Teaching Landings More Effectively!

I recently spent a beautiful evening watching students in the pattern terrifying their young instructors and abusing their aircraft. Almost every approach was clearly defective long before getting anywhere near the runway; inconsistent configuration, altitudes or ground track; and poor airspeed control with “lucky line-up.” Despite all these obvious problems they all continued to an “arrival” that also kept the lawn mowing crew nervously looking over their shoulders. Without any mastery of the critical sub-components necessary for landing they continued grinding out (and reinforcing) more errors all the while beating up the equipment and hoping for some kind of magical improvement – remember that definition of insanity? And 56% of accidents occur in the pattern – where we spend only 5% of our time. This lunacy also discourages and drives away many students with an assault on their self-worth and sanity. The remedy here is not complicated, but certainly requires a “culture change” (which can be difficult); we need to teach landings later  in training- and only after full mastery of the required basics.

The common joke among flight instructors is that the only maneuver we actually teach is landing. This is partly because (if we are honest) most pilots are unable to consistently land well (except me?) But this joke is also true because “landing well” incorporates almost every aircraft control skill – plus judgement and risk management- with time pressure, low altitude and ego. Ironically, the critical importance and focus on landing also results in landings being taught very poorly during initial training.

Most schools and instructors teach landings way too early and only in their final form. They begin landing before the individual components have been mastered by the pilot in training. Usually this is a misguided attempt to motivate the pilot in training and demonstrate “fast progress” and success. But many times there is a worse motivator;  an ego-boost for instructor or image-builder for the school with low-hour “success” (scare quotes because the specious low standard).  Unfortunately what usually happens is the the role of the CFI becomes “protecting the plane” while the student “figures it out” with a series of frustrating “hints and near misses” I was witnessing. Is it any surprise young CFIs run for the airlines? Is it any surprise 80% of students drop out?

Dishonesty in teaching landing often starts on the first flight (and with the best intentions).  We have all heard (or said) “You landed on that Discovery Flight – See how simple that was?” (I once thought this was helpful myself- duh!) This dishonesty actually seriously damages the total process of learning to fly and results in many problems later. It can actually be a major reason students quit; “If it is simple why can’t I get it? – I must really suck at this!” It is so much better to begin the flight training relationship by honestly stating “learning to fly well requires hard work and commitment but the satisfaction and payback are incredibly worth the effort. Landing well is neither simple nor easy and pilots will probably spend the rest of their life mastering and refining this skill set.” We humans actually love challenges but only if there are clear, manageable steps and the results are demonstrably worthwhile. With proper guidance, students master landing more easily – in less time and ultimately more thoroughly – if they start later with “incremental mastery.

To start correctly, it is essential to carefully define and demonstrate that the objective is a “safe landing” – on speed, on point in the proper landing configuration, etc. It is necessary to bury the media hype of ” the greaser” and all the associated crap. Aim instead for a manageable, safe, landing with attainable, consistent goals. A full explanation of all the skills and components gives motivation for working hard and incrementally mastering ground tracking, speed control and configuration changes when you are practicing out of the pattern. Only after your pilot in training takes over all these essential components (see incremental mastery) are you are ready to begin “pattern work.” They have to earn landing practice by demonstrating mastery (not just because the clouds are low on the third lesson and the CFI has to pay rent). There has to be a relationship of trust in this process because if your student imports all the crap they see on YouTube they will make this process longer quite “exciting.”

Once in the pattern, enforce the “rule of three”  – and transfer this to your students as a necessary tool. This is simply calibrating the evaluation skills every good CFI already possesses. To be successful (and safe) the learner must see and remedy “high/low, fast/slow, not configured”  and terminate their attempt with a go around if necessary. There is absolutely no advantage to a “salvage job” or accepting the landings I was watching. Even though the CFI is able to do easily salvage most landings, we can fix way too many ugly landings for students and set a bad example. Whenever there are consistent deficiencies with basic aircraft control these need to be resolved before attempting further landings (otherwise we are practicing and reinforcing errors). It is essential to disassemble the bigger process (final form) into components that can be mastered safely at altitude.  e.g. once airspeed and ground track are functioning we can continue in the pattern productively.

Pilots in training master aircraft control at altitude first and progressively master lower altitudes. Once slow flight has been mastered at altitude, bring it into normal pattern practice by flying down a long runway in ground effect. This occurs before any landing practice with the specific goal of precise centerline control at progressively lower altitudes until a student can track right down the line at 3-5 feet in ground effect. Achieving this kind of control is a trick used by every experienced aviation educator I know. Unfortunately, they only bring it out for “tough cases” as a “method of last resort.” We should use this for every student.

Every CFI needs to be comfortable with centerline slow flight and it should be part of every normal syllabus. This maneuver builds  confidence in your learner and overcomes “ground fear” for new pilots in training. It also builds the subtle control feel/visual cues of ground effect that contain 90% of the secrets of effective landings. One huge psychological problem centerline slow flight removes is the expectation of landing at a certain time – or at all. Flying a series of low passes builds mastery of the go-around as a viable and safe “escape option.” This maueuver also saves wear and tear on the training aircraft and makes the subsequent teaching of a full landing a snap. It is almost magical to train landing during a slow flight a lesson on a longer runway. Simply slowly reduce power as your pilot in training holds their sight picture in ground effect. Surprisingly your student has landed before they know it; tracking straight on the centerline without even expecting it. All you have to do is fully reduce power on touchdown ( a crutch you obviously want to later remove). It is simple to adapt and adjust this procedure to become a normal approach and landing. The steps now to landing are easy because all the necessary skills are there; no semi-crashes and “protecting the plane” arrivals. How many pilots screw up landings because they are uncomfortable in ground effect or trying to “make it land” rather than “waiting for touchdown” with the perfect set-up? This and more useful techniques will be part of our  SAFE CFI-PRO™ Workshop at AOPA, October 2&3. Fly safely (and often)!

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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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