I'm having difficulties with stabilized approaches and landings. Can you help?
While there is a large amount of knowledge needed to safely and confidently fly, at the most basic level, landing an aircraft is a skill that must be learned and practiced. Only after the skill is mastered can the pilot learn and practice the art of landing. In order for me as the instructor to know what to suggest for areas to improve for landings, I like to start on the ground with a discussion about landings, then progress to an evaluation flight.
For the ground session, I am trying to discover if there are there any missing knowledge or skill pieces in the areas of procedures, aircraft control, cues, and what the pilot should do with information learned from the cues? I’m also evaluating the workload perceived by the pilot, looking for times when the pilot feels overloaded, and if any of the processes are inefficient. Can I suggest any tweaks to reduce or relocate workload to make the pilot’s job easier? I’m not there to insist the pilot re-learn everything, I’m there to help polish the rough spots to allow the client to achieve their goals. I may offer the client our Private Pilot/Flight Review Study Guide if there seems to be concern about upcoming Knowledge Tests or the checkride, or our Pre-Solo Written if the pilot has not soloed confidently. These resources with their answers, a Table of Configurations, Traffic Pattern Diagram, and many more are included in my "Flight Instructor's Notebook: Private and Commercial Pilot."
During our ground session, I will seek the client's answers for many question. Some of these questions are:
- What is your process for a landing, starting at downwind mid-field?
- Where are you running your before landing checklists?
- What actions are you supposed to take when downwind abeam your touchdown point, turning to base, on base, turning to final, on final, on short final?
- Where do you turn from downwind to base?
- Where do you start your turn from base to final?
- What bank angles do you use for upwind to downwind, downwind to base, base to final?
- What sort of method or methods do you use for crosswind correction on upwind, crosswind, downwind, base, final, short final, roundout, flare, touchdown, and rollout?
- What are your default power settings on all of the legs of the traffic pattern? What is your pitch attitudes? Target airspeeds? Aircraft configurations?
- What rudder pressure is required on all phases of the traffic pattern?
- What should you do if you turn base and realize that you’ll be high?
- How do you realize that you are high when on base? Final? Short Final?
- How do you correct airspeed when on base, final, and short final?
- When do you reduce power to idle on final? What rudder pressure is required when making this power change?
- How much altitude should you lose from power reduction on downwind to wings level on base? What should your descent rate be, assuming a 1000’ AGL traffic pattern altitude?
- What should you do if you realize that you will be low on final? What cues tell you that you will be low?
- When you say you’re having trouble maintaining a stable approach, what is your definition of a stable approach? What cues tell you that the approach is not stable? What mistakes does your instructor tell you that you are making? How does your instructor advise you to make the corrections?
- What is the average velocity of an unladen swallow? European?
- When you are in the roundout to the flare, where should you be looking, and what for? What rudder is required? Yoke movements?
- On touchdown, what tires should touch down first? What if you had a left crosswind? A right crosswind? A left quartering crosswind?
- What tire should touch down second? What if you were in a no wind situation? What tire should generally touch down last?
- What are the requirements for initiating a go-around? What is the initial process you follow once you’ve decided on a go-around? Say the instructor told Tower this next landing attempt would be a full stop, would it be okay to make the landing attempt a go-around instead? What should your initial airspeed be when initiating the go-around?
After the knowledge areas are firmed, it's time for a flight evaluation. This is where the real fun begins, especially for me. We’ll start with a preflight briefing, where I’ll explain to the client that they might notice me occasionally noting something on my kneeboard. I’ll remind them that I’m not writing negative information, many times I’m making a note for a topic we should discuss during the post-flight brief, or marking off that we’ve completed a task. I’ll list the maneuvers we plan to review during the flight and ask the client if there are any questions before we begin. Once the questions are answered, it’s time to head for the aircraft.
I’ll observe the preflight, although I won’t be playing 20 questions here, I’m really there to observe. If this will be the first flight together, we’ll typically head out to the practice area. I’m observing everything at this point, so the time from the airport to the practice area is well spent. I’m checking for coordination between rudder, ailerons, power settings, and elevator as well as monitoring the client’s attention division between aircraft control, use of aircraft systems and avionics, communications, and traffic scanning.
In the practice area, we’ll review pre-landing maneuvers, especially power-off stalls and recoveries; slow flight; shallow, medium, and steep bank turns; rudder coordination exercises; changing configurations; changing airspeeds; a power loss scenario or two; trimming exercises; possibly even a rectangular course if time, weather, ground congestion, and traffic allows. Then we’ll head to the traffic pattern where, depending on the airwork, I’ll either observe a complete traffic pattern circuit to a full stop landing with taxiback. After this circuit, or immediately, depending on how much lesson time we have left, we’ll go play a game I call “Scaring the Runway." A detailed explanation of the "Scaring the Runway" game is found in AOPA's "CFI-To-CFI" Newsletter. (Flash needed)
After our final landing of the session, I’ll assist the client with securing the aircraft, and we’ll head inside to a private area for the post-lesson debrief. I will ask for the client’s perception of their performance, which best make suggestions for the next session. I’ll already have a good idea on what skill and knowledge areas should be reviewed and practiced during the next session, during the debrief I’ll solidify my perception of how the client best learns. I will communicate this information to the client and the client’s regular instructor. No matter at what level the client performed on the evaluation, we’ll do our best to complete the ground session(s), flight lesson (s), and the de-briefs on a positive note. I like to remind our clients that if flying were easy, everyone would be doing it. Especially for someone who’s struggled to achieve their goal, I am in awe of their courage to continue facing the obstacles and delight in their conquering them.
As a side note, I enjoy being the go-to instructor in the area. I live for when the pilot’s lightbulb shines brightly overhead, the pilot having learned something that’ll let them overcome the challenge faced. Working the traffic pattern all day, with four different clients, is not drudgery or boring. While I am focused on the task at hand, my primary focus is how to get the client over their stuff so that they can achieve their goals. With this perspective, my day is not a series of bumps and circuits, it is a series of unique challenges to overcome. My goal is to make it possible for the client to conquer their obstacles more quickly, more efficiently, and with less frustration than was experienced during my previous instruction session.