How to land a plane

If you really wish to learn then you must mount the machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.
– Wilbur Wright

My last two lessons have consisted of takeoff and landing drills. We follow a set pattern of takeoff, climb (“upwind”), turn right (“crosswind”), parallel the runway (“downwind”), turn right (“base”), and land (“final”), over and over again. This is a bit like circling the block to practice parallel parking, except that it happens at 65 mph and you can die if you do it wrong.

It’s a bit difficult to articulate what is learned, intellectually, from these drills, because although the plane’s manual has recommended speeds for each stage of this pattern, my instructor discourages the obvious tendency to stare at the airspeed indicator and instead urges getting a “feel” for different plane attitudes and speeds, by repetition. In fact, this time he whipped out a round post-it note and used it to completely cover the airspeed indicator so that I couldn’t use it except when he allowed confirmatory peeks. :)

However, here is a summary of things you have to think about while flying this sort of practice pattern:

  • Attitude (pitch) of the airplane. Be especially mindful when banking (turning) and when adding/reducing flaps (both affect attitude and therefore airspeed and lift).
  • Airspeed. At these low speeds, bring the nose up to slow down and push the nose down to speed up.
  • Altitude. Get 500 ft above the ground before turning crosswind, level out at 1000 ft, then descend.
  • Glide path for landing. Use yoke (attitude) to manage airspeed (60-65 mph) and throttle to manage altitude (more power to come up, less power to come down). Judge your path visually by whether the runway numbers are sliding forward (you’re too low) or sliding back/under you (too high). There are also some handy approach slope indicator (ASI) lights that change color if you’re too high or too low, but this can be deceptive since it’s an instantaneous measure and the plane is moving. Vital for night landings, though, which I have yet to experience.
  • Spotting other planes. Also birds.
  • Communications. If the tower is talking to you, you should listen (and may need to reply). At first I didn’t hear our callsign at all when I was flying the plane, because I was too busy flying the plane. Now I hear it about 50% of the time. I guess this is a measure of cognitive load. :)

After several landings, my instructor apparently decided it was time for something new. While I was (am) not yet 100% satisfied with my performance, he started throwing curve balls and changing things, including:

  • Soft-field takeoff: Put on 10 degrees of flaps, pull the yoke all the way back, and lift off immediately, then fly low and level until you get enough speed to climb (because of ground effect, you need more speed to climb than to lift off). The start is basically like popping a wheelie in a plane, which feels a bit odd (but is quite like landing, actually). And flying low and level is (for me, right now) even more scary than landing the plane. When I push the nose down the amount my instructor says, it feels like we’re diving back down at the runway. I suppose this is an illusion and I’ll get over it.
  • Touch and go: We got all the way in and touched down and I was about to relax and start braking when my instructor said “Full throttle!” and we were taking off again. He retracted the flaps, and I pushed the throttle all the way in, pulled the carb heat off, and climbed back up into the sky, albeit not as smoothly as my regular takeoffs. Nerves.
  • Go around: Even worse. We got all the way in and were ABOUT to touch down (like 10 feet off the runway) when my instructor said “Full throttle!” and we were taking off again. So, full throttle and carb heat off. But for this one you have to slowly take the flaps off lest you suddenly lose too much lift and rejoin the ground (going way too fast and no longer set up for a landing). And while you’re slowly retracting the flaps, you have to constantly adjust your attitude and trim, keep an eye on the airspeed, watch where you’re climbing to, and be mindful of that turn coming up at 500 ft.
  • Left closed traffic: On our final takeoff, the tower instructed me to go left instead of right (presumably to avoid traffic). Every other takeoff was a right turn, so all of my landmarks were suddenly different, and the runway was on the other side, and it felt distinctly odd, but a good mental exercise. My instructor: “I didn’t even have to ask him to do that!”

On one of my landings, we had a small bounce, so it felt like landing twice. My instructor said it still only counts as one landing for my logbook, though.

On another landing, we ballooned — meaning I pulled up too much as we were coming in, so instead of leveling out, we started going back up. This sounds like no big deal, since you can always go back down (up is harder), but apparently it can be quite dangerous. You have to relax your pull on the yoke (to let the nose settle back down) but then pull even harder to get it back into a nose-up flare position before you touch down. Since more time has elapsed, you’ve lost more speed, so the plane will descend faster. There’s also a chance that the balloon could turn into a stall (if you slow enough and the nose is up) while you’re still a bit high from the runway, also causing a rough landing. If the balloon is too great, you should convert to a go-around. You have to make a split-second decision on this one (like if you’re approaching an intersection and the green light turns yellow and you decide whether to slow and stop or keep going, but rather higher stakes).

For my next lesson, we’re going to go somewhere! We will fly to a different airport, so I can try an entirely new environment, landmarks, etc.

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I knew this already. I learned something new!