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Short Field Landings: Manage Your Energy

Accident records show that airports with short runways -- less than 2500 feet -- can present some real challenges to pilots of high-performance aircraft.Accident records show that airports with short runways -- less than 2500 feet -- can present some real challenges to pilots of high-performance aircraft. The biggest challenge is to make sure you have your plane set up properly on final, so that you have the right energy levels to safely fly the plane and, more importantly, to land it.

THE SETUP -- Our pilot is coming back from dinner, with a full load of passengers in his Saratoga. They had feasted and were feeling a nice digestive buzz as he entered the pattern at his home airport, which featured a runway of little more than 2397 feet in length. Our pilot flew his standard pattern, but for some reason on final, he was coming in a little hotter than normal...

DECISIONS: IN THE AIR VS. ON THE RUNWAY
Rather than going around, our pilot elected to continue with the approach. The Saratoga touched down, and seeing the end of the runway approaching, our pilot quickly reduced power and got on the brakes ... a little too hard. His right main locked up from the pressure and started to howl as it skidded down the runway towards the end. (By the way, sliding friction is less than standing friction -- a skidding tire presents less drag than one that is under heavy braking, but still rolling.)

BOOM!
(A skidding tire also gets hot in a hurry.) The left main also locked up and skidded for only a few hundred feet on the asphalt, before the tire, the casing, and finally the tube was worn through. The left main blew. Fortunately for our pilot, the plane was slowed down enough that this became an inconvenience rather than an instant ground loop.

SETTING THE CLOCK BACK, PLUS 10 KNOTS
If our pilot had come in even hotter, more of the runway would have passed underneath him before he touched down. The urge to press on the brakes would have been there as well, only this time, the tire would have blown with even more energy still in the airframe. The results of this excess energy are devastating: the aircraft has a high probability of losing control, exiting the runway and entering a damaging ground loop. Damage from such an excursion will produce several months of downtime on the plane for repairs and possibly a lawsuit from one of the passengers ... and that's if it misses any other aircraft that might be parked near the runway or taxiing to the runway.

THE SAFE APPROACH

  • Know your approach speeds, and STICK TO THEM.
  • Remember that a shorter field means you have a smaller margin for error on the approach -- and there will be less room to correct errors on the ground.
  • If presented with excess energy, make the best of a bad situation: ADD POWER AND GO AROUND. Your passengers probably won’t thank you ... but then, they'll probably also be willing to fly with you again.
TIPS FOR A BALKED LANDING
When going around, it is easy to get distracted and make a configuration or control error. Get back into your routine. If necessary, depart the area and follow your departure checklist. When you return, flip back to an appropriate pre-landing checklist and start reading from the top. You must make certain that you have the aircraft configured correctly for the landing as you enter the pattern again. The last thing you want to do is to try to slow down and land without extending your landing gear or flaps. Run through your checklist again, just to make sure you have everything in the right position. Then manage the energy as you descend and land to hit the threshold at the right speed.

BOTTOM LINE: Keeping your plane under control and your tires inflated isn’t rocket science. Don’t let your pride get in the way of a go-around -- the dent in your pride is far less expensive -- in many ways -- than the dents suffered by your airplane or passengers. Take a moment and review your landing practices today. If you find yourself crossing the threshold of your 4000-foot runway at higher speeds than you should, revise your behaviors now. Otherwise, they may come back to haunt you when you have to land on a shorter, less familiar strip ... in the middle of summer.

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