The Different Types of Landings

Student pilots are taught that there are different types of landings, and typically taught when to use each type, but the part of the lesson that's sometimes missed is the "why" behind each of these techniques. For instance, it seems like a useful goal to land in as short a distance as possible, regardless of the length of the runway you're using, so why not always do a short-field landing? Or if a soft-field landing reduces stress on the nosewheel and provides a soft contact with the earth, then why not always land this way?

Well, there must be pros and cons to each one, or else we'd only do it "the best way" and there'd only be one way to land, so how about:

Short-field landing

  • slower approach speed "steepens" the approach
    • PRO: a steeper approach helps clearance over obstacles while minimizing forward progress (i.e. "runway burn") getting down past them, while still encouraging a stabilized approach versus a severe transition after clearing the obstacles (i.e. clear the trees, then dive for the runway).
    • CON: slower airspeeds leave us closer to the stall, with less control effectiveness, and greater susceptibility to turbulence and wind shear.
  • accuracy of landing point. On a checkride this might be "0-200 ft past whatever aiming point the DE specifies", but in the real world it is, of course, as close as possible to the threshold
    • PRO: minimizes "runway burn"
    • CON: increases risk of landing short of the runway threshold (or taking out some threshold lights) due to pilot error, possibly combined with squirrelly winds and shear.
  • firm landing (no float), nose down promptly, max braking
    • PRO: getting the brakes working as soon as possible minimizes ground roll
    • CON: taxing on the airframe, brakes, tires, and maybe the passengers butts
  • flaps up on touchdown
    • PRO: reduces lift, shifting weight to the wheels, allowing greater braking force (without skidding)
    • CON: fiddling around inside the cockpit on rollout is a distraction, puts your eyes inside the cockpit, and runs the risk of accidently manipulating the wrong control (e.g. the landing gear)

Soft-field landing

  • application of power to minimize descent rate just before touchdown
    • PRO: reduces risk of getting "bogged down" in the mud with a big "splashdown", possibly leading to a nose-over
    • CON: burns runway
  • holding off nosewheel (in tricycle gear)
    • PRO: protects nosewheel from hitting bumps at higher speeds, and reduces risk of nosewheel "bogging down" in mud
    • CON: reduces controllability on the ground (no nosewheel steering), reduces ability to counteract the weathervaning tendency when landing in a cross-wind
  • soft to no braking
    • PRO: reduces risk of burying the nosewheel or of losing traction and skidding
    • CON: increases rolling distance

Normal landing

The "normal" landing is a compromise, one that eliminates the "CONs" above, but also gives up some of the "PROs" for conditions in which they're not critical. Assuming sufficient runway, you don't need to risk a landing right on the threshold, or an approach closer to the stall, or the severity of a max braking stop. A hard-surface runway means you can ease the nose down promptly (but gently), to improve your control during the rollout, particularly in a cross-wind.

Note that some pilots incorporate parts of the short or soft field techniques into their normal landings. For instance, they might apply a little power before touchdown to impress their non-pilot passengers with a super-smooth landing, when they know they have plenty of runway to burn (which is fine, as long as they don't allow their power-off landing skills to atrophy, as they might need them some day). Some pilots like to get their nosewheel down asap and retract their flaps upon touchdown when performing a "normal" landing on a day with strong crosswinds.

Harry Mantakos /