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Precision Landings

Near the end of the season, I noticed several people landing on or very near to the runway numbers. A demonstration of superior airmanship? Yes and No. Yes, the ability to have the glider touch down exactly where you want is a demonstration of good skill. So why No? No, because while it is a demonstration of good skill, it is not necessarily a demonstration of good judgment. Picking a touch-down point while on downwind and having the glider touch down exactly where you want is a skill we should all strive for. Choosing a point close to the threshold is not good judgment because it doesn’t provide a margin of error. Suppose on short final, your judgment is a little off or you encounter some unanticipated sink or a sudden increase in the headwind. Any one of these could result in you landing short. So when you pick your intended touch down point, pick one that will be safe if you miss it a little short or long.

Another concern with trying to touch down close to the runway threshold is that it increases the risk of a low energy tail-first touchdown. It only takes a smidgen of extra back stick as you try to clear the threshold lights or trying to stretch your glide to the runway to change a nice flat main-wheel-first landing in a 1-26 or 1-34 into a tailwheel- first landing. All of CSA gliders are designed to be landed on the main wheel and should not be landed tail-wheel-first. Tail-wheel-first touchdowns are a common cause of damage to 1-26s and 1-34s.

So how do I plan my landings when I want to be precise, as required on the practical test? First it is helpful to know some facts about standard runway markings. On a runway with standard FAA markings the runway lights are spaced 200 feet apart, the center line stripes are 120 feet long and the gap between them is 80 feet. These facts give you some guides that you can use to learn to estimate distances.

It is necessary to mentally pre-plan three points on the runway: stopping point, touch-down point, and aim point. Regardless of the glider I am flying, I start by fixing in my mind the stopping point. In the SGS 2-33A, I look back from that stopping point about 200 feet, and fix in my mind the point at which I plan to touch down. Then I look further back another 300 feet, and fix my aim point. This point, around 500 feet from my intended stop point, is the point on the runway that I will be monitoring during late downwind, base and final. On base and final, I will watch to see if my aim point is rising or falling in the canopy and adjust my descent rate as necessary to keep it stationary and growing in the canopy. Note that these distances need to be adjusted for wind conditions, approach ground speed, and runway slope. If your airspeed is higher than normal you will float more after you flare, and if you touch down at a higher ground speed then normal (no-wind or tail wind) your ground roll will be longer.

Do this every time you fly Challenge yourself on every landing. Pick a point that you want to stop at, and note how far your actual touchdown point is from your aim point, and how far you travel from touch-down to a full stop, using moderate braking. Developing your ability to estimate distances required to land and the ability to touch down where you want could someday be the difference between stopping before Farmer Brown’s stone wall and hitting it.

And if you really want to show off your superior skills, you could always announce your intended stopping point to everyone on the field before you takeoff. J

Bill Kelley

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