A student who was going through initial King Air training once said to me, “I felt comfortable flying the King Air in an hour, but it took about a month to learn how to start the SOB!” I think we would all agree that the King Air – all the various models – are delightful flying machines and, indeed, quite easy to fly. To land them perfectly, however, is a difficult goal to achieve. In fact, it is difficult in any flying machine. This article will present a few of my observations about what is often wrong with the landings and present some suggestions for corrections.
Almost without exception, a pilot new to the King Air will land left of the runway centerline if he/she is sitting in the left seat. Likewise, they will land right of the centerline if sitting in the right seat. My theory is that their subconscious mind is making them “leave room” for this “big” airplane into which they are transitioning. Landing on the runway’s centerline is one of the criteria for a “perfect landing.” No, not 100% of the time. For example, a strong crosswind may lead the pilot to land on the downwind side of the runway and roll out toward the upwind side … a classic technique that decreases the actual crosswind component. But with typical light winds aligned with the runway, aiming for the centerline is the preferred technique. One never knows when a brake may bind or a tire may blow or a propeller might not reverse as expected so having the most maneuvering room on both sides of the airplane upon landing makes logical sense.
There’s an easy fix for the tendency to “leave room for the airplane” on the runway. It is this: Don’t fly the airplane; fly your seat.
What do I mean by “fly your seat?” I mean make your seat be the airplane’s centerline. When you fly a Piper Cub or a single seat warbird this is a given … you are indeed sitting on the airplane’s centerline, on its longitudinal axis. Now make your own seat – whether slightly left or right of the actual longitudinal axis – be the axis you care about, the one you make move with the aircraft controls. I will let you in on a secret: If you fly so as to put the runway’s centerline right between the butt cheeks sitting in your seat, the airplane’s nose tire(s) will be closer to the centerline than if you “left room” for the airplane. (And, yes, with practice and understanding you can slide your seat just far enough left or right that indeed the airplane’s nose tire is tracking the centerline stripes.)
Have you been taught this important technique? When first transitioning into an airplane that you have not flown before, do this when taxiing out for departure: Put your seat exactly on the taxiway centerline and set your sight as far down the straight taxiway as you can. Now pick a point on the windshield, the glareshield or the instrument panel that aligns exactly centered in your line of sight to the far end of the taxiway. What if no obvious point can be found? Then lick your thumb, reach forward and place a thumb smudge on the windshield. That’s the longitudinal axis for your seat!
Now let’s make our “perfect” landing. First, we need to comply with the criteria presented on the Landing Distance charts in the POH if our results are going to be anywhere close to what the manufacturer thinks they will be. The charts present an “Approach Speed.” This is the speed at 50 feet above touchdown as the round out and flare begins. The term “Approach Speed,” to most pilots, refers to the speed they target from the Final Approach Fix (FAF) to the Missed Approach Point (MAP). But the term on the landing distance charts refers to the 50-foot speed and is calculated as 30% above stall speed in the landing configuration (1.3 X Vso, in most cases).
With this speed at 50 feet above touchdown, power levers now being reduced to idle and the tires rolling on the runway surface 1,000 feet further forward, an actual touchdown speed is not presented on the charts. However, my discussions with the Beechcraft test pilots as well as my personal experience and observations leads me to believe the touchdown occurs between 10 and 15 knots below the listed Approach Speed.
It’s helpful that most precision approaches – ones with vertical reference – use a TCH (Threshold Crossing Height) very close to 50 feet and that solid paint stripes denote the point 1,000 feet from the runway’s approach end. Those can be wonderful aids in our quest for the perfect landing.
But when we are touching down on the short dirt strip at the ranch, we are forced to do our best “guesstimate” and place the 50 foot point at a location a little short of the actual runway, so that our touchdown point is safely near the actual threshold.
I, as well as many other aviation writers, have used lots of ink discussing crosswind landing technique. I won’t belabor that topic again but suffice it to say that now’s the time that standard rudder/aileron coordination gets rightfully ignored. Instead, we use the rudder to align the longitudinal axis with the runway and we use the ailerons to prevent drift. Touching down first on the upwind main tire is the proper outcome that this achieves. If we let the airplane touchdown while drifting sideways and/or without the proper alignment then the airplane pays the price and the passengers readily feel the mistake. Yes, you can walk away from the landing and the airplane can even be flown again … but perfect it isn’t!
My observation is that very often the slight jerk felt at touchdown is not due to left or right drift but instead is due to improper alignment. That is where the technique of “flying your seat” really pays a benefit. Make certain the rudder pedals have been used properly so as to put your seat’s longitudinal axis (remember the smudge mark?) smack dab on the far end of the runway. Ahhhh … isn’t that nice? No jerk today.
How’s your ego? Is it strong enough that you are willing to sacrifice the quest for a squeaker today? I am sure you, like I, have been guilty of floating well past your touchdown aiming point, keeping a little power on, feeling for the runway, and hoping for that magical moment when it’s hard to tell the airplane is rolling and no longer flying. We’ve all done this ourselves and watched as other pilots strive for the squeaker. But you know what? Unless a good dose of luck is on your side, this technique merely makes the touchdown jolt occur farther down the runway than the aiming point. Right? In my opinion, a so-gentle-that-it’s-hardly-felt touchdown plays no part in the perfect landing criteria. Sure, on the 10,000-foot-long runway with the FBO at the far end and light winds, who can resist striving for a squeaker? I am sure that I can’t. But avoid making this a part of your normal technique. On speed, on centerline, no drift and perfectly aligned … those are what constitute a perfect landing. At least that’s my opinion.