Whether you’re a pre-solo student or an experienced pilot always flying the same airplane, getting a smooth landing every time can be a challenge. Unfortunately, landings are the yardstick by which many gauge our abilities as a pilot, so anything other than a smooth, picture-perfect return to terra firma is cause for discussion and grading.
According to the old saying, if there’s no damage, any landing is a good one. Great landings, on the other hand, have a few characteristics, among them is lack of a bounce or two. The thing is that a bounced landing usually has well-understood causes. Happily, there also are well-understood remedies.
Dropping It In
The primary cause of a bounced landing is flaring too high above the runway, perhaps with too much speed. In our ideal, perfect landing, the airplane will quit flying just inches above the runway. Instead, a bounce results when the flare occurs a few feet above it, and the airplane has the energy—resulting from excess altitude, excess airspeed or both—to rebound back into the air. In any event, a bounce results when the airplane isn’t finished flying.
Aside from the aesthetics, a bounced landing usually doesn’t do harm. Things can get way out of hand, though, when the pilot doesn’t properly respond to the bounce. Losing control on the runway while landing routinely results in the aeronautical equivalent of a fender-bender, however, and sometimes has worse consequences.
And it’s relatively easy to lose control after bouncing a landing if we don’t continue flying the airplane. The bounce itself imparts additional energy to the airplane as the landing gear struts or legs compress/bend and then return to their normal state. The airplane is forced back into the air at a low speed and power setting. If the pilot doesn’t react with a recovery or a go-around, things can get gnarly.
Proper recovery from a bounced landing requires a deft touch on the controls. All along, of course, we’re maintaining directional control with rudder and aileron. We use pitch and power to recover from the bounce and, hopefully, smooth out the next touchdown. Let’s talk about power first.
As we land a typical general aviation airplane—think piston single, like a Cessna 172—we usually pull the power to idle as we smoothly add back pressure to raise the nose and establish the landing attitude. A lot can go wrong here, including too much pitch or initiating the maneuver too far above the runway. When the bounce occurs, and the landing gear flexes enough to throw us back into the air, the pilot has a choice: go around or fix the problem. Either choice requires power.
The go-around itself is something you’ve likely practiced but from the flare or short final. Going around from a bounced landing is very similar, but first you have to regain control, perhaps with a bit of power and by lowering the nose. Once you’ve reestablished control, the go-around can proceed normally. To go around, of course, add full power, establish the correct pitch attitude and begin climbing away from the runway. You’ll need to manage flaps and other configuration details along the way.
Salvaging the landing after a bounce requires a bit more finesse. Instead of adding full power, you want just enough to establish level flight over the runway. This will depend, in part, on the pitch attitude, which must be managed at the same time. Pretty much by definition, if you’ve bounced, the pitch attitude was too high, so you may need to lower the nose to help establish that level attitude over the runway. Once the airplane’s altitude and attitude are more or less stable, you can gently reduce power and add some nose-up pitch to flare again and, hopefully, touch down as smoothly as you intended in the first place.
Putting in the fix
To fix routine bouncing, the pilot needs to get down closer to the runway while flaring and, perhaps, slow down a bit more. It’s not rocket science, but it can require some practice. The specific cure for your flavor of bounced landings depends on the cause, of course, so a second opinion from an experienced instructor or pilot-friend may be in order.
Flaring too high can have many causes, but usually results from a depth-perception problem: The pilot thinks the airplane is closer to the runway than it is. If this is the issue, a popular fix is for the pilot to approach the runway normally, but then fly a few feet above it without landing. The idea is to help the pilot establish the correct sight picture for when to flare and, hopefully, memorize it so it can be repeated.
Another cure might be to slowly and incrementally fly closer to the runway and more slowly—managing pitch and power—until the airplane touches down in the flare attitude. This kind of training or practice can require a longer runway than might be available, so you may need to go to a different airport.
The flare itself also may be a problem. Adding too much nose-up pitch in the flare too quickly usually results in ballooning, at least initially. Extreme cases of ballooning call for a go-around. Without some attempt to recover from an episode of ballooning, a hard landing likely will result, which may or may not involve a bounce. Damage is more likely to result, also, since the airplane essentially is out of control.
Depth perception can be a problem at night or in flat-light conditions. If your daytime landings are good but night landings are problematic, it’s likely some visual cue you depend on either isn’t available or is different in low-light conditions.
Good landings result from good approaches. But bounced landings can follow good approaches if we flare too high or let airspeed bleed off and get too low before we’re in a position to touch down.
And there are different degrees of bounced landings, with varying causes. A gentle rebound after an otherwise normal touchdown usually can be traced to too much speed, the fix for which is obvious. Meanwhile, a landing involving more than one bounce usually involves complicated reasons, perhaps including pilot-induced oscillation.
Ultimately, your goal is to make every landing the same: on-speed, on the centerline and with only one gentle touchdown per approach. If you’re bouncing your landings, there’s a cause and a cure.
Establish the desired flare attitude and slowly reduce power. Hold the flare attitude until touchdown.
Add enough power to slow the coming descent. Pitch only slightly nose-up.
Wham! The airplane touches down hard and rebounds.
The roundout begins. The bounce occurs when it ends too far above the runway.