By Steve Krog, EAA 173799
This piece originally ran in Steve’s Classic Instructor column in the April 2023 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.
Landing accidents and incidents continue to lead in all flight categories. Why is that? In a previous article, I outlined 10 steps in preparation for a good landing beginning with a review of details before ever making the takeoff for the day’s flight.
Two key words come to mind when analyzing why these situations continue — complacency and distractions. Complacency presents itself in many forms. For example, two years ago you flew more than 50 hours and were quite proficient. Every landing was exactly on the runway centerline and remained there throughout the landing and rollout. One year later, you flew a little less, and many of your landings were regularly left of the centerline. In your mind, that seemed good enough, and you accepted these landings. That is complacency.
One week ago, you decided to make a pleasure flight, perhaps the first of the new flying season, at least in the upper Midwest. Your first landing introduced you to the runway lights on the left side of the runway. How could that happen? After all, you were able to remain on the runway last year. Complacency reared its ugly head and has now caused some grief, hopefully only on a minor scale. Had you been more critical of your flying performance rather than having a “good enough” attitude, this incident may never have happened.
Complacency also shows up when preparing for a flight. It’s a beautiful day, the first in several months, and you decide to make a quick flight. Time is limited so you do a short preflight. The left main tire appears to be a tiny bit low, but it should be okay. You’ll come back to the airport Saturday and ensure tire pressures are proper for the season. After a 30-minute flight you return to the airport, line up to land, and upon touchdown your airplane pulls really hard to the left. Now stopped, you ask yourself what just happened. Exiting the airplane, which still remains on the runway, you see that the left main tire is flat. The tire turned on the rim, shearing the tube valve stem off. Complacency has again reared its head creating a problem for you. Rather than accepting a good enough attitude and causing the flat tire, five more minutes of preflight effort would have prevented the situation.
I’ve seen complacency demonstrated in another situation that many of us have experienced. Again, you decide to take a quick, relaxing pleasure flight. It has been a really tough day at work, and all you want to do is get in your airplane and enjoy a good blood pressure reducing flight.
You get to the hangar, open the door, check oil and fuel levels, and crank up for the short flight. The weather looked good upon arrival at the airport, so you don’t check it further. Shortly after you launch, the big puffy white clouds quickly turn gray. There is a big cell heading for the airport.
En route back for a landing, the windsock is blowing in all different directions. It’s hard to determine which runway to use. The landing is made without incident but is less than perfect. There is no damage to anything other than your ego. You hope no one was watching. Complacency again created a situation that could have been prevented had you taken a minute or two and checked the weather.
Distractions can also be the cause of an accident or incident. How many times have you taken friends for an airplane ride? These friends generally fall into two categories: nonstop chatters or quiet souls sitting in awe of experiencing the world in a 3D environment. The chatters draw your attention away from details and procedures for pattern entry and landing. “What’s this do?” “Can I touch that button?” “Did you see those geese?” “The buildings look so small — especially that big barn. Can you see it?” If you have given many rides, you have experienced this situation.
Today, the FAA requires that instructors teach student pilots how to deal with passenger distractions. Sometime during your FAA checkride, the examiner will start a conversation to see how you handle distractions. I once had a student who was asked a series of nonrelated questions by the examiner while taking a checkride. He told the examiner to “SHUT UP” so he could land the airplane. During the post-exam critique, the examiner laughed, stating that is exactly what he wanted to hear from the student.
Other aircraft can also be distracting. After you enter the pattern, another pilot also announces pattern entry. Where is this other aircraft? Is it behind, in front of, above, or below you? While putting your head on a swivel trying to make visual contact with the other aircraft, several items on the prelanding checklist are overlooked.
A student of mine recently experienced a situation that created a lot of confusion. The student announced being on crosswind and turning to downwind while another aircraft announced 3 miles west and entering downwind. The student continued the downwind leg while searching for the other aircraft when it appeared inside and descending below the student’s flight path. Then it proceeded to extend beyond the runway, finally turning onto the final approach. Once on the ground, rather than turning onto the taxiway, it continued taxiing on the runway. Thankfully, the student remained focused and decided the best thing to do was go around because she was uncertain what the individual was doing.
Traffic in front of you can create a distraction, especially if it is flying a pattern much different than the norm. An aircraft is flying an extended downwind leg and appears to be somewhat slower than you. Now what? While determining your plan of action, you can easily be distracted and miss something vital on the prelanding checklist, like lowering the gear. I’ve flown with students in similar situations without experience or focus. They lose track of what they are doing. Not correcting for the wind, allowing significant altitude changes, and airspeed fluctuations are created by sometimes simple distractions.
Similarly, I’ve observed both students and certificated pilots become distracted because another aircraft is following behind in the traffic pattern. Attempting to establish visual contact can lead to rushing the approach and landing, leading to a less than safe landing.
Here at the Hartford airport, we have a lot of gliders, powered parachutes, and ultralights using the runways and the immediate surrounding area. A pilot can easily become distracted dealing with this situation, especially because the other aircraft are flying a different traffic pattern at a different altitude. Thankfully the folks who fly here regularly know where to look and generally do a great job of communicating. Sure, it leads to go-arounds once in a while, but that is all part of remaining proficient and learning not to become distracted.
The Hartford airport has a lot of well-maintained turf on and near the runways. And we also have a 2,000-foot-by-200-foot turf runway. Ground crews are regularly maintaining the runway and surroundings. This can become confusing because of the intersecting runways. One may find a tractor/mower operating near the edge of the hard surface runway. If not accustomed to this surface activity, a pilot can easily become distracted. This distraction can lead to focusing on the tractor and not the runway. Our ground crew team members remain alert, and when an aircraft enters the traffic pattern, they move away from the runway being used for the landing. It is a great working relationship.
Surrounding obstructions and runway surface conditions can also lead to an unsuccessful landing. Surface crosswinds blowing over and around a row of hangars can create a lot of unstable burbling air just about the time you begin to flare. I’ve mentioned in previous articles and stress to my students the need to read the topography on and near an airport that you are using. Tree lines, slight knolls, hangars, and nearby buildings can create significant changes in surface airflow. Do not become complacent or allow yourself to be distracted by sudden changes in surface winds.
A stable approach aligned with the runway centerline will lead to a smooth safe landing. Establish the proper nose attitude, trim, and power setting needed for a stable approach at the proper airspeed for the aircraft you are flying. Remain focused on what you are doing and not on what might be taking place around you.
I continue to tell every student to never be satisfied with each flight made. A good pilot will always be their own toughest critic.
Steve Krog, EAA 173799, has been flying for more than four decades and giving tailwheel instruction for nearly as long. In 2006, he launched Cub Air Flight, a flight training school using tailwheel aircraft for all primary training.