Stabilized approaches: the last six inches is all that counts
I believe we have all read more than one article describing how to make good landings. I think we can all agree that using a stabilized approach should result in a good landing, the kind of landing where the flight attendants can smoothly walk the aisle collecting the last of the beverage cups and empty Goldfish packages.
There are groups of pilots who seldom use a stabilized approach because the variables of most of their landings make that difficult, and their normal landing is to use a flexible approach with almost everything varying except the final contact with the ground.
I’m not sure I can name all the groups of pilots that are in this category, but those that I can think of are: bush pilots, military liaison pilots, crop dusters, and many glider tow pilots who are limited by space or time factors. Getting on the ground quickly or into a too-small or non-standard area that may pass for a runway, will determine how it is approached. A stabilized approach is best for normal flying but is a luxury that some pilots don’t have.
These pilots have made enough stabilized approaches and the resultant good landings to know what it is like to touch the ground smoothly even if everything on their variable approaches is wildly chaotic. The chaos is expected and through practice, mastery is achieved. With time it may be difficult to land using a stabilized approach. It may just seem too strange.
Crop dusters usually have the seasons working against them—crops ripen according to the season as light and temperature move north. Some dusting operations move with the growing season; some dusters remain local and do repeat applications of chemicals when needed. There is usually lots of area to treat. All dusters are subject to the weather and must make optimum use of flyable time. Getting on the ground quickly for refills is necessary. There are no beverage containers to collect, and the shortest distance between two points is still a straight line. Traffic patterns are not normal. Since dusting or spraying has been described as flying low altitude aerobatics all day long, the landing approaches are no exception.
Tow pilots often have time restraints as well. Getting gliders in the air when the thermals are strongest is the goal, and everyone wants to be in the air simultaneously. Short return times are desired, returning from the direction of the most promising looking source of lift, a billowing cumulus cloud. That often results in a downwind landing. Trailing a usually 200-ft. long towrope adds more challenge, especially if operating from a relatively short, tree-lined field. Almost every landing is a high approach over the trees until the rope is clear. That is often followed by a steep descent using maximum slip and/or full flaps until almost touching the runway. Another (time consuming) option is to drop the rope on one low pass over the field and then return to land with less challenge.
Bush pilots have many challenges. First, they might be landing at places that aren’t airports. In fact, the places they land are often not even thought of as places. They could be a beach, a stream bed, or an uphill glacier. If there is somewhere you want to go, they seem to be able to get you there. It does have to be clear of trees or large rocks, but they seem to be able to land an airplane like it is a helicopter. There are short field landing competitions, usually flying Piper Super Cubs, Cessna 180s, 185s, or similar high wing aircraft with huge low pressure tires that repeatedly land in about twenty feet.
The approach is not at all normal. It is stabilized however, in that once they slow the plane down to below normal stall speed in a very high angle of attack, power is all that is preventing a stall. They slowly approach the landing zone just “ hanging on the prop.” It takes lots of practice, hopefully done first at high enough altitude for stall recovery before it is in regular use. It’s always precarious—you’d better be really good or stay away from places like Alaska or northern Canada.
Pilots of military aircraft whose designation began with “ L” during World War II, Korea, and maybe Vietnam, and were used primarily for target spotting, shared most the challenges of bush flying where no standard landing site was available much of the time. Similar landing techniques were required in the L-1 to L-19.
I definitely agree a stabilized approach is the best way to have a smooth passenger or flight-attendant-pleasing landing. Practice and master these before you try landing in the other super flexible manner, because the only thing they share in common is to be stabilized—but only in the last six inches above the ground.