The hardest thing, by far, has been learning to land the airplane. Part of it is the pressure to do a good landing. When I flew by myself to three different airports in a little over four hours I was mostly concerned with getting the plane onto the ground safely. I knew I no longer had to worry about damaging the airplane or hurting myself, I had enough control over the plane that I would go around and try again if either of those were a possibility, and I didn’t mind a bump or a bounce. So I would just bring the plane in and whatever landing I managed was the landing I took. Some of them were good, including the one out at Bakersfield where there was a cross wind and some turbulence down low. A long runway helps.
When I took Nell and the boys to Santa Barbara I was aware that the flight was an hour and that the landing takes about a minute and that most people flying judge the flight (and by extension, the pilot) by the landing. That means that all the good airmanship leading up to the landing (keeping the heading within five degrees either direction, maintaining the altitude within fifty feet in either direction, keeping communications with Air Traffic Control crisp and professional), all of that is up against a hard thump or a bounce-bounce-bounce down the runway.
(Nell is very kind about the landings and has said they just don’t matter to her. “A bump here or there doesn’t concern me. All I care about for the landing is getting onto the ground safely.” The boys make it fairly easy as well because I believe for them the hardest thing about landing is that they are meant to keep quiet as soon as we are ten nautical miles from the airport. So it is just a tunnel of silence they have to get through. The bumps are probably just a bit more of a carnival ride for them. So this is really in my head, not in the plane.)
Like many things in my life, I spend a lot of time analyzing landings and trying to figure out how to “fix” them. There is no fix, really. Pilots with thousands of hours who fly passenger jets still have bad landings. This is true for a few reasons.
The biggest is that airplanes are designed to fly. That’s really all they are designed to do. They are both skittish and ponderous on the ground, ungainly and weighted poorly. It took me at least ten hours before I could keep the Cherokee pointed in a straight line on the taxiway and I still can’t park it very well.
Because they are designed to fly, in order to get them back onto the ground you have to crash them into it. You have to stop the plane from flying and have it crash to the ground. Ideally you do this when the plane’s wheels are actually touching the ground and all you get is a shifting of the weight from the plane’s wings to the plane’s main landing gear. I’ve had that happen a couple times. Our of over a hundred sixty times it’s happened twice. The rest of the time I get the plane to stop flying and it is still a foot above the ground. Thump.
There are some basic aerodynamics that you will be tired of reading about as I begin to repeat them. The basic idea is that as the plane moves fast enough through the air the air moving under the wing becomes enough to push the wing up (provide lift) and the plane will go up. If you point the nose of the plane down the airspeed with increase. That means that to land you try pushing the nose down, the airspeed increases and you are fighting the plane to keep it going down. More importantly, when you get close to the runway you need to level the plane out (landing on the nose wheel is considered bad form) and if you are going fast enough when you level out the plane will start to climb. No landing if you are going too fast.
To slow the plane down you pull the nose up. Then it starts to plow through the air. The proper landing speed is dependent on the plane. You want to stall the wings (have them stop flying) just as your wheels are hovering over the tarmac. (Most landing strips are concrete, not asphalt, so “tarmac” isn’t really right, but pilots all call it tarmac anyway.) In the Cherokee the stall speed is sixty-five miles per hour. Ideally you would come “over the fence” (the beginning of the runway) at seventy miles per hour.
That’s the real key. Instructors always say a good landing starts way up at the start of the landing pattern when you first start to descend. If you can get the airplane on the right glide slope (slipping down along a three per cent grade through the air) at the right speed (five miles per hour or so faster than a stall) then a lot of the difficulties of landing are solved.
Most of the time I am too fast. When you are too fast the airplane wants to keep flying. You level out a little above the runways and you “float” over it without that last bit of descent. If you managed to touch the wheels you will often bounce a few times.
The other mistake I make is to level out too early. So I will level out five feet above the tarmac and start to flare the plane to slow it down. It slows down, stops flying, and I promptly drop to the ground with a thump.
Cross winds and other factors can always mess up a good landing, but the two things I need to get better are the speed of the aircraft over the fence and knowing its position over the landing strip. I’m too fast and too high, which is the correct side to err on.