Action, reaction and judgment: the rites of Spring

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Runway
image: Okea | Adobe Stock

If you haven’t been flying much over Winter, here are some tips to avoid an embarrassing landing, particularly loss of directional control on the runway

To begin, read this extract from an ATSB report:

‘The pilot of a Maule MT-7-235 conducted a private flight from Greenfields airstrip (near Noosa), Queensland, with 2 passengers on board. On final approach to land, the pilot noticed they were getting low on the approach path and at about 500 feet, they increased the power to regain their approach path.

‘The pilot subsequently assessed that the aircraft was too high and lowered the nose to re-intercept the approach path. The pilot flared the aircraft for landing, the aircraft landed heavily and bounced into the air. As the aircraft landed again, the nose wheel touched down first (before the main landing gear) with sufficient force that the nose wheel strut fractured.

‘The nose landing gear and propeller then dug into the ground and the aircraft rotated over its nose and slid a short distance inverted before coming to rest. The pilot and one passenger were uninjured, the other passenger sustained minor injuries and the aircraft sustained substantial damage.’

Flying requires constant action, reaction and judgment. Developing these abilities takes time. Retaining them takes constant practice. The skills are perishable – stop flying for a while and you need to build back to the level of proficiency you had before. Nowhere do all the elements of action, reaction and judgment come together more than when landing. Even if you still fly a lot, if you don’t experience certain conditions – for example, crosswinds or short-field operations – you will still have to gradually work your way back to proficiency in those conditions.

You’ll find evidence of this in the ATSB record, but it really becomes obvious when you look at US records. There are many more aircraft in America, creating a much larger sample size, both of flying activity and, unfortunately, accidents. And if my experience flying several times in Australian Autumn and Winter is representative, we have longer periods of more extreme weather in the US, meaning more pilots do not fly for longer periods. Add the 2 and the issue of currency and proficiency is glaring.

As Spring 2021 broke, I found all these accidents in the Federal Aviation Administration’s preliminary reports over just a 2-week period:

  1. An RV-10 landed and veered off the runway – its left wing struck a runway light.
  2. A Just Highlander ground looped during landing.
  3. A PA-28 landed and veered off the runway.
  4. An RV-7 landed and came to rest upside down.
  5. A Hawker Hunter left the runway during landing.
  6. A Remo GX lost control during landing and incurred a prop strike.
  7. A Beech King Air 200 landed and veered off the runway.
  8. A PA-28 landed and veered off the runway.
  9. A C 172 veered off the runway during landing.
  10. An RV-4 lost control during landing and flipped over.
  11. A C 185 pulled to the right during landing and then flipped.
  12. A Lear 35A landed hard and incurred a right-wing strike.
  13. A C 170 landed and veered off the runway.
  14. A GC-1B Swift ground looped and its gear collapsed.
  15. A Long EZ bounced on landing and its nose wheel separated.
  16. A Lancair 360 landed hard and its gear collapsed.
  17. A C 182 landed and veered off the runway, striking a taxi light.
  18. A Lancair IVP scraped both wings after a hard landing due to a wind gust.
  19. A C 180 hit a tree with its left wingtip during landing in a crosswind.
  20. A C 172 veered off the side of the runway during touch and goes.
  21. An RV-8 veered off the runway during landing.
  22. A C 182 landed and veered off the runway, striking a parked aircraft.
  23. A Swearingen Merlin lost control on landing and veered off the runway.
  24. A Cirrus SR22 landed and veered off the runway.
  25. A Cessna Citation 750 landed hard and bounced, damaging both wingtips.
  26. A C 172 veered off the runway into a ditch during landing.
  27. An Aeronca 7AC landed and then ground looped.
  28. A Boeing A75 veered off the runway and flipped over.
  29. A C 182 on landing roll out, veered off the runway.
  30. A DA20 veered off the runway.

It might be the springtime winds; more likely, it’s the result of pilots who have not flown much in the past few months. Some of these events may have been due to a mechanical failure although I’ve omitted any preliminary reports that suggest that. It may simply be a fluke or an artefact of COVID-19 activity – except I’ve found lists just like this one, in several different years about this time.

Regardless of the cause, loss of directional control on the runway represents one of the most common causes of aircraft damage. These are increasingly expensive to repair, raise insurance costs for us all and result in a pilot who may even be less experienced in runway directional control when the aircraft is fixed – and they are able to fly again.

The first, but certainly not the only, reason loss of directional control occurs is improper aircraft control in adverse winds. The mishap record reminds us that crosswind control is one of the major skills we can maintain and improve, and thereby significantly reduce the total accident rate and its negative fleetwide outcomes.

Carrying a ‘little extra speed’ through final approach is nearly as hazardous as getting the aircraft too slow.

Most aircraft have a maximum demonstrated crosswind component, but experience shows the true crosswind limitation is not with the aircraft, it’s in the hands (and feet) of the pilot. In almost all reported cases of loss of directional control on the runway, the crosswind component is less than half the aircraft’s published crosswind ‘limitation.’

Speed control

Another factor in runway loss of control – and another component to currency and proficiency – is airspeed control. Eventually you have to slow the aircraft to land. Yet most pilots tend to fly approaches too fast, especially when they haven’t flown much, and feel a little extra speed provides a margin of safety above the stall. Yet carrying a ‘little extra speed’ through final approach is nearly as hazardous as getting the aircraft too slow.

So what happens when you add a few knots for the latest internet chatter, or because you overestimate the adjustment for a gusty surface wind or simply because you no longer fly as precisely as you should? Three issues are directly affected by the precision of your airspeed on final approach:

  1. Runway overrun. Approach fast and you will likely land long. Land long and you may not have the runway length remaining to come to a stop. Runway overruns (going off the far end of the runway, otherwise under control) are a common mishap scenario. A variation is the pilot who realises their mistake and decides – too late – to add power and go around, only to (a) overrun the runway at full power, (b) collide with obstacles off the far end of the runway or (c) stall the aircraft in an overzealous attempt to pull up when outcome (a) or (b) appears imminent.
  2. Pilot-induced oscillation. If you approach fast and force the aircraft onto the runway in an attempt to avoid landing long, it’s likely the aircraft will bounce. From there, it will take skill and discipline to avoid entering a pilot-induced oscillation while you try to ‘catch up’ with controlling the aircraft.
  3. Loss of directional control on the runway. A too-fast touchdown also makes directional control difficult – bringing us back to where this discussion began.

Like many instructors, including friends in Australia, I find lack of airspeed discipline is one of the most common shortcomings among pilots with whom I fly. Conversely, the speed-precise pilots I fly with are consistently smooth and accurate in their landings – and all their flying. Personally, I take great pride in being at the proper speed on each leg of the traffic pattern, and at each phase of my approach.

As you come down final approach, consciously evaluate whether you are:

  • on speed
  • in configuration (flaps, landing gear as applicable)
  • on glidepath to your identified touchdown zone
  • aligned with the runway centerline.

Lack of airspeed discipline is one of the most common shortcomings among pilots with whom I fly.

If you are not correct in all four of these criteria when crossing the threshold or the last obstacle or the beginning of the landing area (if it’s not a purpose-built aircraft landing surface), go around immediately. Don’t try to salvage the landing if too fast (or too slow), out of landing configuration, above or below glidepath or out of alignment with the runway. It’s not enough to be above some minimum speed as you land. You need to be on the right speed to safely, smoothly and precisely land – and avoid loss of directional control on the runway.

Don’t accept a runway if the attempt exceeds your current crosswind limitation. Question controllers if they assign a runway you feel is not optimal for conditions. Don’t use a runway just because it’s aligned with your arrival or departure or because someone else used that runway before you. Take care to avoid conflict with other aircraft, adhere to standard patterns so others will know where to look and announce your intentions on the traffic advisory frequency. Exercise your pilot-in-command authority to avoid ‘veering’ onto the accident record.

Restoring proficiency

You may not have flown much in recent months. Weather, lockdowns or life in general may have kept you on the ground, much or all of the time. Make a special effort to practice accurate circuits and crosswind landings – it’s a rite of spring for a pilot. Focus on keeping the runway stripe between the main wheels, while flying the correct approach and landing speed. Start with a slight crosswind component, working your way up to the aircraft’s maximum demonstrated crosswind component (or more) as your proficiency builds. You may want to find a flight instructor or pilot mentor to help you expand your crosswind envelope. Definitely engage a good instructor if you’re unable to maintain runway alignment, with the runway stripe between the wheels. Recall that your new crosswind personal limitation comes only after focused practice. Reduce the maximum crosswind you will accept for take-off or landing as time passes since your last practice session.

When you’re planning your next flight review or other recurrent training, and after any time you’ve been away from flying and practicing your crosswind technique, spend some time in the circuit perfecting your runway directional control. While you’re at it, focus on precise airspeed control for landing as well, touching down on your landing spot at the proper speed.

3 COMMENTS

  1. The “ demonstrated cross wind component is exactly that. It is what a competent pilot should be able to land in . The maximum crosswind component for a particular aircraft is much higher, depending on the skill of the particular pilot.

  2. Thanks to flight safety Australia, for continuing to present articles on safety procedures.
    Many GA pilots can get out of practice with some of the requirements of flying by being away from the ‘cabin’ for long periods.
    The pursuit of flight means that humans need to learn the instincts of birds to remain safe.
    This learning can definitely fade without ongoing practice. Thanks again …. Rob Q.

  3. The explanation for having the correct speed at all times while flying came to me loud and clear via this excellent report.

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