Short-field landings have been part of my flying right from the onset of private pilot training. My instructor had flown in the Alaska Bush, and was very comfortable operating out of short airports, grass or otherwise. The go-to runways near me were Cranland Airport (28M), in Hanson, Mass., and Myricks Airport (1M8) in Berkley, Mass. They “featured” a 1700-foot paved runway and a 2500-foot grass strip with tall trees on each end, respectively. After the initial nerves and excitement faded, I was left with a sense of satisfaction. Tighter margins mean flying the airplane in a narrower envelope than usual. Speed control and energy management are always important, but become more critical in short-field operations.
When I got to the point in my career where a company actually wanted to pay me to fly the public, the first airplane I was assigned was the Pilatus PC-12. Talk about a short-field machine! There is nothing like being able to take eight passengers and luggage to airports like the Gustaf III Airport (TFFJ) on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy or Elizabeth Field Airport (0B8) at Fishers Island, N.Y. The airplane may be bigger, but the general principles are still the same.
I know I have preached this before, so I apologize if I am being repetitive, but knowing your takeoff performance is critical in short-field operations. If I had to guess, pilots reading this are more diligent than the norm, but it amazes me how often I ask pilots about their takeoff and landing distance data and hear the answer, “It always works on days like this,” or, “I have never had a problem before.” Something to consider with larger airplanes is the range of liftoff or rotation speeds. Many manufacturers publish those speeds based on takeoff weight, and not adhering to them can adversely affect performance.
Short-field takeoffs largely fall within two categories: short fields where obstacle clearance is a concern and those where the takeoff path is clear. The latter is simpler, so let’s tackle that first.
Fisher’s Island (0B8), mentioned earlier, is a perfect example of a short field without concern of obstacles on departure. It is right on the coast, and the departure end of three out of the four runways leads right over the beach. The most important takeoff calculation is the ground roll.
You’ve probably heard this before when considering performance, but a critical factor is that AFM/POH numbers are calculated in near-perfect conditions with a new airplane and professional test pilots. If you consider wind, runway condition and density altitude, and calculate your takeoff ground roll to be 2499 feet, I personally would not consider it a safe decision to depart a 2500-foot strip. Remember that the airman certification standards (ACS) include personal minimums as an item on practical tests. Most pilots have a set of personal minimums when it comes to weather, like maximum winds, or minimum ceiling or visibility requirements, but do not really consider padding performance. In basic airplanes, a 1000-foot takeoff roll is common at sea level. You could add a 100-percent safety buffer to that number and still have room to spare at Fisher’s Island.
I often preach “thoughtful” flying, and this is an example of where it comes into play. It is a good operating practice to calculate takeoff data and see how that compares to your actual takeoff performance. This helps build confidence in the performance numbers, and can assist in determining a suitable buffer between calculated takeoff performance and runway length. I’ve known pilots who use anything from a 10- to 50-percent buffer in their performance. Additionally, it is not a bad idea to plan for calm winds or at least exclude the gust factor.
This should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: It’s critical to fly the airplane the way the manufacturer intends. For some airplanes, this means flaps set to a certain position. The performance numbers you worked so hard to calculate are predicated on it. Some manufacturers also recommend a static takeoff, meaning brakes are held until takeoff power is set, and then released.
For example, and according to the Airplane Flying Handbook, static takeoffs have not been shown to necessarily reduce runway requirements in all single-engine light airplanes, but there are other factors to consider. A static takeoff allows the pilot to ensure takeoff power is obtained and everything is ship-shape before initiating the roll. I use some variation of “takeoff power is set, gauges green, annunciators appropriate” as a callout prior to releasing the brakes. It is much easier to assess everything while stationary and focus on the takeoff while rolling, especially on a short field where accelerate-stop performance might be dicey.
I mentioned two takeoff scenarios, and it’s time to conquer the second one: a short-field takeoff with obstacles. Take all the of the risk factors and mitigation strategies already discussed, and then add that “knowing is half the battle”: Understanding the size of the obstruction and distance from the runway is a great start. Briefing and flying the ODPs can help, especially at night or in marginal weather. Remember to calculate total takeoff distance, which considers the ground roll and a climb to 50 feet agl.
Once airborne, it’s also critical to immediately pitch to the manufacturer’s VX speed. Keep the focus on maintaining VX until the airplane is clear of obstacles before retracting gear or flaps. The airplane tends to go where the eyes go, and it is not ideal to be pitching down towards obstacles.
As the saying goes, taking off is optional, but landing is mandatory. This is a nice blurb from the Airplane Flying Handbook: “To land within a short field or a confined area, the pilot needs to have precise, positive control of the rate of descent and airspeed, and fly an approach that clears any obstacles, results in little or no floating during the roundout, and permits the airplane to be stopped in the shortest possible distance.”
Easy peasy, right? Just fly a stable approach that clears obstacles, results in no float and allows for max-performance braking! Let’s talk about the approach itself first. I am not sure who coined the expression, but I have found it extremely true that “the first step to a good landing is a good approach.”
Something to consider when planning an approach to a short field is how much effective runway is available. If there aren’t obstacles, the whole surface is effective runway. If there are 100-foot-high obstacles on the approach end 30 feet from the runway, the first 1000 feet of the runway might not be usable. If there is any doubt or question of the height of the obstacles, do a flyover of the runway. You can focus on the approach profile while leaving the airplane fast, plan the approach and practice a go-around all at the same time. Once you have a plan, a stabilized approach should be the goal.
A wider pattern or longer downwind may be necessary to ensure the airplane is stable and on-profile by 500 feet agl. In a challenging approach with smaller margins, it is critical to eliminate as many variables as possible. Turning final late or trying to slow down below 500 feet agl will add to your workload and increase the chances of an undesirable outcome. Speed or energy management is the name of the game. If your airplane’s manufacturer does not publish a short-field approach speed, using no more than 1.3 VSO should do the trick, or 1.2 VSO when light, adding half the gust factor, as appropriate. It is important to coordinate pitch and power to maintain a consistent descent rate and speed. While excess speed can result in float, slow speeds can result in operations on the back side of the power curve. If this occurs, even the addition of full power might not be enough to overcome the drag of the high AoA. Reduce the AoA, and initiate a go-around.
TOUCHDOWN AND BRAKING
If your energy was properly managed, the rollout should occur on the desired touchdown spot with minimal float. There may be temptation to “drag it in,” where a more flat and low approach is attempted. This often leads to increased landing distance versus a steeper approach where some of the airplane’s energy is dissipated in the touchdown. Remember: It’s not a hard landing, but one with authority.
At touchdown, back pressure should be maintained for aerodynamic braking. Maximum braking should be applied, but this can be easier said than done. Many pilots have seen the end of a runway approaching too rapidly for comfort and locked up their brakes. It’s important to know where this occurs, because locked or blown tires do not bring the airplane to a stop as quickly as an effective technique. Plus, it will save everyone money on replacement tires and brakes.
SHORT AND TO THE POINT
Short fields require additional risk mitigation strategies, and it is critical to stay proficient. Tighter margins for error mean operating the airplane within a tighter envelope. While this needs to be treated with the respect it deserves, it should not deter you. Flying in that tighter envelope not only improves airmanship, but it is also extremely rewarding. Visit your local small airport to find out why it is sometimes better to keep it short!
Ryan Motte is a Massachusetts-based Part 135 pilot, flight instructor and check airman. He moonlights as Director of Safety when he isn’t flying.