Jet Airplane Approach and Landing

Landing Requirements

The FAA landing field length requirements for jet airplanes are specified in 14 CFR part 25. It defines the minimum field length (and therefore minimum margins) that can be scheduled. The regulation describes the landing profile as the horizontal distance required to land and come to a complete stop on a dry surface runway from a point 50 feet above the runway threshold, through the flare and touchdown, using the maximum stopping capability of the aircraft. The unfactored or certified landing distance is determined during aircraft certification. As such, it may be different from the actual landing distance because certification regulations do not take into account all factors that could potentially affect landing distance. The unfactored landing distance is the baseline landing distance on a dry, level runway at standard temperatures without using thrust reversers, auto brakes, or auto-land systems. In order to meet regulatory requirements however, a safety margin of 67 percent is added to the unfactored dry landing distance in the FAA-approved AFM, after applicable adjustments are made for environmental and aircraft conditions (MEL/CDL penalties). This corrected length is then referred to as the factored dry-landing distance or the minimum dry-landing field length. [Figure 1]

Jet Powered Airplanes
Figure 1. FAR landing field length required

For minimum wet-landing field length, the factored dry-landing distance is increased by an additional 15 percent. Thus, the minimum dry runway field length is 1.67 times the actual minimum air and ground distance needed, and the wet runway minimum landing field length is 1.92 times the minimum dry air and ground distance needed.

Certified landing field length requirements are computed for the stop made with speed brakes deployed and maximum wheel braking. Reverse thrust is not used in establishing the certified landing distances; however, reversers should definitely be used in service.

Landing Speeds

As in the takeoff planning, there are certain speeds that must be taken into consideration when landing a jet airplane. The speeds are as follows:
  • VSO—stall speed in the landing configuration
  • VREF—1.3 times the stall speed in the landing configuration
  • Approach climb—the speed that guarantees adequate performance in a go-around situation with an inoperative engine. The airplane’s weight must be limited so that a twin-engine airplane has a 2.1 percent climb gradient capability. (The approach climb gradient requirements for 3 and 4 engine airplanes are 2.4 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.) These criteria are based on an airplane configured with approach flaps, landing gear up, and takeoff thrust available from the operative engine(s).
  • Landing climb—the speed that guarantees adequate performance in arresting the descent and making a go-around from the final stages of landing with the airplane in the full landing configuration and maximum takeoff power available on all engines.

The appropriate speeds should be pre-computed prior to every landing and posted where they are visible to both pilots. The VREF speed, or threshold speed, is used as a reference speed throughout the traffic pattern. For example:

  • Downwind leg—VREF plus 20 knots
  • Base leg—VREF plus 10 knots
  • Final approach—VREF plus 5 knots
  • 50 feet over threshold—VREF

The approach and landing sequence in a jet airplane should be accomplished in accordance with an approach and landing profile developed for the particular airplane. [Figure 2]

Jet Powered Airplanes
Figure 2. Typical approach and landing profile

Significant Differences

A safe approach in any type of airplane culminates in a particular position, speed, and height over the runway threshold. That final flight condition is the target window at which the entire approach aims. Propeller-powered airplanes are able to approach that target from wider angles, greater speed differentials, and a larger variety of glidepath angles. Jet airplanes are not as responsive to power and course corrections, so the final approach must be more stable, more deliberate, and more constant in order to reach the window accurately.

The transitioning pilot must understand that, in spite of their impressive performance capabilities, there are six ways in which a jet airplane is worse than a piston-engine airplane in making an approach and in correcting errors on the approach.

  • The absence of the propeller slipstream in producing immediate extra lift at constant airspeed. There is no such thing as salvaging a misjudged glidepath with a sudden burst of immediately available power. Added lift can only be achieved by accelerating the airframe. Not only must the pilot wait for added power but, even when the engines do respond, added lift is only available when the airframe has responded with speed.
  • The absence of the propeller slipstream in significantly lowering the power-on stall speed. There is virtually no difference between power-on and power-off stall speed. It is not possible in a jet airplane to jam the thrust levers forward to avoid a stall.
  • Poor acceleration response in a jet engine from low rpm. This characteristic requires that the approach be flown in a high drag/high power configuration so that sufficient power is available quickly if needed.
  • The increased momentum of the jet airplane making sudden changes in the flightpath impossible. Jet airplanes are consistently heavier than comparable sized propeller airplanes. The jet airplane, therefore, requires more indicated airspeed during the final approach due to a wing design that is optimized for higher speeds. These two factors combine to produce higher momentum for the jet airplane. Since force is required to overcome momentum for speed changes or course corrections, the jet is far less responsive than the propeller airplane and requires careful planning and stable conditions throughout the approach.
  • The lack of good speed stability being an inducement to a low-speed condition. The drag curve for many jet airplanes is much flatter than for propeller airplanes, so speed changes do not produce nearly as much drag change. Further, jet thrust remains nearly constant with small speed changes. The result is far less speed stability. When the speed does increase or decrease, there is little tendency for the jet airplane to re-acquire the original speed. The pilot, therefore, must remain alert to the necessity of making speed adjustments, and then make them aggressively in order to remain on speed.
  • Drag increasing faster than lift producing a high sink rate at low speeds. Jet airplane wings typically have a large increase in drag in the approach configuration. When a sink rate does develop, the only immediate remedy is to increase pitch attitude (AOA). Because drag increases faster than lift, that pitch change rapidly contributes to an even greater sink rate unless a significant amount of power is aggressively applied.

These flying characteristics of jet airplanes make a stabilized approach an absolute necessity.

Stabilized Approach

The performance charts and the limitations contained in the FAA-approved AFM are predicated on momentum values that result from programmed speeds and weights. Runway length limitations assume an exact 50-foot threshold height at an exact speed of 1.3 times VSO. That “window” is critical and is a prime reason for the stabilized approach. Performance figures also assume that once through the target threshold window, the airplane touches down in a target touchdown zone approximately 1,000 feet down the runway, after which maximum stopping capability is used.

The five basic elements to the stabilized approach are listed below.
  • The airplane should be in the landing configuration early in the approach. The landing gear should be down, landing flaps selected, trim set, and fuel balanced. Ensuring that these tasks are completed helps keep the number of variables to a minimum during the final approach.
  • The airplane should be on profile before descending below 1,000 feet. Configuration, trim, speed, and glidepath should be at or near the optimum parameters early in the approach to avoid distractions and conflicts as the airplane nears the threshold window. An optimum glidepath angle of 2.5° to 3° should be established and maintained.
  • Indicated airspeed should be within 10 knots of the target airspeed. There are strong relationships between trim, speed, and power in most jet airplanes, and it is important to stabilize the speed in order to minimize those other variables.
  • The optimum descent rate should be 500 to 700 fpm. The descent rate should not be allowed to exceed 1,000 fpm at any time during the approach.
  • The engine speed should be at an rpm that allows best response when and if a rapid power increase is needed.

Every approach should be evaluated at 500 feet. In a typical jet airplane, this is approximately 1 minute from touchdown. If the approach is not stabilized at that height, a go-around should be initiated. [Figure 3]

Jet Powered Airplanes
Figure 3. Stabilized approach

Approach Speed

On final approach, the airspeed is controlled with power. Any speed diversion from VREF on final approach must be detected immediately and corrected. With experience, the pilot is able to detect the very first tendency of an increasing or decreasing airspeed trend, which normally can be corrected with a small adjustment in thrust. It is imperative the pilot does not allow the airspeed to decrease below the target approach speed or a high sink rate can develop. Remember that with an increasing sink rate, an apparently normal pitch attitude is no guarantee of a normal AOA value. If an increasing sink rate is detected, it must be countered by increasing the AOA and simultaneously increasing thrust to counter the extra drag. The degree of correction required depends on how much the sink rate needs to be reduced. For small amounts, smooth and gentle, almost anticipatory corrections is sufficient. For large sink rates, drastic corrective measures may be required that, even if successful, would destabilize the approach.

A common error in the performance of approaches in jet airplanes is excess approach speed. Excess approach speed carried through the threshold window and onto the runway increases the minimum stopping distance required by 20–30 feet per knot of excess speed for a dry runway and 40–50 feet for a wet runway. Worse yet, the excess speed increases the chances of an extended flare, which increases the distance to touchdown by approximately 250 feet for each excess knot in speed.

Proper speed control on final approach is of primary importance. The pilot must anticipate the need for speed adjustment so that only small adjustments are required. It is essential that the airplane arrive at the approach threshold window exactly on speed.

Glidepath Control

On final approach at a constant airspeed, the glidepath angle and rate of descent is controlled with pitch attitude and elevator. The optimum glidepath angle is 2.5° to 3° whether or not an electronic glidepath reference is being used. On visual approaches, pilots may have a tendency to make flat approaches. A flat approach, however, increases landing distance and should be avoided. For example, an approach angle of 2° instead of a recommended 3° adds 500 feet to landing distance.

A more common error is excessive height over the threshold. This could be the result of an unstable approach or a stable but high approach. It also may occur during an instrument approach where the missed approach point is close to or at the runway threshold. Regardless of the cause, excessive height over the threshold most likely results in a touchdown beyond the normal aiming point. An extra 50 feet of height over the threshold adds approximately 1,000 feet to the landing distance. It is essential that the airplane arrive at the approach threshold window exactly on altitude (50 feet above the runway).

The Flare

The flare reduces the approach rate of descent to a more acceptable rate for touchdown. Unlike light airplanes, a jet airplane should be flown onto the runway rather than “held off” the surface as speed dissipates. A jet airplane is aerodynamically clean even in the landing configuration, and its engines still produce residual thrust at idle rpm. Holding it off during the flare in an attempt to make a smooth landing greatly increases landing distance. A firm landing is normal and desirable. A firm landing does not mean a hard landing, but rather a deliberate or positive landing.

For most airports, the airplane passes over the end of the runway with the landing gear 30–45 feet above the surface, depending on the landing flap setting and the location of the touchdown zone. It takes 5–7 seconds from the time the airplane passes the end of the runway until touchdown. The flare is initiated by increasing the pitch attitude just enough to reduce the sink rate to 100–200 fpm when the landing gear is approximately 15 feet above the runway surface. In most jet airplanes, this requires a pitch attitude increase of only 1° to 3°. The thrust is smoothly reduced to idle as the flare progresses.

The normal speed bleed off during the time between passing the end of the runway and touchdown is 5 knots. Most of the decrease occurs during the flare when thrust is reduced.

If the flare is extended (held off) while an additional speed is bled off, hundreds or even thousands of feet of runway may be used up. [Figure 4] The extended flare also results in additional pitch attitude, which may lead to a tail strike. It is, therefore, essential to fly the airplane onto the runway at the target touchdown point, even if the speed is excessive. A deliberate touchdown should be planned and practiced on every flight. A positive touchdown helps prevent an extended flare.

Jet Powered Airplanes
Figure 4. Extended flare

Pilots must learn the flare characteristics of each model of airplane they fly. The visual reference cues observed from each airplane are different because window geometry and visibility are different. The geometric relationship between the pilot’s eye and the landing gear is different for each make and model. It is essential that the flare maneuver be initiated at the proper height—not too high and not too low.

Beginning the flare too high or reducing the thrust too early may result in the airplane floating beyond the target touchdown point or may include a rapid pitch up as the pilot attempts to prevent a high sink rate touchdown. This can lead to a tail strike. The flare that is initiated too late may result in a hard touchdown.

Proper thrust management through the flare is also important. In many jet airplanes, the engines produce a noticeable effect on pitch trim when the thrust setting is changed. A rapid change in the thrust setting requires a quick elevator response. If the thrust levers are moved to idle too quickly during the flare, the pilot must make rapid changes in pitch control. If the thrust levers are moved more slowly, the elevator input can be more easily coordinated.

Touchdown and Rollout

A proper approach and flare positions the airplane to touch down in the touchdown target zone, which is usually about 1,000 feet beyond the runway threshold. Once the main wheels have contacted the runway, the pilot must maintain directional control and initiate the stopping process. The stop must be made on the runway that remains in front of the airplane. The runway distance available to stop is longest if the touchdown was on target. The energy to be dissipated is least if there is no excess speed. The stop that begins with a touchdown that is on the numbers is the easiest stop to make for any set of conditions.

At the point of touchdown, the airplane represents a very large mass that is moving at a relatively high speed. The large total energy must be dissipated by the brakes, the aerodynamic drag, and the thrust reversers. The nose wheel should be flown onto the ground immediately after touchdown because a jet airplane decelerates poorly when held in a nose-high attitude. Placing the nose wheel tire(s) on the ground assists in maintaining directional control. Also, lowering the nose gear decreases the wing AOA, decreasing the lift, placing more load onto the tires, thereby increasing tire-to-ground friction. Landing distance charts for jet airplanes assume that the nose wheel is lowered onto the runway within 4 seconds of touchdown.

There are only three forces available for stopping the airplane: wheel braking, reverse thrust, and aerodynamic braking. Of the three, the brakes are most effective and therefore the most important stopping force for most landings. When the runway is very slippery, reverse thrust and drag may be the dominant forces. Both reverse thrust and aerodynamic drag are most effective at high speeds. Neither is affected by runway surface condition. Brakes, on the other hand, are most effective at low speed. The landing rollout distance depends on the touchdown speed, what forces are applied, and when they are applied. The pilot controls the what and when factors, but the maximum braking force may be limited by tire-to-ground friction.

The pilot should begin braking as soon after touchdown and wheel spin-up as possible, and to smoothly continue the braking until stopped or a safe taxi speed is reached. However, caution should be used if the airplane is not equipped with a functioning anti-skid system. In such a case, heavy braking can cause the wheels to lock and the tires to skid.

Both directional control and braking utilize tire ground friction. They share the maximum friction force the tires can provide. Increasing either subtracts from the other. Understanding tire ground friction, how runway contamination affects it, and how to use the friction available to maximum advantage is important to a jet pilot.

Spoilers should be deployed immediately after touchdown because they are most effective at high speed. Timely deployment of spoilers increases drag by 50 to 60 percent, but more importantly, they spoil much of the lift the wing is creating, thereby causing more of the weight of the airplane to be loaded onto the wheels. The spoilers increase wheel loading by as much as 200 percent in the landing flap configuration. This increases the tire ground friction force making the maximum tire braking and cornering forces available.

Like spoilers, thrust reversers are most effective at high speeds and should be deployed quickly after touchdown. However, the pilot should not command significant reverse thrust until the nose wheel is on the ground. Otherwise, the reversers might deploy asymmetrically resulting in an uncontrollable yaw towards the side on which the most reverse thrust is being developed, in which case the pilot needs whatever nose-wheel steering is available to maintain directional control.

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