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How To Make An Awesome Soft Field Landing

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Spring is officially here. Are you ready to start landing on soft fields again? If you're planning to touch down on a grass or dirt strip soon, it's time to brush up on your soft-field landing skills. Here's what you need to be thinking about.

How Soft Field Landings Are Different

Soft field landings are pretty much the same as normal landings until you cross the runway threshold. That's where you need to put your soft field landing technique to work.

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So what are the steps of a good soft field landing? Let's break it down into three phases: approach to landing, touchdown, and rollout.

Approach To Landing

To make a great soft field landing, you need to start with a great stabilized approach. Being stabilized ensures that you touch down where you want, and that you transfer your aircraft's weight from the wings to the wheels as gently as possible.

And as far as airspeed goes, you should fly your traffic pattern the same as a normal landing. The Airplane Flying Handbook recommends flying your final approach with full flaps at 1.3 Vso, but if your POH recommends a different configuration and speed, use that.

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The difference between a normal and soft field landing really comes into play once you cross the runway 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.

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By holding your plane off the runway, you dissipate your forward speed, and allow your wheels to touch down at a slower speed. This is important for a very good reason: it reduces the nose-over force on your aircraft when it touches down.

Touchdown

Next up is the moment you and your passengers have been waiting for: touchdown. As you enter ground effect, you can use a small amount of power to level off and make sure you touchdown as slow as possible (though power isn't necessary).

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Your goal is to fly the airplane to the ground, with your wings supporting the weight of the aircraft as long as possible. Making this happen in a low-wing vs. high-wing aircraft can vary significantly. Low-wing aircraft will have more pronounced ground effect because your 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 (nice landing, by the way), you want to slowly remove power, if you had any in, and hold the nose wheel off the runway.

Rollout

Since your main gear are much stronger than the nose wheel, you want to keep the nose off the soft/rough surface until your plane has slowed down a bit. By maintaining back pressure on the yoke, you can hold the nose off until you've reached a slower speed, and your nose wheel will thank you.

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You also want to 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. And if you're too aggressive on the brakes, your nose wheel tends to touchdown earlier and harder than you want. Last of all, and especially on grass, it's easy to lock up your wheels by over-braking, which doesn't help much.

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.

Then, when you're parked, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for a job well done on your soft field landing.

What Can Go Wrong With Soft Field Landings?

Soft field landings can take some practice before you get comfortable with them. Here are some of the more common problems you'll want to think through before you head out to the airplane to start practicing them:

  • Too fast of a descent rate, causing a hard touchdown
  • Too much airspeed, causing excessive float
  • Unstabilized approach, making it hard to touchdown smoothly
  • Allowing the nose wheel to touchdown early, causing excessive stress on the nose wheel

Putting It All Together

Now that you have all the details you need to nail your next soft-field landing, we have one last question: when are you heading out to the airport to practice?

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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