First, once committed to land, don’t trick yourself into doing something impractical or unsafe for the sake of holding to some arbitrary position and altitude. Keep things simple, so that if you do need to make some adjustment the solution will be clear.
Use crisp turns when turning base and final. There’s an insidious tendency for all of us to bank less than we need near the ground. Wide turns in the pattern consume much time and room, possibly carrying you beyond where you meant to be and shortening the time you have on straight legs to judge and recalibrate the approach. If you find you’ve started a steep turn too soon, rolling back to a flatter, longer turn is easy and safe.
Mathematically, 45-degree banks yield the most efficient change of direction, but in landing efficiency shouldn’t matter. In a coordinated turn the lower wing is already moving slower than the high wing, which gives it a higher angle of attack (closer to stall). Sailplanes’ longer wings and relatively slow speed make this difference extremely significant. That reluctance to bank tempts pilots to skid their turns down low, further slowing the slower wing and accelerating the faster one while altering the actual flight path very little. This is the classic prescription for a spin in any situation, especially turning into the wind at low altitude, with wind gradient increasing the difference in airspeed between the two wings. And if all this happens while turning final, you’ll be too near the ground for safe recovery from a spin!
In many emergency scenarios steep turns near the ground are vital. Full control in banks of 60+ degrees should be well within the capability of any proficient pilot. Such skill and confidence you must gain – and maintain. If you feel uneasy banking near the ground, realize that this anxiety itself is a real safety problem. There is no more important time than landing for a pilot’s actions to be effective instead of fearful. (And as with every other aspect of soaring, safety always supersedes standard procedure.)
This same instinctive reluctance to bank near the ground invites yet another common error: rolling out of the final turn with over-eager aileron and little or no rudder. The result, again, is adverse yaw toward the rising wing. By coming out of a left turn with excessive right stick and little or no right rudder, you cause an unwanted yaw to the left – into the turn you’re leaving, and away from where you want to go.
Though very steep turns may feel spooky, the only danger is failing to complete one before touch down. Don’t be afraid of steep banks, but do be afraid of skidding turns anywhere near the earth – whether it’s your landing field or a mountainside. Talk to yourself if it helps, but never skid turns. That’s what the yaw string is for. Use it!
Think of your base-to-final turn as the most dangerous point of every flight. With traffic potentially merging from every direction and a heightened probability of its being unseen, this is where the risk of collision is greatest. Also, if unseen traffic exists, there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance that YOU’RE IT! Failure to see traffic further out, opposite your final turn, means they’re now behind you on final – and you can only hope they’re not inching closer each moment. You’ll never know until…
Any self-respecting pilot wants to make spot landings, and any skilled pilot can… but only if they try. Learning to land accurately at a predetermined point is important, but over-control is not the way to do it. Steeper approaches are easier to judge than flatter ones, especially when a precise touchdown point is important. Of course a very flat approach is just bad strategy and a very steep approach (without flaps) makes stopping short nearly impossible.
Some pilots make awkward, long landings because they unlock the spoilers but don’t open them far enough to significantly steepen their approach. When you’re deploying spoilers for real, glance briefly at one wing to confirm how far they’re extended.
There is great temptation to micro-adjust on final approach, but that distorts judgment of the glide. Small atmospheric irregularities tend to average out if flown through with steady hands, but they seem to worsen when we jockey the controls. Some correction with spoilers may become necessary, but try to minimize large alterations of glide slope. As you near the ground it becomes more important to be steady, steady, STEADY, particularly in higher performance craft. Most runways provide ample room to touch down either short or long by hundreds of feet, so take it easy and let gravity do the work!
Okay, so what about crosswind landings? We’ll discuss them next time.