by Jeb Burnside
The touch-and-go landing is about as ubiquitous as anything involved in flying a small fixed-wing aircraft. Pick just about any community airport on a soft summer evening and youll probably find someone out shooting touch and goes, either as part of structured training leading to a Private certificate, as practice or as something to do with an airplane. The maneuver is common and is used to maximize valuable training time-working in one landing and one takeoff for every lap around the traffic pattern without having to exit the runway and taxi back-but its not a substitute for either of those phases of flight. Instead, the touch and go is a wholly separate maneuver, one with its own set of rules and challenges and one that we sometimes cannot seem to get quite right. Indeed, we sometimes shouldnt be doing touch and goes at all.
For example, in June 2004 alone, the NTSB investigated six events leading to aircraft damage in which touch-and-go landings were mentioned. Two of them demonstrate the point that touch and goes are more complicated than just stringing together a landing with a takeoff.
In one instance, a Champion 7FC was substantially damaged shortly after takeoff from the Carmi (Ill.) Municipal Airport. The Private pilot reported in a written statement that he had completed three touch and goes in a normal manner. He stated that on the fourth touch-and-go landing, after the tail wheel had touched down, he applied full engine power for takeoff. Engine power seemed to fade while the airplane suddenly swerved to the right and went into the grass east of the runway. The right wing impacted the ground, twisting the fuselage and collapsing the landing gear. In addition to possibly suffering carb ice, the pilot may have applied the right heel brake, resulting in a loss of directional control.
In another instance, a Cessna 172 was also substantially damaged when it veered off the runway at the Madison County Airport in Meridianville, Ala. According to the Private pilot, on his second touch and go of the day, the airplane touched down smoothly. He stated that when he advanced the throttle to take off, the airplane began to turn left, and he responded by adding right rudder. The pilot stated that the airplane began to fish-tail, and he believes that he either overcompensated or undercompensated with the rudder. The airplane veered off the left side of the runway into the grass, collided with a ditch, and the nose wheel assembly was torn from the airframe.
Both of these events highlight the principal challenge posed by the touch-and-go maneuver: managing the immediate transition from a landing to a takeoff. Thankfully, neither pilot was seriously injured and the aircraft involved probably will fly again. But one couple apparently attempting a touch and go during the same month wasnt so lucky. The Cessna 172 they were flying was found crashed and inverted off the runway at the Monroe County Airport in Madisonville, Tenn., after announcing on the Unicom frequency their intent to perform a touch and go. Both died and the airplane was destroyed.
Put simply, the problem with the touch and go is our seeming inability to transition the airplane from a landing configuration to one appropriate for takeoff while maintaining control. It shouldnt be that hard-and most of the time it isnt-but people still find ways to grab the wrong control, direct their attention elsewhere or otherwise mismanage the transition from a landing to a takeoff while rolling down a runway.
The time spent rolling down the runway after touching and before going can be a very busy time. Even on the average, fixed-gear, fixed-pitch-prop airplane used for primary training, flaps need to be reconfigured, power must be managed and pitch trim set for takeoff. All the while, directional control has to be maintained, remaining runway evaluated and the airplanes configuration verified before liftoff. Thats a lot to do in the few seconds a typical touch-and-go operation spends on the runway and, as seen above, sometimes we dont do it all that well. Throw in a more complicated airplane-one with cowl flaps and a constant-speed prop, for instance-and the workload has doubled. Add retractable landing gear to the mix and the chances of making the NTSBs monthly whos who list go way up.
Stop The Madness!
It doesnt have to be that way. At most non-towered airports in the U.S., making a normal, full-stop landing followed by taxiing back to the departure end, performing a pre-takeoff check and beginning another takeoff roll adds only three or four minutes to the evolution. When dual instruction is being given, that extra time allows for critiquing the previous approach and landing, full discussion of the ensuing takeoff and a chance to verify the airplanes configuration before taking the active. Yes, the total number of takeoffs and landings available in an hour of dual instruction will be fewer, but the quality of the instruction might be higher.
The only real drawback to a full-stop landing and taxiing back for another takeoff is the wear and tear on the airplanes tires and brakes, replacement of which is much cheaper than a crunched wing or collapsed nosegear. Of course, the oft-demonstrated planting of the airplane on the pavement at too high a speed during a touch and go-usually as the pilot notices the runways end looming in the windscreen-can exact a greater toll on the airplane, its tires, brakes and landing gear than a normal, full-stop landing.
If dual instruction is being given, the real thing being taught is how to perform a touch and go. To be sure, many elements of a touch and go-including pattern work, airspeed control, the effects of airspeed and flaps on pitch trim, the landing flare, etc.-are also elements of normal full-stop landings. Not being learned or practiced is managing the landing rollout, exiting a runway, taxiing, performing a pre-takeoff checklist or maintaining directional control at low speed and high power settings during the ensuing takeoff. These skills are important ones and things a pilot must do well throughout his or her career. Touch and goes are rarely performed once a pilot progresses beyond primary instruction and begins using an airplane for transportation unless practice is the flights purpose.
According to Cessnas POH for a 1978 172N Skyhawk, the airplane needs 1250 feet to clear the proverbial 50-foot obstacle when being asked to perform a gross-weight short-field landing on a standard day at sea level with no wind. The maximum-brakes ground roll is some 520 feet-the rest of the distance is consumed getting the airplane over the obstacle and onto the runway. But, were not going to stop-were going to takeoff again. So, while well use less than the 1250 feet for the landing phase Cessna says well need to come to a complete stop, well need more than 520 feet. Lets split the difference and call it 730 feet of runway for the obstacle, flare and touchdown.
Now, estimate that well be on the runway for about 10 seconds while the electric flaps come up, we turn off carb heat, make sure all the big parts are still attached, reset the elevator trim, verify the airplanes configuration and add full power. During this time, lets say were rolling at an average of 50 knots. That means well consume 844 feet of runway in 10 seconds. Add that to the total.
For the takeoff and climbout under the same conditions as the landing, the POH says 1440 feet to clear the 50-foot tree, but only 655 feet of ground roll. Again, lets split the difference and use 785 feet as the estimated distance required to clear the obstacle once we break ground.
Add these three numbers (730 + 844 + 785) together and we get a grand total of 2359 feet required for a typical touch and go evolution in a Skyhawk. Yes, thats an estimate; no, we havent measured it; no, the POH doesnt have numbers for touch and go landings; yes, thats what our experience says is a minimum runway requirement to shoot touch and goes in a grossed-out 160-hp Skyhawk on a no-wind standard day at sea level. Remember, though, thats a minimum-pilot technique, a less-than-perfect engine, a dragging brake or a crosswind requiring drag-producing aileron input can change those numbers. It wouldnt hurt a thing to add 1000 feet to that requirement-perhaps more on a warm day-resulting in a minimum runway length of 3359 feet just to shoot touch and goes in a Skyhawk.
Not to beat a dead horse, but these same numbers show that a pilot shouldnt have too much trouble making a mid-field taxiway on that same runway. Especially if the pilot is rusty-why else would touch and goes be the days mission?-the safety margin of having some runway to use after landing is not a bad idea.
As the two events cited at the top of this article attest, maintaining directional control during a touch and go is a challenge for many pilots. The challenge arises because of the need to change rudder inputs as many as three times during the period from touchdown to liftoff. While a competent pilot should have no real trouble maintaining directional control, competent pilots usually arent the ones out shooting touch and goes. Theres nothing really difficult here-just remember what the airplane is going to want to do and when.
During the approach and landing flare, the airplane will tend to turn-weathervane-into the wind. Since little power is being used and little-to-no air is blowing over the tail, more rudder input opposite the wind than in other flight regimes will be necessary to maintain directional control.
On the runway, the control pressures change once again since the wheels friction helps keep the airplane aligned with the runway. If the nosewheel is connected to the rudder pedals, even less rudder than before will be needed once that training wheel is lowered to the ground.
All of this changes once full power is added for the takeoff. The transition from a power-off, wheels-on-the-ground configuration to one involving a combination of full power-resulting in increased slipstream over the tail, increased torque and P-factor-plus a change in runway friction as the nosewheel and then the mains come off the runway can mean a real challenge for anyone who doesnt readily understand the physics and aerodynamics of whats going on.
Failure to maintain directional control and selecting an inadequate runway are only two of the things that can go wrong with a touch and go. For example, I can personally attest that an older Cessna 150 climbs very poorly with 40 degrees of flaps on a hot summer day. Yanking the flap control to the UP position and trying to fly out of it only produces a sinking sensation. I can also state with great accuracy that a Bonanza-or a Skyhawk, for that matter-comes off the runway much sooner than planned when landing flaps remain extended. Similarly, a lot of nosedown elevator pressure is necessary to maintain a safe airspeed when one forgets to reset the pitch trim or the actuator in an older Pipers cabin roof is turned the wrong way because youre in a hurry. Forgetting to fully enrichen the mixture, close the carb heat control, open the cowl flaps or push the prop to high rpm are some other common mistakes made during the transition from a landing to a takeoff in the middle of a touch and go.
Understanding a combination of factors result in safely performing the touch-and-go landing. As the accident record suggests, however, many of us cant seem to find it.