Control Thy Airspeed


Paul Bertorellis insightful analysis of the Cirrus accident involving Cory Lidle in the December issue highlighted the importance of speed control in maneuvering for obstacle clearance. While hopefully few of us will stumble into a box canyon of mountains or buildings, effective speed control is also important in a far more routine aspect of our daily flight approach to landing. This lesson was driven home to me several years ago during an IFR training flight in a rented Grumman Tiger.

On one poorly flown approach under the hood, my instructor said “Okay, youve got the runway: Land the airplane.” I pulled off the hood and, to my dismay, found I was way too high. I pushed the nose over when instructor barked: “Hold level flight and pull power to idle. I want you to slow to Vx (63 knots), add full flaps and hold that speed all the way to flare.”

I followed his orders with trepidation, as here I was pulling back on the yoke when it looked for sure like Id overshoot the runway. He watched me like a hawk to ensure that I was nailing Vx throughout the idle power descent. It was now looking like Id land about 3000 feet down the 4700-foot runway.

I had never landed anywhere near this far beyond the threshold but, with only normal braking, I reached taxiway speed with over 1000 feet of runway to spare.

In the post-flight debrief, my instructor reviewed the aerodynamics of descent angle and speed not normal topics in IFR training. His point was that in low IFR, I might find myself hot and high after breaking out. Rather than pushing the nose over a definite no-no or immediately committing to going around into what could be deteriorating conditions, he advised “slow down and re-evaluate the prospects for landing after establishing a Vx descent rate, compensating for gusts as necessary. Its a lesson Ive never forgotten.

A few months later, this same instructor gave a short-field landing lesson to another Tiger pilot with over 700 hours of logged time. Despite his experience, this pilot was concerned about flying to an airport the next day that he considered to be a short field 3012 feet. As it turned out, despite the lesson, this pilot wound up running off the end of the “short field” runway in good VFR conditions into a light breeze aligned with the runway. While the pilot was unharmed, the plane was totaled.

My suspicion is that this pilot, well aware of the club mantra to get the plane down on the first third of the runway, pulled power and pushed the nose over. The point is that by fixating on a landing point at the expense of airspeed, this pilot appears to have gotten into a high speed, unstabilized approach, with predictable consequences.

As its turned out, in many years of flying since my memorable lesson on airspeed control, Ive never had to touch down beyond the first third of a runway of any length. Proper airspeed control is critical for landings that truly are short-field, relative to your airplanes capabilities.


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