Normal Approach and Landing (Part 1)

A normal approach and landing involves the use of procedures for what is considered a normal situation; that is, when engine power is available, the wind is light, or the final approach is made directly into the wind, the final approach path has no obstacles and the landing surface is firm and of ample length to gradually bring the airplane to a stop. The selected landing point is normally beyond the runway’s approach threshold but within the first 1⁄3 portion of the runway.

The factors involved and the procedures described for the normal approach and landing also have applications to the other-than-normal approaches and landings and are discussed later in this site. This being the case, the principles of normal operations are explained first and must be understood before proceeding to the more complex operations. To help the pilot better understand the factors that influence judgment and procedures, the last part of the approach pattern and the actual landing is divided into five phases:
  1. the base leg
  2. the final approach
  3. the round out (flare)
  4. the touchdown
  5. the after-landing roll

It must be remembered that the manufacturer’s recommended procedures, including airplane configuration and airspeeds, and other information relevant to approaches and landings in a specific make and model airplane are contained in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Airplane Flight Manual and/or Pilot’s Operating Handbook (AFM/POH) for that airplane. If any of the information in this site differs from the airplane manufacturer’s recommendations as contained in the AFM/POH, the airplane manufacturer’s recommendations take precedence.

Base Leg

The placement of the base leg is one of the more important judgments made by the pilot in any landing approach. [Figure 1] The pilot must accurately judge the altitude and distance from which a gradual, stabilized descent results in landing at the desired spot. The distance depends on the altitude of the base leg, the effect of wind, and the amount of wing flaps used. When there is a strong wind on final approach or the flaps are used to produce a steep angle of descent, the base leg must be positioned closer to the approach end of the runway than would be required with a light wind or no flaps. Normally, the landing gear is extended and the before-landing check completed prior to reaching the base leg.

Figure 1. Base leg and final approach

After turning onto the base leg, start the descent with reduced power and airspeed of approximately 1.4 VSO, which is the stalling speed with power off, landing gear and flaps down. For example, if VSO is 60 knots, the speed should be 1.4 times 60 or 84 knots. Landing flaps may be partially lowered, if desired, at this time. Full flaps are not recommended until the final approach is established. A drift correction is established and maintained to follow a ground track perpendicular to the extension of the centerline of the runway on which the landing is to be made. Since the final approach and landing are normally made into the wind, there is somewhat of a crosswind during the base leg. This requires that the airplane be angled sufficiently into the wind to prevent drifting farther away from the intended landing spot.

The base leg is continued to the point where a medium to shallow-banked turn aligns the airplane’s path directly with the centerline of the landing runway. This descending turn is completed at a safe altitude and dependent upon the height of the terrain and any obstructions along the ground track. The turn to the final approach is sufficiently above the airport elevation to permit a final approach long enough to accurately estimate the resultant point of touchdown while maintaining the proper approach airspeed. This requires careful planning as to the starting point and the radius of the turn. Normally, it is recommended that the angle of bank not exceed a medium bank because the steeper the angle of bank, the higher the airspeed at which the airplane stalls. Since the base-to-final turn is made at a relatively low altitude, it is important that a stall not occur at this point. If an extremely steep bank is needed to prevent overshooting the proper final approach path, it is advisable to discontinue the approach, go around, and plan to start the turn earlier on the next approach rather than risk a hazardous situation.

Final Approach

After the base-to-final approach turn is completed, the longitudinal axis of the airplane is aligned with the centerline of the runway or landing surface so that drift (if any) is recognized immediately. On a normal approach, with no wind drift, the longitudinal axis is kept aligned with the runway centerline throughout the approach and landing. (The proper way to correct for a crosswind is explained under the section, Crosswind Approach and Landing. For now, only an approach and landing where the wind is straight down the runway are discussed.)

After aligning the airplane with the runway centerline, the final flap setting is completed and the pitch attitude adjusted as required for the desired rate of descent. Slight adjustments in pitch and power may be necessary to maintain the descent attitude and the desired approach airspeed. In the absence of the manufacturer’s recommended airspeed, a speed equal to 1.3 VSO should be used. If VSO is 60 knots, the speed should be 78 knots. When the pitch attitude and airspeed have been stabilized, the airplane is re-trimmed to relieve the pressures being held on the controls.

A stabilized descent angle is controlled throughout the approach so that the airplane lands in the center of the first third of the runway. The descent angle is affected by all four fundamental forces that act on an airplane (lift, drag, thrust, and weight). If all the forces are constant, the descent angle is constant in a no-wind condition. The pilot controls these forces by adjusting the airspeed, attitude, power, and drag (flaps or forward slip). The wind also plays a prominent part in the gliding distance over the ground [Figure 2]; the pilot does not have control over the wind but corrects for its effect on the airplane’s descent by appropriate pitch and power adjustments.

Figure 2. Effect of headwind on final approach

Considering the factors that affect the descent angle on the final approach, for all practical purposes at a given pitch attitude there is only one power setting for one airspeed, one flap setting, and one wind condition. A change in any one of these variables requires an appropriate coordinated change in the other controllable variables. For example, if the pitch attitude is raised too high without an increase of power, the airplane settles very rapidly and touches down short of the desired spot. For this reason, never try to stretch a glide by applying back-elevator pressure alone to reach the desired landing spot. This shortens the gliding distance if power is not added simultaneously. The proper angle of descent and airspeed is maintained by coordinating pitch attitude changes and power changes.

The objective of a good, stabilized final approach is to descend at an angle and airspeed that permits the airplane to reach the desired touchdown point at an airspeed that results in minimum floating just before touchdown; in essence, a semi-stalled condition. To accomplish this, it is essential that both the descent angle and the airspeed be accurately controlled. Since on a normal approach the power setting is not fixed as in a power-off approach, the power and pitch attitude are adjusted simultaneously as necessary to control the airspeed and the descent angle, or to attain the desired altitudes along the approach path. By lowering the nose and reducing power to keep approach airspeed constant, a descent at a higher rate can be made to correct for being too high in the approach. This is one reason for performing approaches with partial power; if the approach is too high, merely lower the nose and reduce the power. When the approach is too low, add power and raise the nose.

Use of Flaps

The lift/drag factors are varied by the pilot to adjust the descent through the use of landing flaps. [Figures 3 and 4] Flap extension during landings provides several advantages by:
  • Producing greater lift and permitting lower landing speed,
  • Producing greater drag, permitting a steeper descent angle without airspeed increase, and
  • Reducing the length of the landing roll.

Figure 3. Effect of flaps on the landing point

Figure 4. Effect of flaps on the approach angle

Flap extension has a definite effect on the airplane’s pitch behavior. The increased camber from flap deflection produces lift primarily on the rear portion of the wing. This produces a nose-down pitching moment; however, the change in tail loads from the downwash deflected by the flaps over the horizontal tail has a significant influence on the pitching moment. Consequently, pitch behavior depends on the design features of the particular airplane.

Flap deflection of up to 15° primarily produces lift with minimal drag. The airplane has a tendency to balloon up with initial flap deflection because of the lift increase. The nose-down pitching moment, however, tends to offset the balloon. Flap deflection beyond 15° produces a large increase in drag. Also, deflection beyond 15° produces a significant nose-up pitching moment in high-wing airplanes because the resulting downwash increases the airflow over the horizontal tail.

The time of flap extension and the degree of deflection are related. Large flap deflections at one single point in the landing pattern produce large lift changes that require significant pitch and power changes in order to maintain airspeed and descent angle. Consequently, there is an advantage to extending flaps in increments while in the landing pattern. Incremental deflection of flaps on downwind, base leg, and final approach allow smaller adjustments of pitch and power compared to extension of full flaps all at one time.

When the flaps are lowered, the airspeed decreases unless the power is increased or the pitch attitude lowered. On final approach, the pilot must estimate where the airplane lands through judgment of the descent angle. If it appears that the airplane is going to overshoot the desired landing spot, more flaps are used, if not fully extended, or the power reduced further and the pitch attitude lowered. This results in a steeper approach. If the desired landing spot is being undershot and a shallower approach is needed, both power and pitch attitude are increased to readjust the descent angle. Never retract the flaps to correct for undershooting since that suddenly decreases the lift and causes the airplane to sink rapidly.

The airplane must be re-trimmed on the final approach to compensate for the change in aerodynamic forces. With the reduced power and with a slower airspeed, the airflow produces less lift on the wings and less downward force on the horizontal stabilizer resulting in a significant nose-down tendency. The elevator must then be trimmed more nose-up.

The round out, touchdown, and landing roll are much easier to accomplish when they are preceded by a proper final approach consisting of precise control of airspeed, attitude, power, and drag resulting in a stabilized descent angle.

Estimating Height and Movement

During the approach, round out, and touchdown; vision is of prime importance. To provide a wide scope of vision and to foster good judgment of height and movement, the pilot’s head should assume a natural, straight-ahead position. Visual focus is not fixed on any one side or any one spot ahead of the airplane. Instead, it is changed slowly from a point just over the airplane’s nose to the desired touchdown zone and back again. This is done while maintaining a deliberate awareness of distance from either side of the runway using your peripheral field of vision.

Accurate estimation of distance is, besides being a matter of practice, dependent upon how clearly objects are seen. It requires that the vision be focused properly in order that the important objects stand out as clearly as possible.

Speed blurs objects at close range. For example, most everyone has noted this in an automobile moving at high speed. Nearby objects seem to merge together in a blur, while objects farther away stand out clearly. The driver subconsciously focuses the eyes sufficiently far ahead of the automobile to see objects distinctly.

The distance at which the pilot’s vision is focused should be proportionate to the speed at which the airplane is traveling over the ground. Thus, as speed is reduced during the round out, the distance ahead of the airplane at which it is possible to focus is brought closer accordingly.

If the pilot attempts to focus on a reference that is too close or looks directly down, the reference becomes blurred, [Figure 5] and the reaction is either too abrupt or too late. In this case, the pilot’s tendency is to over-control, round out high, and make full-stall, drop-in landings. If the pilot focuses too far ahead, accuracy in judging the closeness of the ground is lost and the consequent reaction is too slow since there does not appear to be a necessity for action. This results in the airplane flying into the ground nose first. The change of visual focus from a long distance to a short distance requires a definite time interval and, even though the time is brief, the airplane’s speed during this interval is such that the airplane travels an appreciable distance, both forward and downward toward the ground.

Figure 5. Focusing too close blurs vision

If the focus is changed gradually, being brought progressively closer as speed is reduced, the time interval and the pilot’s reaction are reduced and the whole landing process smoothed out.

Round Out (Flare)

The round out is a slow, smooth transition from a normal approach attitude to a landing attitude, gradually rounding out the flightpath to one that is parallel with, and within a very few inches above, the runway. When the airplane, in a normal descent, approaches within what appears to be 10 to 20 feet above the ground, the round out or flare is started. This is a continuous process until the airplane touches down on the ground.

As the airplane reaches a height above the ground where a change into the proper landing attitude can be made, back-elevator pressure is gradually applied to slowly increase the pitch attitude and angle of attack (AOA). [Figure 6] This causes the airplane’s nose to gradually rise toward the desired landing attitude. The AOA is increased at a rate that allows the airplane to continue settling slowly as forward speed decreases.

Figure 6. Changing angle of attack during roundout

When the AOA is increased, the lift is momentarily increased and this decreases the rate of descent. Since power normally is reduced to idle during the round out, the airspeed also gradually decreases. This causes lift to decrease again and necessitates raising the nose and further increasing the AOA. During the round out, the airspeed is decreased to touchdown speed while the lift is controlled so the airplane settles gently onto the landing surface. The round out is executed at a rate that the proper landing attitude and the proper touchdown airspeed are attained simultaneously just as the wheels contact the landing surface.

The rate at which the round out is executed depends on the airplane’s height above the ground, the rate of descent, and the pitch attitude. A round out started excessively high must be executed more slowly than one from a lower height to allow the airplane to descend to the ground while the proper landing attitude is being established. The rate of rounding out must also be proportionate to the rate of closure with the ground. When the airplane appears to be descending very slowly, the increase in pitch attitude must be made at a correspondingly slow rate. 

Visual cues are important in flaring at the proper altitude and maintaining the wheels a few inches above the runway until eventual touchdown. Flare cues are primarily dependent on the angle at which the pilot’s central vision intersects the ground (or runway) ahead and slightly to the side. Proper depth perception is a factor in a successful flare, but the visual cues used most are those related to changes in runway or terrain perspective and to changes in the size of familiar objects near the landing area, such as fences, bushes, trees, hangars, and even sod or runway texture. Focus direct central vision at a shallow downward angle from 10° to 15° toward the runway as the round out/flare is initiated. [Figure 8-7] Maintaining the same viewing angle causes the point of visual interception with the runway to move progressively rearward as the airplane loses altitude. This is an important visual cue in assessing the rate of altitude loss. Conversely, forward movement of the visual interception point indicates an increase in altitude and means that the pitch angle was increased too rapidly, resulting in an over flare. Location of the visual interception point in conjunction with assessment of flow velocity of nearby off-runway terrain, as well as the similarity of appearance of height above the runway ahead of the airplane (in comparison to the way it looked when the airplane was taxied prior to takeoff), is also used to judge when the wheels are just a few inches above the runway.

Figure 7. To obtain necessary visual cues, the pilot should look toward the runway at a shallow angle

The pitch attitude of the airplane in a full-flap approach is considerably lower than in a no-flap approach. To attain the proper landing attitude before touching down, the nose must travel through a greater pitch change when flaps are fully extended. Since the round out is usually started at approximately the same height above the ground regardless of the degree of flaps used, the pitch attitude must be increased at a faster rate when full flaps are used; however, the round out is still be executed at a rate proportionate to the airplane’s downward motion.

Once the actual process of rounding out is started, do not push the elevator control forward. If too much back-elevator pressure was exerted, this pressure is either slightly relaxed or held constant, depending on the degree of the error. In some cases, it may be necessary to advance the throttle slightly to prevent an excessive rate of sink or a stall, either of which results in a hard, drop-in type landing.

It is recommended that a pilot form the habit of keeping one hand on the throttle throughout the approach and landing should a sudden and unexpected hazardous situation require an immediate application of power.