There were daily landing contests during the International Air Rally 2004 held in eastern Canada in July. At the destination airports two white lines were drawn across the beginning of the runway 100 feet apart. To score, the aircraft main wheels had to touch down between the lines …and stay down.
Each rally team had a minimum of two crewmembers, a pilot and a navigator. These were competitive aviators, most with plenty of flying experience.
It was fun to watch the landings. Each pilot seemed to have his or her own technique. Here, tongue-in-cheek, are the ten most interesting ones. For the sake of your airplane, please don’t try these at home.
1/ Top Gun Arrival
For this approach, the pilot lowered full flaps, slowed to minimum speed, set up a rapid sink rate and then added a handful of power to control the angle of the approach. As the pilot neared the marks, he or she cut the power and rode the airplane into the pavement.
A Top Gun Arrival could be spotted by watching for the pilot’s face pressed against the inside of the windshield. As the airplane ploughed nose-high toward the runway, the pilot’s jaw would be clinched and the eyes would be staring transfixed at the lines. The accuracy of this method was good but without an arrester cable and a hook, the airplane often bounced out of the box.
2/ Let Gravity Do It
For this one, the pilot executed a power off, full flap approach to a perfect, full-stall landing over the spot.
The success of this technique varied. Sometimes the landing was completed ten feet above the runway, sometimes ten feet below. The accuracy was not as good as the Top Gun Arrival but the rebounds were smaller.
3/ The Mother-in-law Approach
During the spot landings, if both crewmembers were pilots, one would fly and the other would jump up and down and yell.
"You’re too high! Too slow! Add power! Dump the flaps! Nose down... you missed."
The score on this technique depended on where the airplane was in its cycle of gyrations when it arrived at the spot.
It was easy to see a mother-in-law approach coming. The airplane would follow a roller-coaster path to the runway and the crewmember in the right seat would be flailing against the seat belts.
4/ The Two-Pilot Tango
This technique required two domineering pilots and dual controls. The airplane would zigzag its way to the runway with two red faces grimacing in the windshield. Each pilot would be fighting the other for control. Most of the time, they missed the mark. Sometimes they had trouble hitting the runway.
5/ The Three-Pilot Tangle
This was a combination of the Two-Pilot Tango and the Mother-in-law Approach. Two pilots in the front seats would be fighting for control while a third pilot in the back seat screamed at them. The teams using this technique had trouble finding the airport.
6/ The No-Pilot Approach
Sometimes two pilots thought that the other was flying. The airplane would approach the lines in a gentle descent. The pilots would turn and face each other with surprised looks and mouths wide open.
Several teams landed on the spot using this technique.
7/ "Have Arrived"
For this one, there would be no faces in the windshield. Both team members would have their heads down watching the GPS, which had been programmed to guide them to the spot.
This technique rarely worked. When the GPS flashed "Have Arrived" the pilots would look up in time to see the nosewheel careen off the spot followed by the airplane porpoising down the runway.
8/ Let George do it
Some crews coupled their autopilot to the GPS for the approach. The result was either the same as the "Have Arrived" landing or worse if there was any crosswind. The autopilot crabbed on final to correct for the drift. The airplane would be tracking to the spot but the nose would not be pointed at it. Often the pilot would push on the opposite rudder to compensate. The autopilot would then add opposite aileron. The pilot would push harder on the rudder.
By the time the airplane arrived at the spot, it would be in a cockeyed forward slip. The pilot would disengage the autopilot to land; the airplane would then obey the full rudder command and yaw wildly the other way. The landing was known as "The Skippy".
9/ The Wheelbarrow Waltz
Sometimes the less experienced pilots would forget one element of their approach. They might set up a descent but forget to slow down; or do a perfect approach but forget to flare out; or fly their approach with the power on all the way to landing. The result was always the same. The airplane landed nosewheel first, often in the box. The fun part came next when the pilot tried to steer the airplane on the runway with the mainwheels still in the air.
10/ The Slam Dunk
Some experienced pilots applied a new landing technique. "The Slam Dunk" involved a low speed, flaps down, power on approach. When the airplane was nearing the spot, the test pilot would retract the flaps, cut the power, raise the nose and open the doors. The result was a combination of the Top Gun Arrival and the Let Gravity Do It. If there were other pilots in the airplane, they would be screaming.
It’s fun to joke but there are serious reasons for pilots to have spot landing skills. Similar techniques are used for touching down accurately on a short strip, on an off-airport landing or during a forced approach.
Besides you might like to win the landing trophy at your local airport.
To put the difficulty in perspective, remember that an airplane traveling at 75 mph is covering more than 100 feet per second. If you have to make adjustments as you approach the spot, it’s too late. Given the pilot’s recognition time, reaction time and the airplane’s reaction time and its speed, you have to be set when you are 500 feet from the target, or you might as well go around.
The best way to gain proficiency is by practising.
Try landing in the space between two runway centre lines at your home field. Pick a set of lines at the 1,000-foot mark. You’ll see that it’s harder there than touching down accurately where you normally land.
Be careful. There is a strong tendency to concentrate on the spot and ignore little things like airspeed, crosswind drift and height above the runway. Take along a brave instructor or a safety pilot who can scream.
When you think you’re good, try it with the power idling from circuit height (except to warm the engine). After you master that, quit for the day and then try it in different conditions, then at different airports and then in different airplanes. Now you might be ready for the landing contest in the next International Air Rally.
In the interest of advancing pilot skills and improving scores in contests, I offer the following tips on spot landings during contests:
1/ Practice, as outlined above;
2/ Decide which crew member is performing the landing;
3/ Duct tape the rest of the crew on board. Cover their mouth and eyes, and bind their hands and feet;
4/ Land the airplane, rubber side down and main wheels first.
Garth Wallace flew for 12,000 hours as a bush pilot, charter pilot, flying instructor and corporate pilot in Canada. His laughter-filled books are based on the characters he met and the fun flights he survived.