How To Land

I’m flirting with the idea of writing shorter articles with more plain language rather than my usual 4 to 5 page descriptions of obscure aerodynamic theories. So in order to make this work, I’ll just pick either a common question or an interesting fact to expand upon. If you see me go past a page or two, feel free to yell at me.

 

How to land a light airplane.

airplane, landing, central jersey regional, piper warrior, aviation

Landing is actually easy in theory. Unfortunately, things like crosswinds, visual illusions, weight and balance changes, and the use (or non-use) of power make it far more complex in reality. In the happy and easy theory world, the basic to-do list is comprised of lining up with the runway, picking a spot you’d like to land just beyond and aiming the nose roughly at it, flying towards it and finally, slowly raising the nose right before touchdown. As you can see, there are a lot steps and the introduction of variables to each will make your job harder. But I know you can handle anything so lets go step by step:

Line-Up:

Lining up with the runway means making sure that your airplane’s path is drawing a line from the center of the close-end of the runway through the center of the far-end of the runway. If there is a crosswind, your nose may be pointed some other direction. Just focus on your groundtrack (your actual path) rather than your heading (where you’re facing). If there isn’t a crosswind, this part will consist of rolling out of a turn aligned with the runway centerline and making small adjustments to stay there.

Picking A Spot:

For years, fighter jets had a display called a velocity vector that was a representation of where there airplane would end up if its energy state didn’t change. When projected onto a head-up display, one could simply place the velocity vector onto the desired touchdown area and make sure it stayed there. Now, many general aviation aircraft have glass panels that feature the same technology. But before you start staring at panels, learn how to do the same thing visually. Find a spot on the runway that’s just a bit short of where you’d actually like to touchdown. Trim the airplane for final approach speed and try to keep that aiming point at the same spot over the nose. If the spot moves up without the nose changing pitch, it means you’re getting low. If the spot moves down, you’re getting high.

Flying To It:

Your final approach may require power. Don’t get so hung up on terms like “glideslope” or “glidepath” that you refuse to add power and end up coming in too low and hitting a tree, or telephone pole, or some kid’s kite (well, these days it’d probably be a “drone”). Keep your airspeed within a couple knots of the approach speed you require. If it’s gusty, the old rule of thumb is to add half the gust value to give yourself a cushion in case of a sudden change in windspeed or direction. Glance at the panel over to make sure important things like flaps and landing gear are where they should be. Oh, and make sure you’re landing on the correct runway. This can be embarrassing and/or dangerous depending on the situation.

Raising The Nose:

The flare is the part of landing that often gives students trouble. Simply stated, the flare is when the pilot brings the nose from a shallow descent back up to level flight. Some instructors will say “Raise the nose in the flare”, which usually results in the most likely nervous student overcontrolling and lifting the airplane back up into the air rather than settling to the runway. Today, a lot of instructors prefer to tell students to instead “Bring the nose to level”. Some will extend that further and say “Bring the nose to level and don’t let the airplane land”. The last instruction is what helped me improve my landings to a much higher standard. By holding the nose level a foot or two off the ground, the airplane will begin to decelerate. As it does, it will want to sink. To stop it from sinking, squeeze back a little more on the controls to try to hold altitude. The increase in pitch will create more drag, which will increase sinkrate, which will cause you to squeeze back more, ad infinitum. After a few seconds, the airplane will be out of energy and gently touchdown on the main gear. The closer you are to 1.3 times the stall speed in landing configuration, the less you’ll float past your aim point (which is why you purposely aimed a little bit short in the first place).

Some new students will get worried they’re going to slam into the ground and flare way too high, leaving the aircraft and the state of their laundry in a precarious position. The flare will be performed lower than you might expect. If you’re having trouble estimating height, try quickly glancing out the side window to get some depth perception. Staring straight ahead tends to leave you with few cues on how high you are. If you are uncomfortable in slow flight a foot off the ground, have your instructor take you to an airport with a long runway. There, you’ll be able to takeoff and instead of climbing out, reduce power and hold it low to get used to what you’ll see and feel just before landing.

 

So there you go. On a calm day you should be able to land a light plane like a pro. Next time I’ll bring up crosswinds and how to deal with those without fanfare.

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Old School Navigation: DIY Visual Approach Charts

In the olden days before the advent of moving map GPS but following the bad old days of the four course, navigation was a mix of pilotage, NDB and VOR tracking. The aircraft I’ve flown recently all have either a large GPS, a glass panel or a combination of both. That doesn’t mean that I always use them as a primary means of getting around. Call me crazy, but looking out the window is a lot more fun than staring at a screen.

I was fortunate to have instructors in my formative years who were old school navigators. They knew how to use GPS like wizards but wouldn’t let me use it until I had figured out how to read a map. After all, the map on the GPS is a repeater of sectionals and enroute charts that pilots used to carry before the iPad was invented. Knowing how to read one means knowing how to read the other. I was taught to look for checkpoints that were not directly under me (or at least offset myself by a 1/2 mile so I could see something prominent), not to draw a course line from the middle of an airport to the middle of another (unless you make a Dutch F-16 style takeoff, or fly out of ADS, not many people turn on course by midfield) and most of all, to verify the correct checkpoint by referencing it with another landmark.

One problem I had in parts of NJ and PA was finding certain airports. I knew where they were based on planning, they just had a pesky tendency to be hidden by trees and hills. We never flew much above 3000 MSL for the obvious airspace reasons, thus my limited line of sight in some areas meant that a few airports didn’t reveal themselves until the last second (at least on the first trip to a new field). Annoyed by this, I started drawing my own visual approach charts and still do to this day. It’s fun and gives you something to work with when flying into an unfamiliar field.

This technique works really well in densely populated areas also, day or night. Usually the airport is the dimmest set of lights out there and it’s hard to resist the urge to focus on a shopping center or highway just beyond the rotating beacon. For the approach into ADS from the north, an easy way to get in is to be north of the Sam Rayburn Tollway and the Dallas North Tollway intersection when you call up Regional Approach. At the southeast corner of this massive intersection is the huge headquarters of Hewlett Packard which actually is a charted VFR checkpoint (formerly Electronic Data Systems, hence the EDS on the chart). Follow the Tollway south and when you pass the next spaghetti-bowl intersection of the George Bush Tollway and the Dallas North Tollway, you are 2.7nm from ADS. Chances are unless you’ve been there before, you won’t see the airport but may see the beacon (it is literally in the middle of a city). Just keep following the Dallas North Tollway. Whoever built it must have been a pilot because at the 45 degree pattern entry point, it turns to you guessed it…a perfect downwind leg for Runway 33. Look to your right and you’ll see the airport if you’re at pattern altitude.

The Addison “Tollway Visual Rwy 33” sets you up for a right downwind entry.

Satellite terrain view of the densely populated North Dallas area and how congested the boundary of Addison is.

Getting back to 47N at night after returning from Long Island was made simple by using a natural landmark. I followed the Raritan River until it literally dumped me out on extended final for Runway 25. Starting You’ll pass over a wide freeway bridge, the NJ Turnpike/I-95. When you pass this bridge, a quick look to your left (south) should reveal the 2 Tower Center, which is as you probably guessed, two tall office buildings. Due west of I-95 is the Rt 1 bridge, followed soon thereafter by a series of highway bridges and a railroad viaduct linking New Brunswick to Highland Park. On the north side of the river at this point is the Rutgers football stadium that occasionally has a TFR but if there are no lights on, there shouldn’t be any issues (NOTAMS or a quick call to NY Approach keeps your conscience clear). Keep going and you’ll see I-287 making an “L” in front of you (and crossing the river). Just after this, the river will curve to the left, you’ll cross I-287 again and when the water becomes difficult to see, look up and you’ll see Runway 25 directly in front of you.

River Visual for Central Jersey Regional Rwy 25.

Satellite terrain map view of approach into Central Jersey Regional showing how the river narrows as the airport is reached.

Nearby 47N is SMQ, which is from some angles hidden by trees. Follow I-287 to the north and when you are parallel to the large Aventis Pharmaceutical facility on the right, look to your left and the airport will be there. If you happen to miss it from this angle, continue north until reaching the juncture of I-287 and I-78. Turn west to follow I-78 and look to your left again. The airport is in the southwest corner of this juncture less than a mile from your position.

Somerset Airport visual approach following I-287 with multiple reference points.

Wider view of the “inital” fix into SMQ.

Going to Newport State, RI? From the west, follow the Jamestown Bridge that crosses Narragansett Bay. When the highway bends sharply to the south, continue to the east. Cross the bay, pass over the Newport Naval Complex and cross highway 114 (north-south orientation) and you’ll be midfield for UUU.

Newport State Bridge approach. Note obstructions on the Newport segment of the bridge.

Wide view of approach over Narragansett Bay and the Naval Facility.

These are just a few of my personal examples and I’m sure you have your own for fields you fly into. The advent of satellite maps online has made it easier to cross-reference ahead of time what the terrain looks like rather than looking at yellow vs tan vs brown on a sectional. Plus the ability to see what buildings are near your destination airport is a vast improvement over trying to guess which warehouse or mall to look for while airborne. While I would rather fly with a moving map as a bright and shiny cross-reference, I have no issues going without one. Planning makes all the difference in being where you want to be vs someplace else. Happy navigating.