Shortly after I first started flying, 29 years and
thousands of landings ago, I began seeing that landings can be divided into two distinct but
easy-to-grasp parts: the approach, and the landing
itself. There’s nothing original about this. Most
pilots do already think of the approach in general
terms, followed by what is often called “short final”
to touchdown. One of my first instructors in GA
training would pull the power and wait for me to set
up a survivable-looking landing in some open field,
then announce, “Okay, you’ve got the landing
made,” and tell me to climb back up to altitude. He
meant that all that would have been left was to set it
down as gently as possible under the circumstances.
It seems to me to be useful to look at the pre-got-it-made phase as a fairly technical exercise and the
second phase as an art—an art made possible by
having done the first part right. The first part can be
communicated with words; the art part is essentially wordless, but we’ll come back to that.
It can be useful to envision a gateway in the sky,
some distance along the final-approach path, somewhere between the touchdown point on the runway
and the turn from base to final. The Great Gate
probably will not look as fancy as the one I’ve
drawn, and cherubs may not be holding it up; in
fact, it’s downright invisible, but it is there.
To get to the gate requires doing several things
at once, like a juggler who has to keep plates spinning and hoops twirling while walking on a
tightrope. You need to steer the airplane with stick
and rudder, staying lined up with the runway as
well as within a glide slope that is neither too steep
nor too shallow to bring you to the gate, all the
while adding and subtracting power (and looking
out for other aircraft). The ability to do these several different things at one time is learned. It is
acquired through lots and lots of practice. After it’s
acquired, it will seem as easy as walking and chewing gum at the same time. The gate can also be
defined as the place that you have to get to before
you can let go and just land it.
A DELIBERATIVE THOUGHT PROCESS
It takes planning to get to the gate, which means
managing the airplane’s altitude and speed (and
using flaps if you have them), a fairly intellectual
process that would sound something like: “I’m
higher than I should be, so power down a little,
holding the nose up to prevent building up excessive airspeed…now I’m sinking below the right glide
path and a bit fast, but I can convert this extra airspeed to altitude to get back up there…now I’m
high, but I can just put the nose down to get back to
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