How to Perform a ‘Good’ Landing

Posted by at 09:30

Landing is one of the most critical phases during a flight. It’s the second thing pilots learn in training after basic flight controls and recovery techniques. I’d love to be able to describe how to make a perfect landing, but the truth is a ‘perfect’ landing, as opposed to a good safe landing, probably doesn’t exist. Or is at least 99% luck. What I can describe are 5 main elements that make a good, and therefore safe landing.

Landing St. Maarten

1. A soft landing is not necessarily a good landing

One of the biggest fallacies out there is that a smooth landing is a good one. This isn’t always true. Whilst it does make the ride more comfortable for our passengers, unless conditions are perfect and the runway is long, a soft landing can be a bad thing. Touchdown is the first opportunity we have to dump all the kinetic energy keeping the aircraft aloft.

If the touchdown is very soft, the airplane is still half-flying, meaning it still needs to be controlled carefully, taking more time to disperse the remaining energy through braking over a limited length of runway. It’s also better for the wheels, as a smooth landing will scrape off the initial point of contact of the tires along the runway before friction spins the wheels up to the same speed as the aircraft.

landing cross wind

2. Wet runways need a positive landing

Once again, unless the runway is very long, a wet runway deserves a ‘positive’ landing. This means the pilot will endeavor to make a firm touchdown onto the runway. It’s because at our landing speed (anywhere between 220 to 280 km/h), the water on the runway can’t disperse away from under the tires in a soft landing, and the wheels will instead ‘skate’ on top of the water’s surface (hydroplaning).

A firm landing ensures the wheels, under the force of the touchdown, will break through this water film and make contact with the runway tarmac, which is far less slippery.

landing wet runway

3. The landing isn’t over until you’re down to taxi speeds

Some of you might have experienced a flight where the moment the aircraft touches the tarmac, people start clapping. Funny enough, this isn’t the end of the landing. Although it’s very rare at that point for anything to go wrong, the airplane is still traveling at great speed, and is therefore still somewhat unstable. For instance, any sudden gust of wind could make one or even both of the wings airborne again. This is why when we land the plane, we still use the flight controls to keep the aircraft centered and down on the runway until it’s slowed down a lot more.

landing aircraft

4. It’s the wheel brakes that are most effective in slowing the aircraft down during landing

A lot of things happen just after touchdown. Lift dumper panels open up on the wing to act as ‘air brakes’, the pilots engage the engine’s ‘reverse thrust’ (diverting bypass air being sucked in by the engine’s fan out and forward through panels midway along the engine), and once the nose wheel is on the ground you’ll feel the pilots use the main-wheel brakes.

Out of all three, it’s the brakes that make the most difference in slowing the aircraft down. Reverse thrust and lift dumpers are useful in the first few seconds of touchdown before the nose touches down, as they use the force of the high speed airflow that comes with the airplane’s landing speed. Once the airplane has slowed down however, they quickly become less effective. This is why during landing once the nose wheel is down, you’ll notice the main wheel braking the most out of all three.

landing at night

5. Automatic landings still need a human

One of my favorite myths is that pilots are lazy and fly the airplane on the autopilot the whole time, even during landing. It’s far from the truth, as although aircrafts are able to land automatically, it’s intended to be used in conditions of bad visibility (as in fog and mist). In fact, our wind limitations for landing are severely reduced if we need to carry out an automatic landing, so it’s fortunate that it’s very rarely foggy and blustery at the same time.

This is because the automatic pilot uses control algorithms based on information from navigation radios on the ground and air sensors on the airplane. There is no level of prediction or anticipation incorporated. The autopilot can’t expect the airplane to sink a bit more, or see a gust of wind rustle grass as it rushes towards the runway. For this reason, even when landing on automatic pilot, one of the pilots will still be holding, ‘ghosting’ the controls in case it does something undesired, ensuring the landing is completed safely. And most other landings are almost always done manually by one of the two pilots.

There are plenty of other things that come into play when landing an aircraft. It’s fair to say the list is much longer. These five tend to be the biggest questions my fellow pilots and I get when talking to people about flying. I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions, and perhaps next time you fly KLM to somewhere with a short runway, you won’t feel so bad about the landing not being completely unnoticeable.

44 Responses to How to Perform a ‘Good’ Landing

  1. Simon Greasley

    Very informative, thank you

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Glad you liked it Simon!

  2. Hendrik de Vries

    A KLM pilot shows a heck of a lot of skills when landing and taking off.
    Chapeau !

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thanks Hendrik! It also comes down to the dedication and training of our crews

  3. Rachel

    Interesting post – thank you. I have a question about landings – would the aircraft still stop in time if the air brakes were unable to be deployed (or they were forgotten)? Can the wheel brakes stop the aircraft without the other systems?

    • Rexford

      I think the wheel brakes are the primary way to stop the plane. If the air brakes fail to deploy, as a pilot (which I’m not), my instinct would tell me to get the plane to get contact with the tarmac first thing.

      Wheels in contact with the ground, I don’t care about the other braking systems as I’ll only have to apply my wheel brakes harder.

      “it’s the brakes that make the most difference in slowing the aircraft down.”

      The pros might have a better explanation.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Rachel, Rexford, good questions! The air brakes, often called lift dumpers, are not required for landing. Sometimes, usually because of fail safe systems getting confused, they break down en route, and disable themselves before landing. It’s no biggy, we have procedures and ways to calculate the effect on our required landing distance (which does increase a bit). So yes, the brakes alone can stop the aircraft

      • Rachel

        So what you are saying is that as long as you have enough runway, you definitely can stop. Thank you for the clarification Jonathan and Rexford – I appreciate it. I’m occasionally a nervous flyer so like to understand the details and I find technical posts (and the historical ones) incredibly helpful, not to mention interesting. I hope you post more insights.

        • Jonathan Franklin

          Rachel, happy to help! Yes, the pilots will always ensure, even before departure, that the runway they’re heading for is long enough for landing. Glad you like my posts, I’ll be sure to share more!

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  4. Rexford

    Great. One of my flights on an a380, the pilot almost stamped the plane vertically, kinda. Now makes sense why, because it was really wet that very morning. And some do apply the brakes so hard, others gently when after touchdown, all because of the runway length, I guess.

    Love the GIFs. Thanks for sharing

  5. Jonathan Franklin

    Hi Rexford, indeed you’ve probably felt the difference in runway lengths and conditions. Glad you liked the post!

  6. David Lamb

    Well written post. As a dispatcher in the USA, one of my tasks is to calculate the performance of the aircraft on landing. One of the considerations -not- taken into account is reverse thrust. All performance calculations are predicated on wheel braking alone, then factored for runway contamination (principally dry or wet, but if the braking action due to, say snow, ice or slush increases the distance required for landing, those have to be taken into account). Ultimately, it is the pilot in command in agreement with the FO who makes the final decision with respect to the landing.

    Landing is the most difficult task in a normal flight condition, as there is a rather complicated transition from “flying” to “rolling” that takes place. To take the OP’s remarks and break them down a bit further, in the final descent phase, the aim is to cross the end of the runway at 50ft (above ground level or AGL). At this point the rate of descent of the aircraft is in the realm of -700 feet per minute (fpm). The flair (slight backward pull on the control yoke) reduces the rate of descent as the aircraft settles into “ground effect”, a cushion of air that is compressed between the ground and the aircraft as the aircraft descends below 50ft. At 30ft, the rate of descent is reduced through the aft pull on the yoke while the power is pulled off so that as the aircraft settles into the ground effect, the rate of descent is further reduced so that at touchdown the rate of descent is in the -200/-300fpm realm, while not losing more than 5kts of airspeed in the 1000 or so feet it takes to get from 30ft to the runway. The approach speed passing through the 30kt threshold is targeted at touchdown speed plus 5kts, so that when the power is pulled off and the aircraft transitions through ground effect, the aircraft touches down at the -200/-300fpm rate at the touchdown speed.

    Sounds pretty straightforward, no? Well, add wind component, runway condition and landing weight and this gets to be a far more difficult exercise to pull off without either coming down too hard on the runway or in the alternative, “floating” too long and touching down beyond the touchdown target point. I’ve been in the flight deck jumpseat and had some spectacularly perfect textbook landings and some that were, say, less than stellar. It is the reason pilots practice over and over and over again to get the technique right for each situation, so they can anticipate how the airplane will react to a given set of circumstances, e.g. a gust of wind passing through the 30ft AGL flair point which causes the airplane to lose airspeed, or the reverse, a tailwind that causes the airplane to gain airspeed and float. The technique for dealing with these situations is quite different and the pilot has to react to how the airplane feels as it is passing through this transition point.

    Ever wonder why pilots are so well paid….that’s a great part of it. Every landing is evaluated, the good ones and the not so good ones. The hard ones, in which the aircraft loses too much airspeed through the flair and “stalls” onto the runway at a high sink rate is uncomfortable, but generally safe, but will require an inspection of the landing gear. The soft ones, while wonderful for the passengers, not so great for the wheel brakes, because long landings require more aggressive use of the brakes to slow down and if a pilot overheats the brakes, they will take time to cool before the aircraft can depart again.

    So…when you are sitting in the airplane, how do you know you had a good landing?

    Simple: You walked away, it was a good landing. A great landing, you feel the wheels contact the runway, then the aircraft weight transfers to the wheels so the aircraft will settle into the runway just a little and not any significant aggressive braking is required to bring the aircraft down to below 50kts in which the flight controls no longer have effect.

    So next time, check out your pilot when he says farewell and thank you. If he or she is smiling….it’s all good.
    One thing….it will always be safe. If the pilot doesn’t feel right, he’s apply power and go around and do it again rather than have a bad landing. A go-around is not a bad thing….it’s a pilot being prudent.

    If the weather is super crappy when landing, be sure to give the pilot a high-five….He or she earned it.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      David, how beautifully written! You blog too?! And you know your stuff! Don’t need a hi five, Just a thank you. It is like you said our job afterall. You mentioned stalling, material for a next blog?

      • Carola

        Dear Jonathan and David! Your are the best! I have fear of flying so after every (good and not so good) landing I always go directly to the cabin and say thanks to the pilot, because I know that is not easy. Keep with this blog! It´s awesome! Carola.

        • Jonathan Franklin

          Thank you Carola,

          I’m far overdue another blog, but I will soon publish something again in the new year. Thanks for thanking my colleagues, it’s always our pleasure!

  7. Brsato

    I learned that one of the most useless things during landing is the length of runway behind you……as is altitude above

    • Ramy Abou Shady

      That is true, as well as fuel on the ground ;)

      • Jonathan Franklin

        Brsato, Ramy, very very true! Here’s another, “A tank of fuel is a tank of time”, that’s why we make sure we always give ourselves plenty of time

  8. Jeff Anderson

    Very informative blog, it’s great to have this information shared, for us that are fans of the civil flying machines.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thank you Jeff, glad to oblige

      • Minnie

        Thanks for the initshg. It brings light into the dark!

  9. Tony Coelho

    It’s very easy do land a plane. At the end of the right wing there is a green light, at the end of the left wing there is a red light.
    Just go in the middle of both lights.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Tony, lol! Just don’t forget to tug on the yoke just when you get a little frightened before the ground!

      • Tony Coelho

        Thanks for remembering Jonathan,lol! Just installed yoke 2.0.
        Landing gear down and locked, here we go.

        • Jonathan Franklin

          If you’re talking flight sim, try out the old checker board approach at Hong Kong Kai Tak… In a 747

  10. B.J.Huttinga

    Nogmaals, mooie blogs. Waarom ook niet in de moeder taal nederands.
    Jullie zouden hier veel mensen een plezier mee doen.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      B.J, er zijn andere blogs van collega’s in het Nederlands. Helaas al ben ik twee talig, kan ik veel beter in het Engels schrijven dan het Nederlands. Daarbij zijn er ook veel niet Nederlandse lezers van onze blogs, en gezien Engels toch een vrij universeel taal is, breng je iedereen makkelijker bij door deze taal te gebruiken.

  11. Jack Meyer

    I hope all KLM pilots know the exact weather ahead as it sometimes can change depending on where you are landing. We here in Calgary, Alberta, have a saying close your eyes wait a minute and the weather will be different. This year is our way out there weather, rain, Hail, sun and winds can be all in one day and lie a pilot found out this past summer he can have a cracked windshield from hail.
    Than fully he was able to go to a different airport to land safely.
    So far I must say our KLM pilots who flew from Calgary to Amsterdam and return had no issues and for that I appreciate their hard work and training.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thanks Jack, glad your flight ended out fine in the end! Changing weather conditions are tricky, but we have ways to get the weather reports and forecast before and during the flight. We always make sure to have an alternate airfield where the weather is suitable, along with a big margin on top of that. Remember, the pilots want to land safely too!

  12. Stanley inniss

    Love this stuff , thanks for the five heads up , can’t wait to experience my next landing , hope it would with KLM .

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Stanley, glad to oblige! Hopefully your next landing will be on KLMs Fokker 70, obviously the best Aircraft type in the fleet ;)

  13. Granville White

    Very interesting article, thank you.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thanks Granville, glad you enjoyed it!

  14. Frans Balk

    Very nice and clear explanation, thank you!

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thanks Frans, glad too explain!

  15. Levente

    Great post sir! Just started flying more recently, glad I read that, as landing sometimes freaked me out for no logical reason whatsoever according to the article.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thank you Levente! I’m glad my blog has put your fears to rest

  16. Kumbi Chiweshe

    Great post Jonathan, very informative. I love the KLM blogs and share with friends wherever possible.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Happy to inform Kumbi, glad you liked it!

  17. Rene

    Very interesting reading material, thank you!

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Glad you liked it Rene!

  18. Sunny

    Great and informative post! I am a nervous passenger but fly a lot. And the more I read klm blog and have somewhat idea of how planes work the more comfortable I feel during my flights. Thank you.

    • Jonathan Franklin

      Thanks Sunny,
      So glad this makes you feel more comfortable on board. We’re always happy to help! =)

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