It's said that any pilot is only as good as his last landing. Landing a plane on a runway is a complex process of maneuvers and control inputs that tests every student pilot to the limit. Even after flight training ends, a pilot will always aspire to make great landings - it's the one key part of flying where success can be definitively measured - either by a smooth, effortless touchdown... or by something entirely different.
When landing a plane, a multitude of things must be done all at once. And since your landing will depend upon outside factors (wind speed, direction, air temperature, etc...) as well, even the greatest pilot only has so much control over how the landing goes. No one makes a perfect landing each and every time, but with the following landing tips you can give yourself the best chance at impressing your passengers, yourself, and maybe even the tower operators too:
Make a Strong Approach - A great landing always starts with a great approach. On your downwind leg, already be at pattern altitude. Already be at the correct airspeed. Check your heading indicator, and make sure your plane is flying parallel to the runway heading. Doing these things in advance will free you up to really concentrate on your base and final legs - falling behind on these duties will have you playing 'catch up' with the entire landing process.
Concentrate - Flying with friends is always fun, but when it's time to land a plane the pilot needs to focus 100% of his or her attention on the landing process. All too often a conversation will continue all the way down to the runway, and the landing will always suffer for it. After calling your downwind, politely silence your passengers so you can give all of your attention to your altitude, airspeed, and position without any other distractions.
Stay Center - Learning to fly on a wide runway, staying on the centerline might not seem as important to you. As you visit smaller fields however, you'll learn that sometimes staying center of the runway is the only choice you have. After turning base to final, get lined up quickly. Concentrate on keeping the nose of the plane pointed down that center line, using small aileron and rudder movements to avoid drifting. When your touchdown comes, that's one less axis (yaw) you'll have to worry about, freeing you up to concentrate on the other two.
Use Flaps Correctly - Landing a plane correctly requires touching down in the right spot at the right airspeed. Getting to that position and speed is the hard part, but fortunately for you, you've got some friends to help you out: flaps. Make sure you're using your flaps correctly though, and not just automatically flipping them down at a specific time or point during your landing sequence. Learning to land requires drilling the pattern with constant repetition, and it's all too easy to just file flaps away in the back of your mental checklist as something "to do" on your base and final legs. The truth of it is, a pilot should use an aircraft's flaps in different configurations during different scenarios depending upon wind speed, wind direction, altitude, airspeed, and the length of the runway you're landing on. Setting your flaps too early will lead to a high approach, with you overcorrecting by dive-bombing the runway. Setting them late might keep your airspeed undesirably high. Don't feel you have to use all notches of flaps at all times either - in some situations it's best to land with partial or even (in very windy conditions) no flaps at all.
Experience is the best teacher here, and it will take flying time in that particular aircraft for you to grow accustomed to optimum use of flaps. Understand that it's not something that can be learned strictly from a textbook.
Use the Runway Numbers - When landing a plane the phrase 'aim for the numbers' is commonly heard, but seldom to pilots get to land on them. Most pilots are too busy watching airspeed and pitch to worry about where the numbers are, especially on longer runways with lots of room. Still, you can use the runway numbers to help get to your desired touchdown point if you spend some time watching them during your final approach. As your touchdown draws near, you should have a good idea if you're high, low, or right on target. If high, aiming toward a spot someplace before the numbers can help you drop a little altitude. If low, look a little further past the numbers to get your nose up. Adjust throttle where necessary to make the nose do what you need it to. This may seem like an obvious little trick, but if used during landing it can greatly help with your touchdown position.
SideSlip - An often talked about maneuver in any student pilot's textbook would be the sideslip. During landing, a sideslip can be used to bleed off unwanted altitude without increasing airspeed or having to divebomb the runway. By applying opposite rudder and aileron, the aircraft will slip vertical position without changing its direction of flight. If you're a student pilot, you're going to want to practice this maneuver a lot. It actually sounds trickier than it really is. As you advance in your flight training, you'll find yourself sideslipping during landings without even being conscious of doing it. Get comfortable with it though, because it's a good trick to have in your bag when you need to use it during a high final approach.
Attitude, Airspeed, Altitude - As the runway approaches, your focus will move to your primary instruments. Airspeed is critical here, as you want to avoid stalling at all costs. Make certain you maintain safely above minimum stall speeds for your aircraft's flap configuration, and also make sure you're not going too fast. Adjust the nose of the plane to keep the airspeed needle right where it should be, and use power to correct your height above the runway. If you monitored these three instruments during your base and final legs, you should be very close to your desired touchdown point when landing the aircraft.
Look Down the Runway - Looking down the runway when landing an airplane is another great tip to getting the timing of your flare right - it gives you a better reference to the true horizon than looking at the ground rushing up beneath you. It takes some practice, but eventually you can balance keeping your eye on the horizon, while peripherally watching your height above the runway. As you do this, your hands will be making subconscious adjustments to the control wheel that should smooth out your glidepath.
Flare, Float, and Throttle - Knowing when to flare is half the battle. Knowing how much to flare is the other half. Get both of those control movements right, and your wheels will grease the runway. During your flare, make smooth controlled movements with the wheel or yoke. You're very close to the ground now, and any large or jerky movements will be amplified with disastrous results. Once you do flare, you should know immediately if you're high or low. A low flare can be fixed by smoothly applying more back pressure to the control wheel. A high flare can be corrected by holding control pressure and applying slight power with the throttle. Never drop your nose suddenly or dramatically when landing a plane... if you flare too high, it's best to ride out the 'float' and apply power if needed to smooth out the touchdown. A good pilot always keeps one hand on the throttle during his landing.
It Ain't Over Yet - The last mistake made by some pilots is thinking their landing is over the moment their wheels touch the runway surface. To avoid that classification, remember to control the entire length of your landing. The rudder is key, as it now controls just about everything. Make your rudder adjustments small - especially just after touchdown when the aircraft is still rolling pretty fast. Also remember to turn your ailerons to adjust for wind direction, so as to avoid being buffeted around by crosswinds. Your landing isn't over until you turn onto the taxiway.
Landing a plane isn't easy... but landing an airplane smoothly and correctly is even harder. Just as you have good and bad days, you'll always have good landings and bad landings. Still, arming yourself with the right knowledge and practices can go a long way toward making great touchdowns. Using the tips above, you won't land perfectly every single time, but you should see yourself consistently make better landings.
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