Land Safely, Forget “Super-Smooth!”

I remember distinctly discovering the secret of obtaining a super-smooth landing in a PA-28; just carry extra speed and “drive it on.” Eliminating the flare made landing amazingly simple – why had my CFI not figured this out? This occurred during the solo cross country phase of my flight training (50 years ago) after suffering through the usual first solo commands – “hold it off, don’t let it land!” Needless to say, my instructor disagreed with my new “smooth landing” technique and righteously explained, that a smooth landing was not the objective, safety was. Extra energy on touchdown and the three-point attitude were, he said, an invitation to disaster (something about square root functions and porpoising).

You may be surprised to learn that “smooth touchdown” is nowhere to be found in the FAA test standards (the closest is “minimum sink rate” in the soft field section). The more important objectives of a good landing are clearly described: an accurate touch down on the centerline (aligned with no lateral drift) and properly configured and stabilized. Also, arrive as slow as possible touching in the “landing configuration.” For a pilot, “smooth” is a reward, but not the sine qua non. Make your landings proper and safe first and after some practice, “smooth” will be easily achievable. Many smooth landings are actually not safe at all.

But of course, it’s the *passengers* who disagree. The *only* tangible non-pilot standard to judge piloting skill is a super-smooth touchdown. Pilots really need to push back here and get over this imposed illusion for the sake of safety! Smooth landings can often involve extra speed and improper technique. It is much safer to stabilize, control the centerline and land in the proper attitude, even if it touches with a little bump.

The “smooth landing mandate” naturally carries onward into professional jet operations – something about “primacy?” We all want to be the “hero pilot,” and it’s easy to consume a mile of runway milking the last few feet to touchdown in search of the “super-smooth” arrival. You will indeed impress their clients in back when you run off the end of the runway? Not surprisingly, overruns on landing are the #1 cause of accidents in turbine aircraft.

Whether trying to minimize the “bump” felt by passengers or lulled by landing often on runways much longer than needed, business aviators tend to carry excess speed and float into long landings. The average business jet touch down point is about 1,600 feet from the threshold, and nearly 20 percent touch down beyond 2,000 feet, well past the aim point that is the basis for predicted aircraft landing performance

Admittedly, there are a variety of causes of overruns in turbine landings, most notably the extreme weight and energy at play and contaminated surfaces. But ironically, the solution to hydroplaning is actually a “firm touchdown” to create positive contact with the runway surface.

And to be very clear, I am not condoning (or recommending) hard landings. I am just advocating for less of a focus on “super-soft” touchdowns as an end in themselves. Go for “safe” first (as described above) and smooth will follow after some practice. Fly safely out there (and often)!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

8 thoughts on “Land Safely, Forget “Super-Smooth!””

  1. I was going to say, I did the soft landings for the passengers. In a small plane it does make a difference. Also holding it off with power let’s me center the plane before touch down.
    Heavy aircraft this is a very bad idea. Hitting the wheels firmly gets them rolling. Scraping a smooth landing wears hard on the tires.

  2. Years ago I was doing my IOE on a Boeing 737-400 after two years of furlough. We were only a couple thousand under max landing weight, with a full load of passengers. I had just finished up my arrival briefing for runway 19 at DCA when the check airman said he had something he wanted to add. “Now, I want you to pick a spot in the touchdown zone. Aim for and set it down on that spot. Let’s not worry about greasing it on. Passengers will remember a firm landing for 10 minutes, an hour, maybe two hours, tops. They will remember going off the end of the runway, into the water, for the rest of their lives!” I still share those words of wisdom with my newer FO’s to this very day.

    1. I don’t know. I still remember the landing on my very first airliner flight – a 727. And maybe five years ago in a 737, I’m sure that pilot was a former aircraft carrier pilot – I felt zero flare – straight onto the runway. In both cases, I was amazed the mains didn’t come up through the wings.

      I think long landings come from poor fundamentals. One is poor elevator technique where the pilot uses the power as a crutch to control rate of descent. The other is visual technique. It is ridiculous to be looking down to the end of the runway. The pilot will have poor judgement of the rate of descent and height above the surface.

    2. Wise words. I always flew my approach at ref speed ( bug speed plus wind correction ) + 5. If I had 12,000 feet of concrete to play with, I might “hold if off” looking for that grease job which often didn’t work out so well anyway. On a short runway ( Burbank, Charleston, W, Va, the short one at DCA, I used the technique I called “Plop it and stop it”. In a 737, aim for the 500 ft stripe, check the decent at that point, then roll it on with a little forward pressure. Often it rolled on so smoothly you could barely tell it had touched down, but that was a secondary benefit. The object was to stop safely within the confines of the runway. Many times at Burbank, using only light reverse and light braking, I had to add power to cross the intersection and turn into the gate. With the 727, same thing, only aim for the 1000 ft stripes. On a 747, go for the 1,500 ft stripe, but there was always 12,000 feet of pavement anyway.

      1. I am flying a CItation Ultra based at a 3400ft strip (a definite “3 wire” arrival). The winter base is 12K (SAC base) and we go through the seasonal adjustment.

  3. I know absolutely nothing about a Citation, but I bet you have to calculate your performance very closely on that 3400 ft strip. I’m just guessing here, but if it’s a full load on a hot day, I’d say “NO!” As an airline captain, I learned a PIC needs to have a little mule in him ( or her ) and if things are not to your liking, dig in with both feet until they are to your liking.

    1. We run it through APG and live by the numbers (and a safety margin). > 70F shed load👍

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