Coming Back to Earth

At the end of each leg of a trip, a pilot makes his approach to his destination airport. If he has done his preflight planning correctly, he’ll know something about the conditions at his destination airport. Airport directories published every few weeks by the FAA reveal any flight hazards at the airport and give pilots a sense of how local planes move around the traffic pattern.

While still a few miles from the airport, a pilot descends to the traffic pattern altitude, which is generally 1,000 feet above the ground. He radios the tower of his approach, and controllers alert him to other traffic in the area that could pose a collision threat. If there’s no tower at the field—the vast majority of all airports are these “uncontrolled fields”—the pilot uses a local frequency, which is indicated on aeronautical charts, to let other pilots in the area know of his arrival.

There are some prelanding checklists the pilot goes through to make sure the plane is ready for landing. The checklists are contained in the airplane’s Information Manual, but are frequently transcribed on a card that can be easily held in one hand. In a retractablegear airplane, one of the most important is the checklist item that reminds the pilot
to extend the gear. There are few things more embarrassing—and potentially dangerous—for a pilot to do than land a retractable-gear airplane without dropping the gear.

Coming Back to Earth

By the Book

On final approach, pilob follow an imaginary glide slope down to the runway. The glide dope, which can be an angle of decent as shallow as 3 degrees, is often indicated by a set of Fights installed beside the run­way. Depending on the airplane’s height above or below that imaginary glide slope, the pilot sees varying color lights. It’s a simple, easy-to-use system that helps pilob by displaying two red danger Fights when the pilot is too low, two white caution lights when he’s too high, and one of each when he’s on the proper glide slope.

The pilot also extends the wing flaps, usually by a few degrees at a time to progressively slow the airplane as it gets closer to landing. Finally, the airplane turns into final approach, the sloping descent to the runway that gives the pilot time to prepare his thoughts for the task of landing. During final approach, the pilot will make small adjustments to his throttle setting to stay on a steady glide slope, and he’ll use the elevators, ailerons, and rudders to stay aligned with the center of the runway. In a small airplane, the pilot will hold a speed of about 60 knots, or 69 m. p.h., while in a jet, the speeds will be in the neighborhood of 150 knots, or almost 175 m. p.h.

When the plane gets to within 50 feet or so of the runway, the pilot gradually reduces the throttle setting and begins a smooth transition from a slight nosedown attitude to a slightly nose-up attitude. For a tricycle-gear airplane, it’s very important that the pilot not land the plane nose-wheel first. The plane can be badly damaged, and it’s even possible for the pilot to lose control of the plane.

Within a couple of feet of the ground, the plane will begin to settle to the runway. By this point in the landing, the throttle will be all the way off as the airspeed continues to slow. If the pilot has timed the landing properly, the plane will touch down on the runway just about the moment the wings begin to lose lift in a stall. Up to now, the pilot has been pressing the rudder pedals, but now that he’s on the runway he will move his feet to the top of the pedals and begin to apply the brakes. After all, he’s not flying any more—he’s taxiing.

After landing and pulling off the runway onto a taxiway, the pilot will do many of the same things he did at the beginning of the flight, except in reverse. He’ll read through his postflight checklist, contact the tower for permission to taxi, and head for the parking area to shut down the engine and attach the tie-down chains.