Airline Pilot: Paint Me Another Landing

737 landing crop

Passengers experience the approach from the back of the jet: sinking lower, corrections left and right, a wingtip dipping, maybe the mush of a rudder step against the crosswind. Landing soon. Right?


So much more goes on beyond the locked cockpit door: one part land, two parts fly; a side order of go around–and all are acceptable.

You go to school in your head from ten, twenty miles out: what’s the wind doing? How’s the jet responding? What gets us between the final approach fix steady with all of the markers (pitch, power, roll and track) sinking through a thousand feet? And what will change?


It’s a moving target: you have to change configuration drastically, but lock in the performance in terms of stable speed and descent rate. Energy management: need to slow AND descend–what’s the best bargain, what drag do you pay out to slow, descend and lock in the 3 degree glide slope?

Time is never your friend. You’d better know how the thousands of pounds of jet fuel on board translate into not only minutes, but miles: where you gonna go, and when, captain? Used to ask new captains I checked out, one hand over the fuel gages (you need to know this stuff, not look for it when I ask), how much time do you have?  When do we need to get the hell out of Dodge, and where will you go?


Watch the jets ahead. What are they fighting? The widebodies on final and in the traffic pattern are a great visual aid: what are they doing? See those big old, tired pilots step on that rudder; watch the tentative wing-low; go to school–you’ll look smarter through 500 feet because they gave you a cheat sheet.

Think-feel-fly: be the solution, at 180 knots across the ground. Don’t just operate the flight controls–fly the jet.

Never mind the tower-reported winds–look around: smoke? Trees? Ripples on the water? And the living windsock you’re flying in–what does it take? Never mind what it should require, what the reported winds said it would take. Put it where you want it. Have those few extra knots in your pocket, the ones so easily pick-pocketed by faithless winds; carry the big drag (give me 40) in order to carry the big power. Your TOGA “get out of jail free” card is that much more readily cashed in, you’re actually driving through the wind to the runway rather than surfing the gusts.


Match the cross-track to the steady state wind, ignore the gusts heckling to no good end. Believe in what you know, what the jet’s telling you–there’s more power than you’ll ever need hanging on the wings, manage it; just fly smart.

Small correction rates, as big a correction as is necessary–don’t be shy. The jet’s like a horse: she needs to believe you believe in yourself if you’re going to make the jump, to know you can handle the landing.


It’s a weird conundrum, landings: you’ll never get credit for what you don’t do, never be forgiven for what you do. The answer is simple: perfection, then neither extreme alternative applies.

Taxi-in is the payoff. Silence is best, in my opinion. No need to reflect on what you just accomplished, just own it, bank it, quietly. You’re only as good as you last flight, and the next one’s waiting. Doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, but it damn well better be pretty.

Humble up, and let’s go do it again.




7 Responses to “Airline Pilot: Paint Me Another Landing”

  1. Randy Sohn Says:

    Like you said, don’t assume that the wind (reported) by the tower is what the wind is where you’re landing, the tower might easily be a couple of miles away from where you’re going to land! Like we always said – “PAY ATTENTION”.

  2. And those landings are on good-weather days. Imagine how all this ramps up when there are storms in the area. I once rode on a Southwest flight, trying to make it to Lubbock one summer evening. A vicious storm settled over the city and refused to budge. We circled over New Mexico for an hour, but the Lubbock storm persisted. A jet in front of us punched through and landed. Our crew decided to go for it. Wildest ride ever…and I couldn’t imagine the amount of skill it took to pull it off. Actually, I was not in the least bit worried. The a/c was strong enough, the crew was skilled. Bingo.

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  4. Mark Hayes Says:

    Nice post Chris,

    There’s real pith and a compelling punchiness in this “stick and rudder” look at landing the jet. The words read as fast as your speed over the ground and I found myself looking for the damn fuel gauge … thankfully I knew my tankage and where it would take me during this read.

    You brought to mind an old pal of mine who one night long ago and pre 911 was sharing his SAA 747 400 cockpit with me en route to Jo’berg from JFK. Deep, deep into the night and the sun rise lightened coast of Namibia still hours off the nose he just happens to remind me ” there’s no BP stations up here”. Never a truer nor more sober word spoken.

    Keep flying, keep spelling it out.



  5. The inexorable slide to earth described with perfection.

  6. Ronald Wilkinson Says:

    Some good, non-flying, lessons there, Capt.

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