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.

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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:


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.