Landings Gone Bad

When fishing for the pavement, pilots keep bending and breaking airplanes for the same reasons. Heres what you can do about it.


by Paul Berge

If you arrived at your local airport after a two-week absence to find 56 airplanes on the ramp damaged, many substantially so, and all the vandalism caused by human, not natural, causes youd be furious. Youd call 911 to get the FBI to catch the bums who did it. Youd demand better airport security and, mostly, immediate answers.

Put the phone away; the culprit is us-pilots. In a two-week period, selected at random in April of this year, 101 aircraft crashed (all types). Of those accidents/incidents, 56 were GA landing events, meaning 56 general aviation pilots somehow fumbled the critical phase of flight when air travel ends and ground transportation begins. In other words, in the short span of 14 days, 56 pilots unnecessarily broke their airplanes. Sadly, all pilots share the costs of rebuilding or replacing those airplanes through hiked insurance premiums. So, pilots need to examine their landing techniques and stop breaking airplanes. Its just stupid.

Statistically, general aviation accident rates have leveled off; were not crashing more. Thats thin good news at best because we can do better. The NTSB released statistics for 2001 and using our wide-angle analysis, we see that almost 1500 GA fixed-wing airplanes crashed that year. Thats four every day. Takeoff-and-landing accidents accounted for 58 percent of that category and tallied the most fatalities. Of those, the lions share were on takeoff or maneuvering: Only 37 percent of all single-engine, fixed-gear accidents were in the landing phase, of which one was fatal. Twenty-nine percent of single-engine retractable airplane accidents were in the landing phase, of which none were fatal. And multi-engines had 34 percent of their accidents in the landing phase, with one fatal.

Theres no way to stop the boneheads who fly VFR into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) or pack four fat adults into a Cherokee and drive off the runways end at Leadville, Colo., on a summer afternoon. Darwin culls out the never-shoulda-been flyers but, unfortunately, passengers get clobbered in the process. Try as the aviation safety community might, those pilots persist.

While youre not in that category, every pilot is vulnerable to the constant threat of bad landings. Private pilots are statistically most vulnerable, although commercial pilots more than claim their share of crunches. Ninety-six of 2001s landing accidents occurred with a CFI onboard.

To begin the healing process, lets analyze the 56 ground incidents in our snapshot, two-week time period and then consider several landing scenarios so you can privately rate your own technique. There will be a test on your next flight. Taxi accidents are excluded, and I wont waste time explaining the legal differences between accidents and incidents. In all these events, no one was killed and only a few minor injuries occurred-although 56 egos were seriously deflated.

The Numbers
The 56 bad-landing events are subdivided into: Gear-up (8), Main gear collapsed (7), Nosewheel collapsed (6), Hard landing (4), Overshot runway (1), Undershot runway (1), Ground looped (3), and the most popular-LDC, or lost directional control (21). Five bad landings fell into either Emergency or Not-My-Fault categories. Of those: A Glasair couldnt get a gear leg down, so it slid off a Florida runway. A Grumman Traveler was blown over by a jet. A Cessna 175 lost power, landed in a field and flipped. A Musketeer clipped trees on final when the pilot claimed that hed hit wind shear, and then flopped onto, and subsequently slid off, the runway. And a Piper Arrow had an alternator problem on final and landed gear up. Well give them all the eyebrow-raising benefit of the doubt-not their faults-but that leaves 51 non-emergency landing flubs.

If you fly retracts, youre vulnerable to gear-up landings. Running a verbal GUMP (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop/Pump) checklist when entering the pattern and again on final-My gear is down; Im cleared to land-can mitigate this threat. However, stress can shut down a pilots brain in a wink, as evidenced when I was giving a BFR to a highly experienced retract owner who suddenly went mad and brought the gear up (yes, up) on final approach. The BFR stress flipped his thinking and we went around. Gear horns and automatic gear extension systems should but dont eliminate this threat.

Over-and-undershot runway accidents are the product of poor planning, complete misunderstanding of the traffic pattern and gross lack of familiarity with the airplanes glide ability. Ten-thousand-foot-long runways solve some of this but both of our under-and-over-shoot participants were in single-engine airplanes that shouldve done well on far less pavement. Note: A poor a pattern makes for a poor landing. If you havent squared away the approach, your landing will probably stink.

The remaining categories-main gear collapse, nose wheel collapse, ground loop, and hard landing-might be lumped together as LDC where the pilot, for whatever reason, just wasnt flying the airplane as it touched down and rolled out. Some of the gear collapse issues possibly could be attributed to defective airframe components, but the 2001 stats dont automatically support this. Fifteen percent of all 2001 accidents were blamed on mechanical problems and most of those were in the engine or prop; 22 percent were related to landing gear or brakes. Rental/training airplanes are pounded to near destruction with multiple hard landings, so one unlucky customer will eventually feel the legs fold. A knowledgeable preflight and proper owner maintenance might solve some of that. But, more to the point, why are pilots mashing the delicate landing gear at all? Because pilots quit flying before t he airplane gets to the tie-down spot, thats why.

Bad Landing Attitudes
Two bad landing themes regularly emerge on otherwise passable flight reviews: Sideload and nose-drop. When an airplane is landed sideways-assuming its doesnt have Ercoupe-style, crosswind landing gear-tires squeal as the gear legs try to rip from their mounts. When a tricycle-gear airplane lands in a flat attitude, the nose wheel often thumps first with terrific force and predicable results: it breaks or bends.

Ask yourself: How many wheels in the landing gear on a standard Cherokee, Bonanza, Cessna 150, or similar GA airplane? Answer: Two. There are two wheels in the landing gear because the nose wheel simply keeps the prop from hitting the pavement; you shouldnt land on the nose wheel, although six pilots in our group-two in twins-smacked off their noses. Yes, the nose gear can collapse from mechanical reasons, particularly in a retract, but its rare without abuse. More often pilots dont flare properly in those last few feet of the approach or, worse, after the mains touch, they relax backpressure on the yoke and the nose drops like the heavy weight that it is. Proper trim control can minimize some of this flat-landing tendency.

Judging that moment of contact with the ground causes endless angst. Its common to see a tricycle-gear airplane touch slightly nose-first, bounce, and then touch again only to achieve an even hairier bounce. After the second bounce, the smart pilot adds full power and goes around to rethink the approach. Misguided pilots doggedly go for the third dive at the ground and a good percentage of them wind up breaking airplanes.

When you land nose-hard, the airplane reacts with a bounce-the nose rises, tail falls, and you gain altitude. Each porpoising cycle causes higher altitude gains followed harder impact. Take this to the bank: Bounce once and, given enough runway, you can usually reestablish the proper flair, perhaps with a touch of power to land smoothly. After two bounces, go around because the third bounce will jar your dentures loose as the nosewheel gets knocked askew. When I was a controller in the Monterey, Calif., tower in the 1980s, I saw a Musketeer bounce twice and on the third stall-mush it flopped to the ground, slid, and burst into flames. The student escaped, but the Musketeer was toast.

Tailwheel airplanes can porpoise, too, but without a nosewheel they bounce down the runway like wayward Ping-Pong balls until the pilot either loses directional control and ground loops (an un-planned, 360-degree turn on the ground), or noses over, striking the propeller. Either option breaks airplanes. Properly timing the flare prevents it.

Side loads are primarily a foot problem. In fact, many landing accidents are caused by improper footwork when pilots just dont add the proper amount of rudder as the wheels touch the earth. Or, as with nose-heavy landings, the airplane may touch properly aligned and then the pilot relaxes foot pressure and the airplane veers into the weeds. Likewise, a pilot may land nicely aligned with the centerline only to get overly aggressive on the rudders and swerve. Once the swerve begins, unnatural side forces strain the tires, wheels and gear legs. Do it often enough and parts fail. Chase swerves with brakes and things snap faster.

Beginner tailwheel pilots tremble in fear of the dreaded ground loop and rightfully so. Groundloops, while rarely injurious to humans, regularly mangle wingtips and prop blades. Tailwheel airplanes are prone to the ground loop for a couple of reasons. The center of gravity (CG) is located behind the mains and acts like a pendulum when the airplane turns; turn fast enough and the weight at the end of the arm swings the tail. As the tail arcs, the outboard wing gains speed and produces lift causing the airplane to bank while spinning. As one wing goes up the other goes down until it smacks and grinds against the pavement. With the CG aft of the mains the taildragger acts like a weather vane in a crosswind, and a healthy gust on the tail sends the nose swerving in the opposite direction. If your feet are dead on the floor, youre going for a short, circular ride.

Trust me, having ridden through two ground loops-neither causing damage-theyre exciting and humbling and you have no need to experience one. Nor are you immune from the ground loop by flying tricycle-gear airplanes. A Piper Tri-Pacer (older, four-seat, trike) performed one of the ground loops in our study. Generally, though, ground loops are reserved for tailwheelin fun.

Crosswinds and No Winds
While loss of directional control (LDC) would seemingly occur more often in strong crosswinds, they can, and do, happen in calm-wind environments (17 percent of 2001 landing accidents were attributed to wind). Again, dead feet are usually the culprit. The solution is to treat every landing as a potential crosswind landing and apply this simple technique: If theres any crosswind your nose should be pointed into the wind as the aircraft crabs on final. This gives coordinated flight and a straight track across the ground, but you cant land in a crab attitude or youll sideload the gear. You must align the airplanes longitudinal axis with the runway centerline, so press the downwind rudder to yaw the nose until it points straight down the runway. To prevent drifting downwind of the runway, lower the upwind wing into the breeze. The proper combination of aileron and opposite rudder in a gentle slip guarantees perfect runway alignment resulting and no-sideload landings.

Before you pat yourself on the back and veer off the runway, remember that landing is a three-dimensional maneuver. You must not only align the wheels with the runway but also simultaneously increase and hold pitch to prevent the embarrassing nosewheel-first approach that leads to broken parts or wheelbarrow swerves into the runway lights.

Although not recommended by any sensible manufacturer (except older Ercoupes, which have no independent rudder controls and make thoroughly crappy crosswind landings), many tricycle-gear airplanes can be landed in a crab. The tricycle airplane painfully straightens itself out leaving the nave pilot to believe that the landing was a real greaser. Taildraggers arent so forgiving (see sidebar).

Everybodys Doin It
Almost every category of GA airplane made an appearance in our sweep through the landing accidents in this two-week period. Warbirds, high-performance singles, twins, antiques and more than a few homebuilts made the cut. No type is immune.

Some of the events may have been as simple as misjudging distance to the runways edge and dropping a tire into the mud. But that only points out how integral judgment is in any landing. By nature, the landing phase is highly dynamic with shifting winds, conflicting traffic, ATC distractions, IFR or VFR cockpit chores and annoying passengers. Regardless of how many outside influences can be blamed later, or how complex the airplane, airspace, or instrument approach might be, the success of the flight comes down to how well one pilot puts it all together in the last few seconds of the trip. And this requires the heads-up pilot to think way ahead of those critical few seconds.

An old crop duster pilot I once met for a BFR told me to plan every landing before I do my takeoff. He meant that you should know enough about your destinations weather, runway, and traffic situation to think through the destination landing before ever departing. Great advice, although one of the LDC accidents in our study was by a crop duster who veered on landing and hit a parked vehicle-probably his swampers-proving that even the best pilots who fly every day, all day can dork up a landing. How many have I screwed up? I aint saying and Ive stopped counting because no one is immune.

Short of not taking off theres no guarantee that you wont break something on landing. Train, review, and self-criticize to lesson your chances, but most of all, use every faculty you have to land. If your feet have been asleep on the floorboards, shake em awake and start making better landings because you really should get miffed is someone vandalizes your airplane, especially if its you.

Also With This Article
“What Taildraggers Teach Us”
“Crab and Kick, Slip on Final, Combination”

-Paul Berge is a CFII and freelance writer and editor. He owns a Champion based in Indianola, Iowa.


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