Learning to Fly with Flight Simulator

by John Rafferty

Phase 6: Approach and Landing

Once you're straight and level at 95 knots with 10° flaps, the rest is a piece of cake.


Beginning the Descent. From this altitude, you'll want to start your 500fpm descent from about five miles out.

Later on you'll be able to determine your distance from the airport very easily and reliably, but for now you'll have to guess. From this altitude, however, you'll be just about five miles from the airport when the direction of the runway first becomes distinct on the computer screen.

At that point, simply ease back—gradually—on the power. Then monitor the vertical speed indicator, and reduce the RPM just enough to establish a steady 500fpm descent. (In actual practice, the carburetor heat is turned on before throttling back, to prevent it from icing at low RPM. I usually don't bother to turn on the carburetor heat on the simulator, but you can do so if you wish. Remember to turn it off again, however, if you return to cruise RPM, since the warm intake air reduces power.)

Adjusting the Glide. As you approach your destination runway, look ahead at the runway threshold—the point where the pavement begins. If you're headed directly for that touch-down point, then that point will remain at the exact same spot on the windshield.

If the touch-down spot is slowly creeping up on the wind-shield, however, it means your present glide path will cause you to touch down short of the runway. To prevent this, add a little engine power to extend the glide.

If the touch-down spot is moving down on the wind-shield, then your present glide path will cause you to over-shoot the runway threshold. To prevent overshooting, reduce the power to adjust your glide accordingly.

Keep an eye on the position of that touch-down point on the airplane's windshield, and adjust the throttle as necessary to keep the spot steady.

Make shallow, gentle turns now, to get the airplane lined up with the runway. The sooner you get lined up the better, but be patient and keep the turns shallow. Your airspeed will be low, so aerodynamic stalls will be much more threatening, and the controls will be somewhat mushy and difficult to handle.

Glance at the altimeter from time to time, to determine how far you are above the ground. Increase power if you're coming down short of the runway—use full power if you need it—but power back a bit if you seem too high.

If you're very high, you can lower the flaps further, to 20°, which will give you a steeper angle of descent, but be sure to control the nose if you do this.

Landing. If you execute a proper approach, the airplane will almost fly itself right onto the pavement.

As the airplane is just about to touch down, ease back on the power and raise the nose very slightly. This is called the flare, and it does take some practice to get the feel, but you'll have very little trouble with it if the approach itself is executed properly.

Keep an eye on the altimeter—it will help you determine when the airplane is just about to touch down. At Bridgeport, the airplane will touch down when the altimeter reads 22 feet. This is the airport elevation; it's shown on aviation charts (and on some of the Flight Simulator charts) just below the airport name. On Flight Simulator charts, the airport elevation is generally given in the table listing the airports.

Be careful of over-controlling. You have to be quick and decisive—but gentle—in handling the elevator control at this point. Just nudge the stick up or down as required to keep the nose slightly up and under control. Gentle up or down nudges are the key. Don't raise the nose too much, however, or your airspeed will fall off, you'll hear the stall-warning horn, and.…

When you touch down, cut the power; center the controls; and raise the flaps. You may hear the stall-warning horn, but that's OK if you're no longer airborne. Slow down with the brakes, and turn off the runway.

From the Right-Hand Seat


ATC: Four Six Foxtrot contact Bridgeport Tower on one two zero point niner see ya.
Pilot: Four Six Foxtrot so long.
Pilot: Bridgeport Tower, Piper Three Zero Four Six Foxtrot.

ATC: Piper Four Six Foxtrot cleared for straight-in final approach to Runway Six. Visibility twenty-five. Altimeter three zero point two zero. Wind zero six five degrees at four report on final.

Pilot: Four Six Foxtrot.

The airport should be directly ahead; make gentle turns, if necessary, to point the airplane directly at it.

When the airport runway configuration is distinct, ease back on the power, and gradually adjust the RPM for a 500fpm descent.

Pilot: Bridgeport Tower, Four Six Foxtrot on final.
ATC: Four Six Foxtrot OK.
Adjusting the Glide. Make gentle turns to line the airplane up with the runway.

If the runway threshold is moving up on the screen, add some power.

If the threshold is moving down, reduce power.

If you're much too high, lower another 10° of flaps, and control the nose as the airplane's trim changes.

Monitor the altimeter. Again, this airport's elevation is just 22 feet.

Landing. When about to touch down, ease back on the power, and keep the nose up slightly. Pray if you want to.

On the ground, cut power; center the controls; raise the flaps; slow down with the brakes; and turn off the runway to the left.

Post-Flight Briefing

The problem areas on this flight are getting set up for the approach and judging your glide to the runway. Let's consider some common causes of these troubles.

Setting Up for the Approach. The main problem here, usually, is controlling the attitude of the airplane—the position of the nose relative to the horizon—when the RPM is reduced prior to lowering the flaps. This simply takes some practice. The main trick on the simulator is to respond quickly, with gentle up-and-down nudges on the stick, keeping the nose up slightly.

Under-Shooting the Runway. If you found yourself coming down short of the runway, you should have made the correction with increased power alone—even using full throttle (temporarily) if that was what it took.

If you instead started pulling back on the stick at that point—trying to raise the nose in order to stretch the glide, you probably got into trouble. Without added power, stretching a glide is one aeronautical trick that doesn't work, as countless unhappy pilots have learned.

Raising the nose without changing the power causes the airplane to lose airspeed, which in turn only increases the rate of descent, so that it touches down even further from the runway than if you hadn't done anything at all. In fact, if you tried to stretch the glide, it's likely that you got too slow to maintain adequate lift, at which point you probably heard the stall-warning horn. And an aerodynamic stall at such a low altitude is invariably followed by a rather embarrassing landing.

Over-Shooting the Runway. Similarly, if you found yourself too high as you came in over the runway threshold, you should have corrected by reducing power (while keeping the nose from falling too much, by means of gentle nudges on the stick).

If you lowered the nose in order to touch down sooner, you increased your airspeed (you put the airplane into a dive), making it more difficult to touch down without damaging the aircraft; the simulator, like any other airplane, is not very forgiving of really hard landings.

Incidentally, Runway 6 at Sikorsky is 150 feet wide and 4677 feet long. It's desirable to touch down right on the centerline stripe at the very threshold (right on the numbers, as they say, referring to the large white identification numerals that you'll find on the threshold of most runways). But even if you came in a bit high, you still had nearly a mile of concrete stretching out ahead of you. A Boeing 747 might need that much runway to stop, but you could afford to cheat a bit if you found it necessary. In fact, the general aviation facilities (and the coffee shop) are on the left, way down at the far end of Runway 6; so in this case it would have been quite defensible to fly well down the runway and not actually touch down until you were near the end—to save the time of taxiing nearly a mile.

In any event, if you really were too high as you came in over the runway threshold, a proper procedure is to lower another 10° of flaps. With 20° of flaps, the airplane descends at a steeper angle, thereby shortening your glide. You can even go to 30° flaps if you have to, but be careful to control the nose. (We'll work on full-flap landings a bit later on.)

Missing the Pavement. If your glide path was OK except that you were not quite lined up with the runway, then you could have touched down on the grass. In this respect, the simulator is quite forgiving—and if anyone happened to be looking you could have just lied and told them you did it on purpose.

A personal note: I took my first flying lessons at Peter O'Knight Airport, on Davis Island in Tampa, Florida, in 1955. My instructor was Mark Brann, one of the early aviation pioneers. When he was young, he bought a damaged airplane, repaired it, and taught himself how to fly. What's relevant here is that when Mark began teaching me how to land, he taught me to come in parallel to the runway pavement but to intentionally land beside it, on the grass—because landing on the grass saves wear and tear on the airplane's tires.

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