THE “BLACK SPOT” IN THE SPOT LANDING CONCEPT
Many training manuals use some sort of “spot landing” technique to teach how to land gliders. When I first started teaching in ’86, I, too, used a “spot landing” teaching method. Now what I quickly learned is that an instructor needs to be careful about how important he/she makes that objective seem to the student. If the student thinks that the “spot” is a key objective then he/she will hit it. This may occur at a 40 degree nose low attitude (not good for the glider or the occupants) but the student has accomplished the stated objective. Obviously, there needs to be other, just as important, objectives such as learning to flare. More importantly, however, “spot landings” tend to get the student focused on the “spot” way too early in the landing process. Also, if the student is flying the approach over obstructions, such as trees or telephone lines, the spot picked may be impossible to land on safely or without damage to the sailplane. That is, it may be too close to the end of the runway or field to touch down on and still miss the obstruction(s).
From a safety standpoint it is surely more important to focus on the obstruction(s) one must clear than it is to focus on a “spot” on the field. I have seen three sailplanes hit trees on the approach end of a runway. In each case only the top branches were hit and in both cases the spoilers were partially open. In conversations with each pilot after the incidents each admitted that they did not know they were going to hit the tree(s) until they heard a loud explosion. That is, the wing hitting the tree. In each case the impact area on the wing was more than half way out on the wing. And in each case the pilot was looking straight ahead focusing on (the spot) where he was going to land. Hence, the “black spot” in the spot landing concept. Pilots have a tendency to focus on their “spot” to the exclusion of seeing the obstructions.
So, if we don’t teach the spot landing concept at Bermuda High what do we teach? It’s called the “MISS THE OBSTRUCTION” approach to landing. Here’s how it works. On the base leg the student needs to verify again (the first check was on downwind) that he has a clear area on which to land. That is, there are no other sailplanes, nor golf carts, nor people, etc. in the way of the intended path. Then the student is to focus on the obstruction(s) that he must clear in order to get to the field. This could be trees, power lines, fences, houses or whatever. He is to monitor and adjust accordingly his airspeed, his coordination, and his height (comfort level) above the obstructions. He is also to identify the highest obstruction in his flight path and make his height decisions base on that obstruction. If he misses the highest obstruction he certainly will miss the lower ones. After the landing, during debriefing, the student must be able to identify exactly where the highest obstruction was on final. That is, on his left, right or straight ahead. After he has missed the obstruction the student is to fully extend the spoilers, keep pattern airspeed to within a few feet of the ground, flare, and let the sailplane land wherever it lands.
Now, are we trying to get students to just barely get over the obstructions? Absolutely NOT! We want to student to miss the obstruction(s) by what we call “his comfort level”. (In reality what I think we really mean here is my comfort level in relationship to where the student is in his training program.) Normally, the pre solo students will miss the obstruction(s) by at least one hundred and sometimes by two or three hundred feet, which is fine with me. However, another question asked after landing is, “By how much did you miss the obstruction?” One Hundred feet? Two hundred feet? Here we are trying to get the students to recognize his height above things on the ground. If the student misses the obstruction by 20 feet and guesses 150 feet, that’s bad and we work on correcting his perception of height. By the time of solo the student should be able to give a good estimate of how high above the obstruction(s) he was and where the highest obstruction was (left wing, right wing, straight ahead) on landing. As the pilot advances in his skill level he can be taught that after clearing the obstruction(s) spoiler adjustments can be made to “touch down” further down the field if so desired.
One other advantage of the “MISS THE OBSTRUCTION” method of teaching landings is one that I consider to be very important in the long-term safety of sailplane pilots. From the beginning of their training this method teaches them how, when necessary, to land as short as is possible for their skill level. That is, when the pilot must land off field. One of the biggest fears of new sailplane pilots and one of the two factors that keep more pilots from flying cross-country is the fear of having to land off field. When landing off field in a small field most pilots use the “MISS THE OBSTRUCTION” method. That is, they:
1. Keep the airspeed exactly correct, depending on wind conditions, not too fast, not too slow.
2. Concentrate on missing the obstruction(s) by as little as their comfort level will allow by using both spoiler and a slip, if needed.
3. Go to full spoilers as soon as they are sure they will miss the obstruction(s) and slip some more, if needed.
4. Flair and land. If they have some space left over they may ease off on the spoilers to do a lower energy landing, but only if space allows.
Remember, spots on the runway don’t hurt you, so quit thinking about them and start concentrating on obstruction(s), which surely will hurt you if you hit them.
PS. Do you wonder what the other major fear to cross country flying is? I bet you already know. If not, stay tuned. We’ll talk about it in another Instructors’ Corner.
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