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How To Judge The Quality Of A Grass Runway Before Landing

What looks like good landing conditions from the air could be your worst nightmare on touchdown. Here's what you can do to prepare for a soft field landing.

Grass Runways Look Deceptively Smooth

Landing on a well cut, dry grass runway is easy. But perfect days are rare, and recent precipitation or lack of mowing can create challenging situations on landing.

We'll point out a few things you can do to avoid a situation that could result in damaging your airplane. In the video below, the pilot was (fortunately) not flying a light, tailwheel airplane. The result could have been much worse...

Preflight: Check NOTAMs And Call Ahead

Before you even walk to the airplane, double check NOTAMs for your destination. There might be runway condition reports or closures for soft field runways. Recent precipitation can make things dicey at soft fields, so looking at weather trends early is key.

Whether it's an airport manager, FBO, or local pilot, calling ahead is another great way to check for runway conditions. If you're planning to land on a grass runway, ask when the last time the field was mowed.

Boldmethod

Listen To The Radio Well Before Arrival

As you approach your destination, listen to the traffic frequency earlier than you otherwise would. If other pilots are using the runway, you might be able to get a report about field conditions.

Take A Closer Look - Low Pass

It's nearly impossible to get a good look at runway conditions from traffic pattern altitude. Performing a low pass is one good way to check for:

  • Standing Water
  • Holes
  • Rocks
  • Mud
  • Grass Height
  • Snow/Ice
  • Wind Conditions
  • Misplaced Airport Equipment

Fly a normal traffic pattern and add power during your flare to stay just a few feet above the runway. Keep your height above the runway approximately the same as you would during a soft field takeoff. If you use ground effect to your benefit with full flaps, you'll have the best chance to get a view of what to expect on landing.

Swayne Martin

Test The Ground With Your Wheels

If you're still unsure about conditions, you have the option to perform a brief touch-and-go landing. Some pilots use this as a way to briefly settle their wheels on the ground to "feel" how soft the runway is. Keep some power in during the roundout and flare, and let your wheels briefly "tap" the ground. If you see water or mud spray up, or if your wheels sink, you might want to reconsider landing.

If you attempt this, be careful to only touch your wheels lightly, as you'll induce a significant amount of drag on the airplane. Keeping your speed up is one way to ensure you don't unintentionally land.

David Tatum

Is The Field Good Enough? Time To Grease A Perfect Soft Field Landing

The difference between a normal and soft field landing really comes into play once you cross the threshold. That's because as you get close to touchdown, you want to hold the aircraft 1-2 feet off the runway in ground effect.

By holding your plane off the runway, you dissipate your forward speed, and allow your wheels to touch down at a slower speed. And by doing that, you reduce the nose-over force on your aircraft when it touches down.

Next up is the most important moment: touchdown. As you enter ground effect, its OK to use a small amount of power to level off and make sure you touchdown as slow as possible (though power isn't necessary).

Your goal is to fly the airplane to the ground, with your wings supporting the weight of the aircraft as long as possible. Making that happen in a low-wing vs. high-wing aircraft can vary significantly. Low-wing aircraft will have more pronounced ground effect, because the wing is closer to the ground, and it may not take as much power manipulation than it will to keep a high-wing aircraft in ground effect.

After your main wheels touch down gently, you want to slowly remove power, if you had any in, and hold the nose wheel off the runway.

Be very gentle on the brakes. On many soft field landings, because of the soft surface, you don't need to use brakes at all. If you're too aggressive on the brakes, your nose wheel tends to touchdown earlier and harder than you want.

Once you've touched the nose down, you'll want to maintain back pressure (typically full back pressure) as you continue your rollout and taxi, minimizing weight on the nose. Keep the back pressure in until you've reached a harder surface, or when you've stopped to park.

ukv1290

Prepare For The Unexpected

Long story short, you never really know what you're going to find on a grass strip. Unlike a paved runway, it's challenging to judge what a touchdown will be like. Why practice "soft field" landings and takeoffs on pavement when there are plenty of grass runways around the country? Encourage your instructor to take you on a lesson to a true "soft field" airport!


Want to learn more about soft field takeoffs and landings, as well as just about every other kind of takeoff and landing you'll face? Sign up for our Mastering Takeoffs and Landings online course, and learn how to handle almost any kind of landing like a pro.


Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He holds multi-engine and instrument ratings, and is an aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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