Three and a half years into writing this column, I finally found where all the general aviation reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System have been hiding.
Usually, when I query the ASRS database, I get at least six reports from airline pilots for every one report submitted by a GA pilot.
Not true for the “Unstable Approaches” section of the ASRS database. GA pilots are filing incident reports by a ratio of better than six to one over commercial pilots about landing long after continuing on an unstable approach.
I get it because I, too, have done it.During my final stage check in preparation for my private pilot checkride, I kept making long landings — floaters that put me halfway, or farther, down the runway.
I couldn’t figure out why my approaches were so unstable. I was either too high or too fast or both. Regardless, I still made it my mission to get the plane on the ground and stopped. On the fifth attempt, my CFI took the controls, steered us into the run-up area, and set the brake.
She asked me, “When you’re parallel parking your car, and the angle you took is clearly going to result in bent metal or scraped paint, do you keep going anyway? Or do you pull out of the spot and start over?
“No,” I said. “I pull out of the space and start over.”
“So when you take a bad angle on your approach to the runway, and it’s clear a bad outcome is imminent, why do you force it instead of going around and starting over?”
I had no rebuttal. Her words forever changed my attitude toward flying stable approaches.
CFIs rightly insist their students learn to takeoff the same way every time, given a specific set of circumstances. Those circumstances include, but aren’t limited to, density altitude, weather conditions, wind angle, and speed.
Why don’t we insist the same for landings? All my flight instructors referred to the landing phase as an approach or an attempt. And yet they also actively encouraged me to fix a bad or unstable approach and salvage the landing. It happened way more often than we practiced go-arounds. I’ve been just as guilty with my own students. Of the GA pilots I polled, most had that same experience.
I was a junior first officer flying a regional jet into KIAD one severe clear VMC day. Clear because gusty winds swept the lower atmosphere clean. Tower had all traffic funneled down to Runways 1R and 1L. Strong gusts kept blowing from the south, though, creating intermittent tailwind conditions.
On the approach, the plane ahead of me went missed. I wrestled against the tailwind to make a good approach, to no avail. Gusty tailwinds knocked us well over VREF + 10 knots, outside of our stable approach parameters. Tailwinds also kept us high.
My captain called the miss. The plane behind us had to call missed too. We all came back around for another approach. My captain called the miss again. The plane ahead of us, one on the parallel and two behind us called missed, too.
Tower kept using those runways because it was easier for them to channel approach traffic that way. No matter that it made it hard on us pilots, and uncomfortable for our passengers. Finally, fed up, my captain told Tower to put us in a hold until they changed the runways. Suddenly there was a radio full of hold requests. Tower finally got the message.
Flying for the airlines, as part of a flight crew, is the only time I’ve been held accountable for making sure that I break off an unstable approach.
Why are general aviation pilots more prone to continue an unstable approach to a long landing? Is it because we self-regulate? Is it because we often fly single pilot? Or is the answer found in the statistics? Landing long incidents tend to bend airplanes. Takeoff accidents tend to kill people.
Almost 600 GA pilots reported landing long in the ASRS database. Their rationales came in three varieties.
Three Reasons Why
Some offered the money argument. In other words, because the Hobbs meter was running, go-around time just wasn’t time worth paying for.
Other pilots offered a defense that had a familiar “get-home-itis” ring to it. They knew they were late returning from a flight and had another renter waiting. To accommodate the next client in line, they chose a risky landing over a few extra, safe minutes in the pattern.
A few pilots even presented the Ace of the Base argument. The hangar crowd had been watching (and grading them), so they had to stick the landing to preserve their reputation.
Most concluded in their reports that, in hindsight, their logic had been seriously flawed.
A C-172 student whose CFI tried to teach him how to recover from an unstabilized, non-precision approach only to run off the end of the runway filed a NASA report.
“We broke out of the clouds about 10 seconds prior to reaching the MDA,” he wrote. “We came in high on the approach. As we switched over to Tower, my instructor mentioned that Approach had dumped us onto the approach a little fast but that we could easily make corrections.”
The student then told his instructor he thought they should perform a missed approach, based on their current configuration. The instructor advised him to put the aircraft into a sideslip all the way to the flare. That move put the airplane halfway down the runway. The runway was wet, so max braking was not applied. The plane ran off the end of the runway.
Another NASA filer, a CE525 captain, landed long at an unfamiliar airport.
“I got a TCAS alert for another aircraft on the downwind. That traffic reported me in sight and advised that they would follow me. I may have inadvertently made a shortened final approach out of courtesy.”
The result for this pilot was that he landed long.
“By the time I realized I wouldn’t stop by the end, it was too late and unsafe to attempt a go-around. I overran into the grass and then there was a pond that I rolled into.”
A Dangerous Courtesy
Several NASA reports were submitted by pilots who landed long after conducting short approaches they weren’t ready for. They made them as a courtesy to an aircraft in trail.
Sometimes it is a well-meaning Tower controller’s suggestion that imperils a pilot.
A C182 pilot was offered the chance to land long to reduce taxi time. He accepted.
“I continued my approach to Runway 5R, added 10° of flaps, came down into ground effect, and maintained 5 feet (approximately) above the runway. I continued down the runway until what I thought was an appropriate position to pull power to idle and touch down.”
The plane touched down with insufficient runway remaining and struck a runway threshold light.
Every aircraft’s Pilot’s Operating Handbook or Aircraft Flight Manual has a Section Five. That section defines performance data, such as approach and landing speeds.
All airplanes are regulated by CFR Part 23 or Part 25. In Part 23, the regulations require a steady approach of not less than VREF and at a gradient descent not greater than 3°. In Part 25 of the “Landings” section, the federal government even goes so far as to dictate, “The landings must not require exceptional pilot skill or alertness.”
In other words, the government has made it easy for airplane manufacturers to make it easy for us to land consistently well every time.
There is a category of pilots not even the federal government can help — those who cannot read a windsock correctly.
A C182 pilot’s report is indicative of their plight. He landed fast, long and with a tailwind. He was not able to stop before the end of the runway.
“I made my decision to land on Runway 20 based on the windsock, when I should have based my runway selection on the Automated Weather Observing System instead,” he wrote.
The pilot ran off the runway. Taxiing back to the runway, the nose wheel went into a hole, causing a prop strike.
The best instructors always taught me to maintain landing discipline, to treat every landing as practice, and to grade myself after every landing.
They also trained me to make a plan for every landing. That plan has two parts. First, set up for a stabilized approach and do whatever it takes to stay stabilized. Second, always be a hair-trigger finger away from going around once it becomes clear the first part won’t work.
In VFR, traffic pattern approaches on the downwind, we know to pick and stick to our landing spot. That spot should be the touchdown markers. Stabilized IFR approach criteria depends on whether its precision or non-precision.
Just like parking a car, landing an airplane takes practice. If it looks like you’re going to bend something just to force the airplane down, pull up, go around and take another practice shot at perfection.