Touchdown!

(A not-so-serious look at the art of landing…)

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about the elderly lady, while disembarking the aircraft asking the captain: “So, sonny, were we shot down or did we crash?”

While everyone wishes for a whistle-smooth touchdown, landing an aircraft is not always guaranteed to turn out like that! All pilots have endured comments from passengers (and sometimes from fellow crewmembers), not always full of admiration or accompanied by applause….

Some comments from passengers can become interesting – especially from the FlightSim boffins, who seem to believe that “flying” a Microsoft aircraft on your desktop would qualify you as an airline captain!

A couple of years ago James May wrote a book called “How to Land an A330 Airbus: And Other Vital Skills for the Modern Man” – I did read it, but was not left much the wiser for it. (It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, though).

Should you be one of the interested parties asking whether such a FlightSim expert, or reader of May’s book could land an airliner – the answer is no.
This book- or internet-trained novice would probably get it on the ground, but it certainly wouldn’t be pretty…

The bottom line is that, once airborne, the pilot’s primary task is to land the aircraft – hopefully on time, hopefully at the intended destination and hopefully in one piece. As the saying goes – taking off is optional, while landing is mandatory. Or, you should try to keep your number of landings equal to your take-offs… (Apparently this is due to an adaptation of one of Newton’s laws).

And this is where the black art of landing requires lots of training, but above all, lots of experience.

No two landings are exactly the same. Conditions differ – temperatures, wind directions and -speeds, precipitation, airport elevations, runway conditions, aircraft weights, ATC instructions – these are only a few of the many variable factors differing from one landing to the next.

Different aircraft also call for different techniques. During ab-initio training pilots are all taught where to look, how to control speed and attitude to achieve that smooth return to terra firma – but we all soon learn that while the basics do apply, aircraft can be fickle and devious!

Taildraggers differ from tricycle-gear aircraft, props and jets are different, even variants of the same type can differ.

Way back when I was still flying Pitts Specials, we used to joke that if you saw the runway, you knew you were off it. (Our aerobatic base did have a very narrow runway – but the Pitts is a very short-coupled tail-dragger with a narrow undercarriage, and once in the three-point attitude all foward vision disappears).

Highly modified, very capable, tricky to land – my old S-1S.

Similarly, although the B737 Classics and NG aircraft are all recognised as 737’s – they actually differ enough to require slightly different techniques for landing. For the new Max-8 Boeing even had to introduce software to change the “feel” of the aircaft to approximate that of a -800 on approach and during landing.

Mastering all of these techniques to the point where it becomes pure muscle memory is probably the Holy Grail for pilots. Any honest pilot will attest to the fact that a series of textbook landings (sometimes for weeks on end), will inevitably end with a rather forgettable arrival at some stage.

And while pilots would rather forget that one indiscretion – that would be the one to stick in passengers’ collective memory!

(I have only discussed fixed-wing landings so far – helicopters are sufficiently different to warrant a separate article!)

In Hollywood you’re only as good as your last movie – somehow it would appear that it could hold true for pilots as well: You’re only as good as your last landing!

(From 47 Years in Aviation, by Richard L. Taylor)

 

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