The FirstFlight touch down clinic is for anyone who would like to improve their landings and in particular for student pilots working on Flight Six.
A good landing in a tricycle gear airplane such as the Cessna 152 is one where you touchdown at the desired point on the runway with the main wheels first, exactly on the center line, with the longitudinal axis of the airplane lined up with the center line. The touchdown can be firm but there should be no bounce. Alignment with the center line and correct positioning of the controls with respect to the wind is also important during the roll out. Braking should be the minimum necessary to make the desired exit.
Good landings start with a stabilized approach. This means that on final your airplane should be trimmed for the appropriate approach speed so that you can concentrate your control inputs on alignment with the center line rather than struggling to maintain your approach speed. On a stabilized approach you could in theory let go of the control wheel momentarily and the airplane would maintain a constant airspeed and rate of descent (don’t try this without the assistance of your flight instructor). To achieve a stabilized approach you need to plan on using specific pitch, power, flap, and trim settings for your particular airplane.
Try the following exercise if you are just starting to work on your landings. Unless the wind is strong plan on using full flaps at least by the time you are on short final. At such time as you are definitely going to reach your touch down spot reduce power to idle. As you cross the runway threshold transfer your vision to a point far down the runway. As you get close to the ground, within about 10 feet, start to level off and assuming the power is at idle by now (it should be) apply very gradual back pressure to the control wheel to raise the nose just enough to keep the airplane flying. Visualize pitching just enough to hold the airplane off the runway. Because you have the power at idle you will eventually run out of airspeed/lift and settle onto the runway main gear first.
If you pitch too much or too soon the airplane may start to climb. The idea is to pitch just enough to bleed off airspeed but not so much that you climb or worse stall above the runway. It’s important that this process is started very close to the ground. The following are some common problems and exercises designed to fix them.
A common problem is a reluctance to get really close to the ground before starting to flare. If you are “ground shy” a good exercise to do with your instructor to overcome this is a very low approach. Fly a normal final approach but instead of reducing the power to idle and landing try maintaining some power and flying along the runway as low as you can without actually touching down.
If you’re working at a tower controlled airport be sure to request the “option” before you do this so that you are cleared for a low approach, touch and go or go around. There’s a reasonable chance your wheels might touch the ground when you try this so make sure you have the appropriate clearance just in case. Also make sure your upwind course is clear of obstacles in the event you start your climb out towards the end of the runway. By flying along very close to the ground your confidence in your ability to control the airplane close to the ground will increase and you will become confident enough to make continuous small control inputs to maintain position over the center line. You will also effectively calibrate you depth perception so that you will know what very close to the ground looks like and will have a reference point from which to commence the flare. The climb out on completion of the very low approach is also a great way to improve your go around technique.
Flaring too soon
If your problem is a premature flare that results in the airplane losing most of it’s airspeed and lift too high above the runway which could result in a stall well above the ground and a very hard landing try to work on simply moving your vision further down the runway as you get closer to the ground. This way you will use your peripheral vision for depth perception and the tendency to flare too soon will probably be eliminated. If this does not solve the problem then try the very low approach mentioned above and once you are confident about flying close to the ground try reducing the power to idle while flying a very low approach in the landing configuration within 10 feet of the ground. As you reduce power very gradually pitch just enough to prevent the airplane from touching down. Eventually in spite of your efforts to not touch down you will find yourself in a nose up attitude with insufficient airspeed to maintain flight and your main wheels will gently touch down. The secret is to be very low when you start and pitch very gently to start with but to increase the pressure steadily until you touch down. This exercise is intended for tricycle gear airplanes and will use quite a lot of runway so be sure to only do this with your instructor at an airport with a long runway and an unobstructed upwind. Once you have developed your flare technique using this exercise you can start applying it to normal approaches. The results are usually excellent with a much more refined flare and better center line technique.
If you find the airplane starting to climb when you flare then you are applying too much back pressure on the control wheel too soon. Remember when you first start to flare your airspeed is higher and there is more air flowing over the elevator so a relatively small deflection of the elevator will pitch the nose up and with sufficient airspeed the airplane will start to climb. So as you start to flare you must begin with very little back pressure and very gradually increase the pressure as the airplane slows. Also consider how you are gripping the control wheel. There’s a good chance you are gripping too hard so that you cannot feel how the pressure on the control surfaces changes as your airspeed changes. Have your instructor fly a circuit and take a break. Relax your hand and flex your fingers. When you resume flying hold the control wheel firmly but do not grip it tightly or you will not be able to “feel the airplane” or make small sensitive inputs. If ballooning continues to be a problem you probably need a session in the practice area working on slow flight. Whilst working at altitude you can develop your feel for the airplane at slow speeds similar to those experienced just prior to touchdown. If you can learn to bleed off airspeed when transitioning to slow flight without ballooning then you should be able to use similar control inputs as you flare.
Landing off center Line
If you have a hard time maintaining your position on the center line it’s probably because you are focusing too much on the ground and or your aiming point and not looking far enough down the runway. Try thinking about landing as maneuver where you fly down to and along the center line of the runway and at some point transition from being in the air to being on the ground rather than as a case of flying down a slope and putting the airplane on the ground. As the tail dragger pilots will tell you the flight’s not over until the airplane’s tied down. It should be a seamless transition from the air to the ground not an abrupt change. So don’t fixate on exactly where and when you will touch down, instead look further down the runway and let your peripheral vision take care of the depth perception while you visualize the runway center line extending from a point in the distance to a point between your feet. Once you are on the ground keep looking ahead and steer with your feet. The previously mentioned very low approach exercise will also help with maintaining center line.
Floating way down the runway before touching down
If you float way down the runway before touching down you are probably flying the approach too fast. Remember as you get close to the ground the airplane will fly at lower speeds than when aloft due to ground effect. Ground effect is noticeable within one wingspan’s elevation above the ground. If your speed is too fast as you get into ground effect it will take a long time to bleed off the speed in the flare before the airplane will touch down resulting in “floating” before touch down. The solution to this is to work on trimming for the appropriate airspeed on final approach. If you are trimmed for the correct speed, with full flaps, and power at idle as you enter ground effect you will not have the energy to float far.
If you are landing with all three wheels touching down at the same time or with only a split second between the main gear and the nose gear, which is a bad thing assuming you are training in a tricycle gear airplane, it means you are not flaring enough or not soon enough. This could be because you are not correctly judging you height above the runway due to looking too far ahead whilst not heeding your peripheral vision’s depth perception. The previously described very low approach exercise may help develop your perception of height above the runway so that you have a reference point from which to start your flare. It could be that you are starting to flare at the right height above the runway but are simply not applying enough back pressure. Remember the beginning of the flare requires very little back pressure but as your airspeed diminishes you need more back pressure on the control wheel to establish and maintain the correct nose up touch down attitude. With less air flowing over the elevator as the airplane slows down in the flare you need more deflection to establish and maintain a nose up attitude. Remember to maintain the back pressure and follow through after the main wheels are on the ground.
For more on landings and information regarding short, soft, crosswind and no flap landings take a look at Flight Seven.