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08/08 - Tips on Takeoffs, Landings, and the Traffic Pattern

By Steve Krog

Most students feel that mastering takeoffs and landings is the most important part of learning to fly. However, before good takeoffs and landings can be made, a student must first learn how to correctly maneuver the airplane. Then, and only then, will the student be able to make consistently good takeoffs and landings. This month we’ll take a look at both the procedures and common errors beginning students frequently make.

Many of the training aircraft used today are equipped with a tricycle gear (nose wheel). But with the introduction of the Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) category, many tail wheel (conventional gear) airplanes qualify and have been brought back into service for flight training. We’ll look at both types as we analyze the procedures and common errors pertaining to the takeoff, traffic pattern, and landing.

Take-Offs

Tricycle Gear

The takeoff and initial climb-out are one constant maneuver. But let’s look at them in each of three steps: takeoff roll, liftoff and climb-out. First we want to align ourselves with the centerline of the runway in preparation for takeoff. Pick an object at the far end of the field if taking off on a turf runway and keep the airplane aligned with the object.

Now, take a deep, relaxing breath. Loosen your grip on the control yoke and throttle. Neither will go anywhere other than where you want them to go, so you don’t need to choke them to death. (It’s almost as though I can feel a student’s pulse through my control yoke when one puts a “death grip” the other yoke.) Relax; you’ll fly better and be much smoother on the controls if you have a light grip.

To get the airplane rolling, begin applying power in a smooth, continuous motion. Then continue advancing the throttle to full power. I like to have students count three to four seconds from idle to full power. Don’t slam it to the throttle stop. First, that’s very hard on the engine and second, the engine torque and propeller “P” factor created will yaw the airplane sharply to the left, pointing you in a direction you don’t want to go (and raising your instructor’s pulse rate to equal yours!).

Keep the elevator in a neutral position (Figure A below). As ground speed increases you’ll feel the pressure on the elevator and control yoke. With speed building, begin applying light backpressure. You will feel the nose pitch slightly upward giving you a good positive angle of attack for takeoff. The nosewheel then lifts off the runway. (Figure B below). Be ready to apply a slight bit of right rudder at this point to keep the airplane aligned with the centerline overcoming the torque and “P” factor. When the airplane is moving fast enough to generate the required lift, we have lift-off.

Oftentimes students get anxious and begin pushing the control yoke forward on takeoff, trying to keep the airplane on the ground. This not only puts a lot of weight on the nosewheel but it also delays lift-off. If you are holding the airplane’s attitude in a neutral or even negative angle of attack, little or no lift is generated. In this case a 10,000-foot runway won’t help. You can “drive” your airplane into the next county and it won’t leave the ground.

This is also a common mistake of students who become fixated on the airspeed indicator. Rather than keeping eyes on the runway in front and “feeling” the airplane, the student will stare at the airspeed. When approaching 60 mph, they pull on the yoke causing the airplane to awkwardly leap in the air. Remember, the instruments lag behind the aircraft by two or three seconds. When indicating 60 mph during the take-off roll, you’re already traveling at 65-70 mph.

Students are sometimes a bit shy about applying backpressure for fear of raising the nose too high and hitting the tail on the runway. This prolongs the time and distance on the runway. The way to overcome this is through repetitions and developing a feel on the control yoke.

Once in the air most students will continue to pull on the yoke raising the nose too high for a comfortable safe climb. After lift-off, relax the backpressure slightly allowing the nose to drop just a bit to build your airspeed. Then, ease the nose up to the best rate of climb speed and continue your climb out.

Tailwheel/Conventional Gear

The first step in a tailwheel airplane takeoff is to align yourself with the runway centerline. Once positioned, you’ll note that forward visibility is all but gone and you must use the “line of sight” method discussed in the last issue. With the control stick all the way back, begin slowly applying power to get the airplane rolling, then advance the throttle to full power over a three to four second period. Unlike the tricycle gear airplane, there are two times during a tailwheel takeoff where you need to be on your toes and tap the right rudder—when applying full power and again when the tail lifts off the ground. Engine torque and propeller “P” factor are prominent at both points during the takeoff.

When reaching full power begin easing the control stick forward, allowing the tail to come off the ground. With a bit of practice you’ll quickly feel the pressure on the control stick, which is telling you the tail control surfaces are effective, and then begin raising the tail.

There are two common mistakes made at this point. The first is lack of maintaining directional control by not anticipating the effects of torque and “P” factor. The second is raising the tail too high. Be constantly alert and prepared to tap on the rudder pedals as necessary to maintain good directional control. Raising the tail too high establishes a neutral or negative angle of attack. As mentioned in the tricycle gear take-off, you can drive the airplane to the next county in this attitude and it will not leave the ground.

Ideally, we lift the tail off the ground but continue keeping it in a tail low attitude maximizing our angle of attack. If we establish a good positive angle of attack, the airplane will literally fly itself off the ground when the wings generate enough lift.

Once we have lift-off we need to be conscientious about lowering the nose, slightly allowing airspeed to build to the best rate of climb speed. Then continue the climb out.

Traffic Pattern

Challenges encountered when flying the traffic pattern are the same for both the tricycle- and tail wheel-equipped airplanes. Three key points can be identified as causes of landing problems for students and high-time pilots alike.

The first key point is lack of maintaining a constant altitude on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. Letting the altitude vary by two or three hundred feet on downwind doesn’t seem like much until you are on a short final approach. You’ll either be much too high or dangerously low. Both situations require a quick fix, oftentimes requiring a “go around” and a second attempt to land!

Allowing your ground track to vary causes another problem. We must strive to fly parallel to the runway at a constant distance of about one-quarter mile on every downwind leg of the pattern. Letting our ground track vary will cause us to be either too close or too far away from the runway. If we’re too close, our altitude will be too high and we’ll most likely overshoot the runway creating a potential serious problem. Should we be too far away, we’ll again find ourselves not having enough altitude to arrive at the runway safely without adding a significant amount of power.

Inconsistent turns from the downwind to the base leg of the pattern will also create landing problems. Turn too soon and excess altitude must be dealt with while turning too late creates an approach with too little altitude.

Remember this. The more things that can be made and kept constant in the traffic pattern, the fewer things we’ll have to “fix” on short final!

When working with students in the traffic pattern I’ll often challenge them to a contest. I’ll tell them I can determine if their next landing will be good or bad when we reach midpoint of the downwind leg. The looks I get are amusing. However, I’m right more than 90 percent of the time. I base my decision on the student’s attention to correct consistent pattern altitude and ground track. If either or both vary each time, the final approach will require numerous adjustments in altitude and alignment with the runway, usually ending in a landing that is less than satisfactory.

Landings

The approach to land is nearly identical for both the tricycle and the tailwheel-configured airplane. When analyzing landing problems, differences only begin occurring during the flare before touch down.

Tricycle

Most but not all tricycle-configured aircraft allow for maintaining forward visibility throughout the descent, level off, flare, and touch down. Two mistakes frequently occur in the early phase of learning landings: Fixating or staring at the airspeed indicator, and trying to look at the runway too close to the airplane. Both errors result in the same bounced landing. Why? Because we’ve either lost sight of the runway or we’ve lost our depth perception. Concentrate on looking down the runway well forward of the airplane. Your eyes and mind will do the rest. Try to hold the airplane off the ground as long as you can and touch down at stall speed.

Once on the ground, continue with “follow through” on the yoke, keeping the nose wheel off the ground (in normal wind conditions) until the elevator is no longer effective. This saves much wear and tear on the nose wheel as well as the brakes.

When you next visit your local airport, analyze the landings that are being made. Is the pilot making a smooth touch down, keeping the nose wheel off the ground? Or is the pilot “driving” the airplane onto the runway with all three tires squealing torturously? Or even worse, has the pilot forced the airplane to the runway much too fast and is frantically trying to get it slowed by pushing forward on the stick while locking the brakes? If you’ve watched many landings you’ll see this landing. The nose wheel is in contact with the runway but both main wheels are off the ground. Commonly referred to as a wheelbarrow landing, it is very hard on the airplane and extremely hard on your flight instructor!

Tailwheel/Conventional Gear

As mentioned above, the approach and the level off (approximately 15 feet above the runway) are the same in either the tricycle or tailwheel airplane. But now things begin to differ. When the flare is initiated you’ll soon see why—the runway seems to disappear! This phase of the landing is probably the toughest for new tailwheel students because it requires a line of sight transition from looking over the nose to looking to the side and forward of the airplane. Once mastered, it becomes quite natural though. Two mistakes are most common at this point of the landing: looking at the runway too close to the airplane or, attempting to look over the nose losing sight of the runway. Either mistake will usually end in a bouncy landing because you have no depth perception in either situation.

When I begin teaching takeoffs and landings in a tailwheel airplane, I first have the student position the airplane on the centerline of the runway and then have them look at the runway lights. Now, move your line of sight forward until you are looking at the light that is two lights forward of the airplane. This is the approximate distance forward of the airplane where your eyes should focus. Continue to look forward of the airplane at this approximate distance throughout the landing. Again, your eyes and mind will help with depth perception. Continue increasing backpressure on the control stick, slowing both your airspeed and your rate of descent until the airplane smoothly touches down on the runway at stall speed.

Stay forward-focused on the edge of the runway to maintain directional control, tapping on the rudder pedals as needed to keep the airplane tracking a straight line down the runway. Never allow the stick pressure to be relaxed. Should you allow the stick to move forward, the tail may again become airborne making directional control a bit more challenging. Always keep the stick in the full aft position until the airplane has come nearly to a stop. Only then can the backpressure be relaxed.

Summary

Practicing the tips outlined in this article will help you master takeoffs, landings, and the traffic pattern like an experienced pilot regardless of the type of aircraft you are using to learn to fly. Takeoffs and landings require many repetitions before reaching proficiency, so don’t get discouraged. With concentration and practice you’ll soon have them mastered.

Next Issue

Tackling crosswind takeoffs and landings.

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