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No. 189, which is actually “No 2. Swoop, Sink and Plant (The Wheel Landing)”



Last week, I pointed out how relatively simple the method for conducting a three-point landing is.  So it only seems logical to deal with the wheel landing this time.

I like to teach the Mnemonic, “Swoop, Sink and Plant” when we start learning to land with the wheel landing.  We swoop into the approach end of the runway, no higher than five feet or so and then transition from that swoop

“Clyde” executes a classic wheel landing. He’s still flying and still has lots of control in the event that turbulence rears its ugly head. (photo by Bert Garrison <and “no,” I’m not gonna tell you how he did it!>).

(which is just another way to say that we preserve energy in the form of airspeed by keeping the nose down and fighting the tendency to gradually increase the angle of attack which will slow us down too much).  Then we transition two things:  We move our vision to a spot at infinity way past the other end of the runway.  And we use the elevator to change from the swoop to the sink, adjusting the sink rate to one which will result in a nice, slow touch.  We wait until the mains touch the ground, then we immediately plant the plane on the ground with a varying amount of forward pressure on the control wheel or stick in order to preserve the airplane’s pitch attitude.  If we don’t plant, the tail will continue to descend, increasing the angle of attack and causing a resultant climb or bounce.  But that transition from swoop to sink is the problem area and, more than anything else, can cause a problem.  Why?  Because we are making a power-off approach and we have only so much energy.  We MUST get the airplane from the end of the swoop to the plant in a small amount of time because we are gradually slowing down.  It is the lollygagging on the part of the pilot which causes the plant to happen long after it should and results in a tail-low wheel landing or even a three-point landing when we had attempted to do a wheelie.

If I could succeed in getting my students to simply whip it up and minimize the sink, they would see most of their problems disappear. Oh, and one more thing:  If you run into someone who says “I only do three points”, or “Wheel landings are just too fast”, run as fast as you can and disregard everything that person has ever told you.  Why?  Because in my opinion they have their head firmly lodged in their nether regions.  Every pilot should know how to do both a Wheelie and a Three-Point.  Period.

As a bonus, I’m going to include a little section here on what can go wrong with our landings.  And that is “The Bounce”.  Wanna know how to deal with it?  Then read on….

The Dreaded Bounce

You’ve made just one mistake.  Doesn’t matter whether you were doing a “Wheelie” or a “Three-Point” landing.  That one mistake was to create a bounce.  The airplane either came down a bit too fast with not enough plant during a Wheelie or it touched before stalling in the three point, or “Kerplop” landing.  Now you have to deal with the resultant bounce.  There are usual methods of dealing with this situation.  One is to use alternating up and down elevator to chase the bounce.  That almost always results in “pilot induced oscillation” or PIO.  Not a good idea.  The other method is to simply apply power and go around.  That’s the method that a lot of instructors and experienced pilots prefer (Acme is really into this one).  Cue the villagers with their pitchforks and torches because I think that solution sucks.  I’m against most go arounds that occur after touchdown.  I say, “let’s fix it right now and continue with the landing”.

There are basically three methods of dealing with a bounce.  They all have the same problem, in that the decision of how to deal with the bounce must be made in a fraction of a second.

The first method is to change the desired type of landing. If you’ve tried a wheelie and encountered a bounce, you can simply keep the airplane in the landing window and turn it into a three point.  That works lots of times.  If you can act fast enough and if the airplane is descending slow enough, you can use the second method by simply applying forward elevator when it touches next and make the next attempt work without a bounce.

The third method is perhaps the most popular.  Its disadvantage is that it will increase the amount of runway required, so there is always the risk of running out of runway.  It is the addition of power.  That’s one of the reasons that most flight instructors insist that the pilot keep a hand on the throttle.  Although I am one of those teachers, I really don’t care for this method.  To me, it relies on something which may not always be available and creates a bad habit.  But if you must….  Power will preserve flying speed and make it possible to touch again.  It will also make it possible to go around.  Hmmm, after a touch?  I don’t know that it’s a good idea, although situations vary.

So there you have it, three ways to deal with the dreaded bounce:  Turn a wheelie into a three-point, use the excess speed to touch once more and use power to either preserve the altitude you have or go around.  All of these methods require split-second decision-making and that may be what makes the bounce so dreaded!


4 comments to No. 189, which is actually “No 2. Swoop, Sink and Plant (The Wheel Landing)”

  • Phil Cloutier

    Hey Brian, I feel more in control with wheel landings. When I attempt 3 pointers, my visual reference is disturbed and seem I begin to overcontrol with excursions toward the weeds. With more practice, perhaps I can nail it down. Thanks for your expertise in getting the points across with words and pictures. Phil

    • brian

      I, too feel more in control with the wheel landing. That’s why it’s the landing of choice for any conditions that include turbulence or crosswind. You are never helpless at stall in a wheelie and I think that’s why I like it. And, as Wolfgang Langewiesche and all those Alaska Bush pilots will attest, it can also result in a very short landing because brakes are significantly more effective when the weight is on the mains (yeh, I know, Wolfgang has been dead for quite a while and cannot attest to anything).

  • Ryan Lunde

    I like how you touch on the tail-low wheel landing. That seems to be the most common landing I see in tailwheel flyers today and although I’ve seen some utility in it, in normal practice I think that it’s a compromise and doesn’t show much airmanship. You just don’t see people swoop in and land it level on the mains all that often and the tail-low method is setting up for a three point, but then putting it on the mains at a low airspeed when that little back wheel needs to be on the ground to steer because it’s getting a little too slow for the rudder to be effective. I don’t know if its laziness or lack of training, but I cringe at most tail-low performances.

    • brian

      Y’see, everyone’s got an opinion. I usually respect Ryan’s and I see a lot of problems with the tail low wheel landing… it’s simply harder to pull off and it’s perfectly okay to bring the nose down on the “plant” in order to make the brakes more effective. This ain’t no forum, but isn’t it great, how many opinions our little science of flying has? Thanks, Ryan!!!

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