Just Land the Darned Airplane

Pilots have some sort of machismo complex when it comes to making a smooth landing. I know it feels good to grease it right on the money. Not to mention that the landing leaves a lasting impression on each and every passenger. But a smooth landing is secondary to the primary goal of landing the airplane safely. Gusty winds and high crosswind components can quickly turn a beautiful flare into a scary situation. Best to err on the conservative side: just plant it! 

Believe it or not, a sideload is more damaging to your landing gear than a rough landing. Aircraft designers build oleo struts, trailing link landing gear, and other forms of shock absorbency into the the system to protect the airplane from the occasional smackdown. Most planes however, do not have any lateral shock absorber. This means that any sideload will put a direct stress on the landing gear. Sure, the system is designed to cope with some stress (after all, we can’t always land perfectly), but fatigue can build up over time. In some of the more extreme cases, pilots have actually collapsed the landing gear by landing without the proper crosswind correction.

Sideloads are put on the airplane by landing in a crab (sideways). Pilots are trained to correct for this by entering a slip and landing one wheel at a time. The problem is that many airplanes start to get squirley on roundout in a crosswind. Control pressures are constantly changing, and the wind can quickly become too much to handle. You suddenly find yourself being blown sideways across the runway, which increases the chances of landing with a high sideload, or worse: getting blown into the ditch!

You can work to prevent a dangerous situation by doing your best to get the airplane down. Don’t try to make it pretty, just stick the airplane on the ground and accept a harder-than-normal landing. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not telling you to fly nose-first into the runway. That would be a bad thing. Just don’t “milk it” and aim for that satisfying “chirp-chirp” of the mains in a blustery wind.

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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

11 Replies to Just Land the Darned Airplane

  1. Benny Rietveld says:

    Very cool!

    I travel a lot (I’m a touring musician), and I’ve been doing it awhile. So I’ve been through all kinds of landings, and have learned that they’re not always “smooth”, but that when they’re not it’s nothing for me (as a passenger) to be concerned with. I still found the article interesting, however, and would suggest that a lot of “newbies” as well as seasoned travelers read it as well.


  2. Andy says:

    I agree there. I mean.. if you have to fly thru 2 storm fronts to get to where you’re going, it’s going to be a turbulent flight.

    What goes up, most always comes down; Sometimes smooth, sometimes it’s like dropping a piano. I would agree that the gear is more designed to take a higher vertical force than a lateral force. That just looks like simple mechanics….

    I wear earplugs when I fly, not to dull the noise of the crying babies, but to dull the noise of the panicky passengers.

    It’s a good article, deserves being read by your novice travelers.

    • Good call on the earplugs! When I’m riding in the back of an airliner (especially a DC-9!) I always wear some earplugs, more for engine noise though. The whirring of the engines gets old after a while.

  3. Harold Villacorte says:

    This definitely applies to situations in which you really want to get the airplane on the ground, such as when flying a transport category aircraft with paying passengers who want to get somewhere. Definitely just get the job done and go home. Or the the piston pilot who finds himself in a situation he doesn’t want to be in anymore, get the airplane on the ground safely then go home and think about it. But a pilot in training or a pilot who is genuinely interested in becoming better and safer need not be afraid to go out and practice some landings when strong crosswind conditions exist and go for the greaser every time. It’ll make make the hard landings softer and the soft landings spectacular in “real” life situations when you really need those skills. If you’re not comfortable with the idea then just hire a good instructor to come along for the ride.

    To make a good crosswind landing you need to only follow three basic rules which apply to all landings.

    1. Land somewhere in the touchdown zone.
    2. Keep the longitudinal axis of the airplane parallel with it’s flight path.
    3. Land on the centerline. I saved this for last because you might have to deviate from it if the crosswind is strong enough. You might find out someday that the crosswind component can exceed the limits of the airplane and you simply run out of rudder while the airplane continues to drift off the centerline. When this happens you can turn the nose a little more into the wind and land with a flight path that is slightly diagonal to the centerline. On a very narrow runway it might be safer to just accept the sideload.

    Once the airplane is on the ground you have to keep flying it until you come to a safe taxi speed. Use whatever rudder it takes to keep the airplane straight and keep the aileron correction in there while pushing the yoke forward a little to give you more nosewheel steering authority. With practice it becomes second nature.

    Hope this helps. Have fun and fly safe.

    • I really appreciate your perspective and you’re right on, especially about flying the airplane all the way down to taxi speed. In a tailwheel you even need to keep flying to a full stop as weathervaning and ground-loops can develop rapidly. Thanks so much for contributing Harold!

      • Reg says:

        If you’re not sure you can land safely, go around. Most landing accidents occur in bad weather. If you’re not sure you can do it, don’t do it. Go around. Go to the alternate. Most of the great stories about landing in hard conditions are because they forgot or even didn’t know the basic rules, and got lucky. Don’t be a hero, be a pilot. Just being a pilot is hero enough for most passengers, they don’t remember it much, but if tasked to it, they’ll reluctantly agree.

  4. Paul McGhee says:

    “Believe it or not, a sideload is more damaging to your landing gear than a rough landing.” I don’t believe it. Not after watching all those videos on Youtube of airline pilots planting 800,000 lb planes in varying angles of crab while landing in what must be ferocious crosswinds. You can see the pros are very good at timing the kick-out, but not perfect. I don’t believe it after plonking my poor Grumman Tiger more times than I care to admit at minor side load angles–apparently without harm–during my primary training. I’m starting to think the side load bugaboo is like the other aviation wives tales we’ve all heard.

    • Reg says:

      You watch the pilots bringing the plane down with little or no damage, because that’s the best case scenario. Only there’s been a lot of cases when that “little damage” turned out into a fireball, with the fuel tanks catching fire. Watch the videos where the pilots did their best, but everybody died. You can’t rely on “well, most of the youtube videos I’ve watched never killed anybody.” Watch the rest. Know the rest. Learn from it. It’s horrible, but you can’t fly without knowing the risks. You must fly knowing the risks. And getting ready for the unthinkable.

  5. moon light'n Freight Dawg'n says:

    I side loaded today…snapped a bolt holding the main gear straight. About 5 to 10 feet off the ground I pulled the power back to flight idle, unfortunately one engine spooled down more or quicker than the other causing the aircraft to roll and yaw to the right. Too close to the ground to recover and touched down a bit sideways. I did not think that it was too much of a crab to damage anything …. It probably was not…but it did. Almost took me off the runway but I managed to limp it into the ramp. Felt like a flat tire. Just one of those days …I hope I don’t get another one of those days for atleast 6 months lol safe flying my aviation brothers ….don’t Cate what they say about us…..we rock

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