A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

March 2014 

THE BEAUTY IS IN THE LANDING

       Airplane watchers.  You can see them almost any Sunday afternoon, outside the airport security fence at the end of the active runway.  They bring lawn chairs, blankets, lunches, beverages, loud music, and their friends, and they congregate under the flight path of landing aircraft.  Many airports accommodate these people by constructing a quasi-park, or at least an open field.  Vancouver International  (YVR) has a great approach park on the east end of 08-26.  The fence is very close to the runway too.  Even better.   

       Yes, I’ve spent some time at various “approach parks”.  Seems even those who fly the planes like to watch ‘em.  Landings are always the best.  I’ve often sat in front of the hangar and spent the afternoon watching the student pilots in the circuit, practicing the endless touch-‘n-goes.  I’m always fascinated.

         The landing seems to be the part that determines the success or failure of a flight.  Determines whether it was a good day or a bad day.  Most pilots never comment on their ability to hold an altitude or heading, or navigate at low levels in the mountains.  But they’ll tell you about the smooth touchdown when they got to where they were going.  Everything else is foreplay.  The landing is the real thing, the big event. 

           Landing an airplane is more a work of art than a science.  And if that’s a true statement, then taildraggers and floatplanes are Academy Award nominees.  In my logbook there are a few hundred hours in tailwheel aircraft, some on pavement, mostly on gravel and grass.  There is also one ground loop noted, a harmless, low-speed affair when I let one get away from me in severe, gusting crosswinds.  And it wasn’t early in my career.  Experience means nothing to the airplane.  The taildragger is like a cannibal, just waiting for a chance to bite you. 

 

            The prettiest landings in my opinion, are on floats.  There’s a really active seaplane base in the Nanaimo, B.C. harbour where you can sit at a waterfront cafe and watch planes come and go all day.  Several companies, Harbour Air and West-Coast Air among them, routinely land and depart numerous times every hour.  I never tire of the show.   These pilots nurse their planes down, holding  just inches above the water until at just the right moment the floats ‘kiss’ the surface, they bring the power slowly back, and the plane skims, settles, and finally digs in as the nose comes up. 

            I don’t have much float time, but would be doing it again if the opportunity ever came up.  The instant the floats touch the water is always satisfying.  The feeling is like a gentle ‘tug’ on the airplane, rather than the ‘bump’ when wheels touch pavement.   The sea plane pilots tend to land on wheels using the same techniques as on floats.  They hold a slightly nose-high attitude, and control the descent with power.  With a lot of practice, they become true artists, painting the prettiest picture a plane watcher could ever see. 

            On a flight into a grass strip in the mountains one day, I used that approach.    As the wheels skimmed then delicately settled in the turf, the sensation was like landing on water.  Not even a bump, until about half way through the run-out and at nothing more than a high taxi speed, one wheel dropped into a depression around a gopher hole.  The effect on the plane was more of a deceleration than a jolt such as you’d feel on a hard landing.  Because ELT’s are designed to trigger on horizontal impact, the gopher hole was just enough to set mine off.  After congratulating myself on such a smooth landing, I couldn’t believe the ELT signal blaring in the headset was from my aircraft! 

            Flying an airplane never killed anybody.  It’s the landing that does it.  Some say any landing you walk away from is a good one.  No one who thinks about that statement would ever say it with conviction.  I’ve walked away from many, many landings that were bad ones.  They can’t all be good, but I never stop trying for perfection.   

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