Landing Your Plane

Landing Your Plane

It's said that landing an aircraft is the most challenging part of flying. It can be. It's also the one you will practice the most. You'll have dozens of landings under your belt before you ever go for the practice test. And many of the maneuvers you'll be taught as you learn to fly will simulate good landings and teach you how to avoid bad ones.

The key to landing is doing it by the numbers. That is, your aircraft has a specific approach speed and attitude (angle) that works best. Make sure you know what these conditions are before you ever try to land your aircraft. The most common cause of bad landings is incorrect airspeed—either too fast or too slow. Because you are descending, the tendency for most pilots is to come in too fast.

Landing requires the correct altitude and airspeed.

Another key to good landings is knowing what a good landing should look like from the cockpit. That takes practice and is why your instructor is sitting there talking you through it. Here's what he or she might be telling you:

First, know that the outline of the runway should be long and straight ahead of you, not tipped to one side or the other in your vision.

Knowledge Test

Make sure you know how to read all the markings and signs found on airport runways. If you're coming in on final approach you won't have time to look up something in your Aeronautical Information Manual. That's why studying for your FAA knowledge test is so important.

Second, a good landing means aiming for "the numbers," the runway identifier numbers at the beginning of the runway. You must fly directly to them (until the last few seconds), which means that they should appear to stay in the same place on your plane's windshield. If they seem to move up you're coming in too low. If they're moving down on the windshield you're coming in too high. Many airports have visual slope indicators (VSIs), lights that help you determine if you're coming in too high or too low. Refer to the FAA's Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge or your ground school course for specifics on how to use them.

Third, as soon as you pass the runway threshold (beginning), the throttle should be positioned as described in the plane’s operating handbook (usually at idle or with a small amount of power). You then change the flight angle of your aircraft to slow and control your descent to the runway. Your instructor will help you see what this looks like.

Fourth, once you get within about 10 feet above the ground you will run into ground effect, a layer of air that tries to keep you from landing. Think of it as an air pillow. As you near the runway, you will slowly level out by pulling back on the control yoke or stick until your craft begins to "stall" or quits flying and turns into a land vehicle. Your goal is to make this happen inches above the runway surface.

If you're flying a tailwheel you instructor will probably start by teaching you three-point landings. In a three-point landing, the tail wheel and the main gear touch down at the same time. If you're flying a tri-gear aircraft you will touch down on the two main wheels, then the nose wheel. The nose and tail wheels aren't intended to take much abuse so make sure you're on the ground and rolling slow before allowing these wheels to touch the ground. At that point your control yoke or stick will be fully pulled back toward you.

Congratulations! You've made your first landing. They'll get much easier as you practice controlling the aircraft. Again, consider using a flight simulator to practice landings ad nauseam.

In other Flight Guides on this website you learn how to handle takeoffs and landings at short and soft (grass or dirt) fields. You'll also learn how to fly the pattern when the winds are not coming straight down the runway toward you (which rarely happens). You'll also learn how to handle emergencies that can occur on takeoff, landing, during climbs or descents, in turns, and even during straight-and-level flight. All of it is offered to help you understand flight and does not replace what you learn from your flight instructor.