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Your Guide To Short Field Landings

Pilot MKN

Are you landing on a short runway? Does your runway have trees at the end of it? Then it's time for you to show off your short-field landing skills. Here's how you'll do it.

How Short Field Landings Are Different

When you're dealing with a short runway, or a runway with an obstacle near the end if it, you need to adjust your approach and landing to keep your airplane on the pavement.

J Lustick

So what are the steps of a good short field landing? We'll break it down into four phases: approach to landing, clearing an obstacle, touchdown, and rollout.

Approach To Landing

To make a great short field landing, you need to be in complete control of your airspeed and decent rate, so 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 that you have plenty of time to configure your aircraft and make sure you're stabilized on your approach. You don't necessarily need to do this, but it's not a bad idea. The more time you give yourself to get stabilized, the better your landing will (most likely) be.

There are a few more things to consider when flying your pattern as well: unless your POH suggests otherwise, you should fly final approach with full flaps, at 1.3 Vso. So for example, if you're flying a Cessna 172 with a Vso of 47 kts, 47 X 1.3 = 61 knots. As it turns out, the POH recommends a final approach speed of 61 knots for short field landings (Cessna 172S), so the math in this case works out perfectly.

Getting comfortable with flying a stabilized approach in this configuration can be one of the most challenging parts of a short field landing. That's because when you're configured for landing on your final approach, you're on the back side of the power curve. And that means you use power to adjust your altitude, and pitch to adjust your airspeed.

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 feel like a pitch/power pro.

Clearing An Obstacle On Final

If you have an obstacle at the approach end of the runway, you'll want to fly a slightly steeper-than-normal approach as well. 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're close to stall speed, and 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 early 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 the most stabilized approach you can. Take a few trips around the pattern to get a feel for the control inputs you need to make a constant, stable approach. The more stable your approach path, the more likely you are to hit your landing point and make a good landing.

Touchdown

Next up is the moment when you put all your hard work together and impress your passengers: touchdown. As you clear any obstacles and 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 as soon as you clear your obstacle. If you're flying a 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.

Pilot MKN

But 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.

Rollout

Once you touchdown, you want to use maximum aerodynamic braking, as well as maximum wheel 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 in turn 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.

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Once you turn off the runway, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for a job well done on your short field landing.

Common Problems With Short Field Landings

Short field landings can take some practice for you to get comfortable with them. Here are some of the more common problems you'll want to be thinking about before you head on and start practicing them:

  • Too much airspeed on final, which can cause float
  • Excessive descent rate on final, which can lead to a hard touchdown
  • An unstabilized approach, where you oscillate between level-off and descent
  • Over braking on rollout, and locking up the wheels (nobody likes flat spots on the tires!)
  • Setting the nosewheel down hard, instead of controlling its touchdown (remember, your nosewheel isn't nearly as strong as your mains)

Putting It All Together

Now that you can nail a short field landing, the next question is: when are you heading out to the airport to practice? When do you, send us a picture; we'd love to see it.

Colin Cutler

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 colin@boldmethod.com.

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