolutely no advantage to a continuing with a “salvage job” or accepting the landings I was watching. Even though the CFI is (usually) able to do salvage most landing attempts, we also fix way too many ugly landings for students and set a bad example. Whenever there are consistent deficiencies with basic aircraft control these issues need to be resolved before attempting further landings (otherwise we are practicing and reinforcing errors). It is essential to disassemble the bigger process (final form) into manageable elements that can be mastered safely at altitude then reassembled for success; e.g. once airspeed and ground track are functioning we can continue in the pattern productively.

Pilots in training master aircraft control at altitude first and progressively gain confidence and control at lower altitudes. Once slow flight has been mastered at altitude, bring it into normal pattern practice by flying down a long runway ground effect at approach speed. This is remarkable helpful and should occur before any landing practice with the specific goal of precise centerline control at progressively lower altitudes. In a few passes most students can track right down the line at 3-5 feet in ground effect (a skill that is still lacking after endless touch and goes) Achieving this kind of control through centerline slowflight is a trick used by every experienced aviation educator I know. Unfortunately, they usually only bring it out for “tough cases” as a “method of last resort.” YOu will be surprised how effective it is for every student (before landing practice).

Every CFI needs to be comfortable with centerline slow flight and it should be part of every normal student syllabus. This maneuver builds  confidence in your learner and overcomes “ground fear” for new pilots in training. It also builds the subtle control feel and visual cues for the bouancy of ground effect that contain 90% of the secret to effective landings. One huge psychological advantage to centerline slow flight is removing the expectation of landing that seems to be built into every pilot. Flying a series of low passes builds mastery of the go-around as a viable and safe “escape option.” This maueuver also saves wear and tear on the training aircraft and makes the subsequent teaching of a full landing a snap.

Once centerline slowflight is mastered, it is almost magical to train landing from a slow flight a lesson on a longer runway. Simply slowly reduce power as your pilot in training holds their sight picture in ground effect. Surprisingly your student has landed before they know it; tracking straight on the centerline without even expecting it. All you have to do is fully reduce power on touchdown ( a crutch you obviously want to later remove). It is simple to adapt and adjust this procedure to become a normal approach and landing. The steps now to landing are easy because all the necessary skills are there; no semi-crashes and “protecting the airplane” arrivals. How many pilots screw up landings because they are uncomfortable in ground effect or trying to “make it land” rather than “waiting for touchdown” with the perfect set-up? This and more useful techniques will be part of our  SAFE CFI-PRO™ Workshop at AOPA, October 2&3. Fly safely (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently flying 135 charter (again)

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