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Dealing with a shorter-than-average runway, or an obstacle at the approach end of the pavement? Here's what you need to do.
When you're dealing with a short runway, or a runway with an obstacle near the approach end, you need to adjust your approach and landing to keep your plane on the pavement.
So what are the steps of a good short field landing? Let's break it down into four phases: approach to landing, clearing an obstacle, touchdown, and rollout.
To make a great short field landing, you need to be on speed and glide path. When you do that, you can touch down where you want, prevent floating down the runway, and stop your plane before you run out of pavement. All of this starts with your approach.
The Airplane Flying Handbook recommends that you fly a slightly wider-than-normal traffic pattern, so you have plenty of time to configure your plane and make sure you're stabilized on your approach. You don't necessarily need to do this, but it is a good idea. The more time you give yourself to get stabilized, the better your landing will (most likely) be.
Getting comfortable with flying a stabilized approach can be one of the most challenging parts of a short field landing. That's because when you're configured for landing on final, you're on the back side of the power curve. That means you use power to adjust your altitude, and pitch to adjust your airspeed. And speaking of airspeed, you want to make sure you're flying the manufacturer's recommended final approach speed. Any faster, and you'll chew up more runway than what's necessary. If your manufacturer doesn't publish a final approach speed, you should use the FAA's recommended 1.3 X Vso.
It can take a few tries to get this down, so a good way to practice is to fly a pattern all the way down to short final, go around, then try it again. After a few trips around the pattern, you'll have the pitch/power combination under control.
If you have an obstacle at the approach end of the runway, you'll want to fly a slightly steeper-than-normal approach. By coming in on final at a steeper angle, you'll give yourself more runway to work with, which is always a good thing.
But flying a steeper approach has its disadvantages. Since you have a high-than-normal descent rate, you really need to judge your roundout and flare. Flare too late, and you'll fly the airplane into the ground. Flare too early, and you can stall and develop a large sink rate. Neither scenario is good, and the best way to avoid either one is to practice, and then practice some more.
You also want to focus on flying as stabilized as you can over the obstacle. The more stable your approach path is over the obstacle, the more likely you are to hit your landing point.
When you know you have the runway made, you want to slowly start reducing the throttle to idle.
Keep in mind this differs significantly based on the airplane you fly. If you're flying a lighter airplane with light wing loading, you'll want to start reducing the throttle earlier. If you're flying a heavy plane with higher wing loading, you'll want to keep the power in a little longer so you don't get too slow, or come up short of your landing point.
Either way, your goal is to touch down at the minimum controllable airspeed, so you're at the power-off stall speed as you touch down. By touching down at stall speed, you have the lowest possible ground speed, and you're setting yourself up for the shortest possible ground roll. It's also ok to have a firm touchdown. By touching down firmly, you transfer some of your plane's energy into your shocks and tires, allowing you to slow down more quickly.
Once you touchdown, you want to use maximum wheel braking, as well as maximum aerodynamic braking. By pulling back on the yoke on the ground, you increase your aerodynamic braking, and you keep more weight on your main gear. That makes your brakes more effective, because you can apply more brake pressure without your wheels locking up. Keep pressure on the brakes until you know you're slow enough to make your taxi turnoff, then gently start to let up on the brakes.
Here's a question we get quite bit: should you retract flaps after you've touched down? First off, you should follow what your manufacturer recommends. And that's different for most airplanes.
If you look at the C172S, it recommends that you retract flaps after you start applying brakes. Why would you do that? By retracting flaps, you reduce the lift your wing is producing, and you can apply more brake pressure.
But many other aircraft don't recommend that you retract flaps on the runway.
And there's definitely a risk involved with changing your aircraft's configuration while you're rolling down the runway. There are countless accidents where pilots have lost directional control on the runway. And if you're looking down for your flap lever on rollout, you're opening yourself up to the possibility of distraction and a runway excursion.
We're not saying you shouldn't do it, even if your manufacturer recommends it. But if you're going to change your configuration on rollout, you need to make sure you're proficient enough to safely do it.
Short field landings can take some practice to perfect, and there are some potential problems you'll want to be thinking about before you head out to practice.
First off, excessive airspeed is a common problem. If you're flying final too fast, you'll float down the runway, and chew up pavement before you touch down.
Over braking on rollout is also a common problem. When you're rolling right after touchdown, your wings are still generating some lift, and it's easy to lock up your tires. Again, this is where aerodynamic braking can really help your wheel braking. Keep the stick/yoke back, and you'll be able to apply more braking without locking up your tires.
Stay on speed, fly a consistent glide path, and use maximum wheel and aerodynamic braking on the runway. Do all four, and you'll set yourself up for the perfect short field landing.
Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.