When There's No Need For Speed

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I’m not sure I know where to look when seeking wisdom about things aeronautical, but I know two places not to look: the YouTube comments section and the dreary carnage of the NTSB database. But wisdom is different than inspiration and the latter can be found in both those sources.

Scrolling through the comment field for today’s video about light sport accident patterns, I saw an observation from one viewer suggesting that a little too much speed on landing is better than not enough. Ah, here we are; your X-rays are back from the lab and we think we see the problem.

I spend a lot of time plowing through the NTSB’s indices of carnage, mayhem and bent metal. If I have learned anything, it is only to reinforce what you already know: The plurality of aviation accidents happen in the narrow slice of rectangular airspace immediately above a runway and speed control—or lack thereof—has a lot to do with it.

For the video report and the accompanying article in Aviation Consumer, I used a basis of 212 light sport accidents, but I read many more to buttress what I think I know about this subject. My conclusion linking light wing loading and featherish control forces is somewhat of a theoretical leap. The NTSB reports are long on bloodless detail but short in describing what was actually transpiring between the pilot’s ears, if anything at all was.

For my next project, I’m going back into the data to sort out how many landing accidents are caused by too much speed rather that too little. My educated guess is about two thirds. In a heavier standard-category airplane, this is challenge enough, but in a light sport with immeasurably gossamer pitch and roll feedback, navigating a speed-of-heat landing flare requires skills and patience beyond the ken of mere mortals. Into this uncertainty, gravity renders the inevitable dope slap and the next thing you know, you’ve merited a few cells in one of Paul Bertorelli’s annoying Excel spreadsheets.

I’m pretty sure too much speed on landing emerges from fear of stalls because of too little. Many pilots—even experienced ones—are fearful or at least uncomfortable with stalls. A portion of those who are not can probably pull off a high percentage of good landings, while another portion are the clueless ones who end their careers in a heap of twisted metal that even a tyro investigator will immediately recognize as a stall/spin.

What to do about this? Billions of trees have died in the service of explaining how to improve landings. In its 91 years of existence, Flying alone has published the same article 4126 times. (I made that up, but go ahead, prove me wrong.) To this august body of repetitive stating of the obvious, I have no additional observations. I got nothin’ here.

All I can say is what works for me. And that’s not to fly with a CFI who may or may not know a whit about nailing the best airspeeds for landing and, in fact, not to fly with anyone in the right seat at all. In every airplane I have flown, I have had to figure out the best overall speed over the fence on my own, mostly by ignoring the POH and developing a feel for what works.

Last week I was in Kerrville, Texas, flying Mooney’s new M20V Acclaim. (Spoiler: It’s kick-ass cool.) Because the external cameras freeze and die at altitude, I rigged them up for a series of takeoffs and landings so as to keep the viewer mildly amused with as many views as possible. The POH recommends an airspeed of 74 knots for the landing which is itself probably a little high. We had about 15 knots of wind, slightly quartering. So the approaches were flown at 80 over the numbers and sometimes a little higher because in turbulence, the airspeed tape is like a berserk slot machine.

And here a sidebar. I wonder if some seriously smart young Embry-Riddle student did a study, he or she wouldn’t find that pilots flying steam gauges would get better landings than those flying glass tapes. A modern skill for the modern pilot is to avoid target fixation on that digital airspeed value. Not that I’m blaming glass for bad landings, but wondering if it helps or hinders.

Anyway, my too-fast landings weren’t horrible—an LSO might call them fair passes. But they were long and floaty. I was flying with the preternaturally calm Premier Aircraft Sales’ Lee Drumheller, but there’s a certain deferential nature to the flight demo dance that causes an understandable nervousness when approaches in a near million-dollar airplane are flown a little slow instead of a little fast. So I don’t fool around trying to hang it on the prop.

But I would if I were alone. Although I talk to myself and sometimes answer, I don’t make myself nervous. When I get serious about this stuff, I’ll do eight or 10 landings, nibbling the airspeed back right to the point of the impending mush, then easing it off. In my view, the best landings ensue from a slow approach with a taste of power right into the flare. Finishing it with that final tug of pitch causes the airplane to surrender all of its energy at once. Done right, you make the first turnoff by adding a little power, not stomping the brakes. Probably won’t be a greaser and who cares?

Confidence accrues from performing well without the right seat adding sotto voce tension, needed or not. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only guy to think this, but I’m also pretty sure not enough pilots actually go out and practice it, given the number of metal-rending arrivals. And as I’ve said before, the NTSB only hears about a fraction of them. But there are more than enough to populate one of my annoying spreadsheets.