54% of fatal aviation accidents occur where we spend only 4% of our time; “Johnny can’t land!” Landing well requires proficiency in every separate skill practiced and learned during the pre-solo phase of flight training. These famous “15 items” listed in CFR 61.87 (slow flight, ground reference, etc) are seldom practiced to proficiency during the original mad rush to solo. And unfortunately, these skills are seldom ever practiced in isolation after pilot certification either. But basic skill practice is exactly what every pilot needs to land better.
the term “full-control” means “fully under control” (with no reliance on luck). Good landings require “aggressive PIC” but also patience. Landing is definitely a time to “grab it a growl.” One of the main CFI challenges during initial flight training is building up a learner’s confidence to achieve this level of full confident control; “you got this!”
What pilots do when they are having problems with their landing is just go out and practice more landings. Though this makes intuitive sense, it is an ineffective method of achieving lasting improvement. Landing problems are always more fundamental; “the roof is crooked because there is a problem with the foundation.” In landing, the real problem is a weak underlying skill. Improving your landings requires deconstructing the complex landing process into individual components and practicing those core skills. Physical therapy for a weak or painful joint or muscle utilizes this exact process; isolating the problem area and working that area in isolation. When you reconsider the accident statistics, this is time well spent; deconstruct!
Weak Slow Flight Skills
Excellent slow flight skills are the secret to “full-control landings.” Pilots seldom ever fly slow except when landing (several seconds of exposure) and usually have lost their feel for rudder control. The interrelated pitch and power requirements in slow flight are also vital to achieving solid control. So step one is to leave the pattern and work through slow flight in detail with a savvy CFI. Mastery here immediately pays dividends with better landings. The newer FAA focus on entering slow flight and also powering out is really “working your core muscles!” Take a look at the SAFE Extended Envelope Syllabus and add some full deflection steep turns (while slow). This adds some real confidence to a pilot’s landings. It is essential to be fully in control – “aggressive PIC” – when landing.
Centerline Slow Flight
Step two is bringing that slow flight practice right down onto a longer runway centerline. We are climbing the ladder of complexity by adding the level off judgment and the ground effect buoyancy, making this maneuver quite different. Additionally, maintaining centerline accuracy also requires good aileron and rudder control for wind drift correction. For advanced learners, a significant crosswind can be a valuable demonstration later on. Power application must be balanced with the drag of slipping to hold the centerline. Switching from crab to slip a few times demonstrates the drag nicely.
Basic centerline slow flight has the additional benefit of overcoming every pilot’s very natural fear of being low and slow. This becomes comfortable pretty quickly. As soon as this maneuver is proficient it is time to add a gentle “squeak and go.” Reduce power slightly while flying slow down the centerline and the tires touch briefly. A touchdown on this maneuver is just a natural extension of flying slowly down the centerline. Usually, three circuits down the centerline and every pilot is feeling a better sense of control and landings become easy. Again, control builds confidence and this technique also makes every pilot familiar with the go-around.
Finally, putting all the skills back together again yields a more comprehensive understanding of landing and illuminates items many pilots missed during initial flight training. Landing is not just “glide, flare land.” It really requires a more nuanced approach requiring a subtle “level-off and hold-off” in the middle. There are five (or more) steps to a good landing. Most pilots ignore or minimize this center section and try to “force a plane to land.” In actuality, the only good landing is achieved by stabilizing all the proper conditions and “waiting for the plane to land.” Patience is not something most pilots are good at; especially in the level-off/hold-off phase of landing. I encourage all my initial landing learners to count “one potato, two potato, three potato” while in the level-off to build patience until the aircraft settles into the flare phase of landing. Every airplane will talk to you here…be vigilant and patient when landing! AOPA also has a bunch of resources on landing better HERE. Have fun; fly safely (and often)!
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5 thoughts on “Master “Full-Control” Landings!”
Excellent article! I’m always amazed at why so many students struggle with landings. Fred Weick regularly soloed students in an Ercoupe in 4.3 hours. I soloed a student in an Ercoupe in 4.5 hours. The Ercoupe isolates and identifies the challenge instructors face when teaching landings. One reason for this is offered in this video.
Thanks Rod, we have certainly “overcomplicated” the presolo process (and some schools push the solo off to the *last* step in training as a result – big mistake!) I have personally always *de-emphasized* the number of hours to achive solo because it becomes a huge stress item for pilots in training (and people get into the pattern too soon).
Step one is learning to fly well and use *all* the controls accurately, and only *then* attempt the landings (after the fundamentals are mastered). Forcing the solo (like a rote “monkey see, monkey do” exercise) in four hours is a mistake in my book.
Parenthetically, my “best lander” was a heavy equipment operator I (privately) called “bulldozer Bob.” He had amazing hands and could easily land in 3-4 hours, but never became a pilot because he did not have the “cognitive capacity” (or motivation) to handle the cognitive items (book work). A safe “total pilot” requires a complex combination of *many* different skills.
Proper use of all of the controls is critical, but I would put the level-off/hold-off skill as easily the first thing to master. At the beginning of landings, I set the objective of holding it off until we’ve run out of elevator and I often assist with ailerons and rudder. This really develops patience and touch with the elevator quickly and it soon starts to become subconscious. Then it is much easier to start adding the other pieces (bank and directional control). It’s just basic building block instruction.
In some cases, I added some maneuvering in the practice area – not slow flight, but power off stalls, since they mimic the level-off/hold-off. In several cases, that’s what turned on the light bulb.
I include power-off stalls as part of “landing practice” also; usually away from the airport flying “traffic patterns at altitude.” A lot of my early pre-solo training is just “patterns at altitude” where we climb out to a safe altitude and simulate exactly the same turns and downwind as the pattern (including radio calls since that area always needs practice). Coming down “final” (at 3500agl) I have the learner slow and stabilize and then we fly slow flight straight and level decelerating into a stall (followed by a go-around). The only component that needs to be added to a few successes here is judging the level off/hold off in the “real pattern” Most learners can usually land acceptably pretty quickly with this preparation (and there is no trauma and beating up the plane)! The “fear of the ground” is another real obstacle that needs some “care and practice” to overcome. I find those “centerline slow flight” exercises very effective at building confidence to put all the pieces together.