When There's No Need For Speed

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I’m not sure I know where to look when seeking wisdom about things aeronautical, but I know two places not to look: the YouTube comments section and the dreary carnage of the NTSB database. But wisdom is different than inspiration and the latter can be found in both those sources.

Scrolling through the comment field for today’s video about light sport accident patterns, I saw an observation from one viewer suggesting that a little too much speed on landing is better than not enough. Ah, here we are; your X-rays are back from the lab and we think we see the problem.

I spend a lot of time plowing through the NTSB’s indices of carnage, mayhem and bent metal. If I have learned anything, it is only to reinforce what you already know: The plurality of aviation accidents happen in the narrow slice of rectangular airspace immediately above a runway and speed control—or lack thereof—has a lot to do with it.

For the video report and the accompanying article in Aviation Consumer, I used a basis of 212 light sport accidents, but I read many more to buttress what I think I know about this subject. My conclusion linking light wing loading and featherish control forces is somewhat of a theoretical leap. The NTSB reports are long on bloodless detail but short in describing what was actually transpiring between the pilot’s ears, if anything at all was.

For my next project, I’m going back into the data to sort out how many landing accidents are caused by too much speed rather that too little. My educated guess is about two thirds. In a heavier standard-category airplane, this is challenge enough, but in a light sport with immeasurably gossamer pitch and roll feedback, navigating a speed-of-heat landing flare requires skills and patience beyond the ken of mere mortals. Into this uncertainty, gravity renders the inevitable dope slap and the next thing you know, you’ve merited a few cells in one of Paul Bertorelli’s annoying Excel spreadsheets.

I’m pretty sure too much speed on landing emerges from fear of stalls because of too little. Many pilots—even experienced ones—are fearful or at least uncomfortable with stalls. A portion of those who are not can probably pull off a high percentage of good landings, while another portion are the clueless ones who end their careers in a heap of twisted metal that even a tyro investigator will immediately recognize as a stall/spin.

What to do about this? Billions of trees have died in the service of explaining how to improve landings. In its 91 years of existence, Flying alone has published the same article 4126 times. (I made that up, but go ahead, prove me wrong.) To this august body of repetitive stating of the obvious, I have no additional observations. I got nothin’ here.

All I can say is what works for me. And that’s not to fly with a CFI who may or may not know a whit about nailing the best airspeeds for landing and, in fact, not to fly with anyone in the right seat at all. In every airplane I have flown, I have had to figure out the best overall speed over the fence on my own, mostly by ignoring the POH and developing a feel for what works.

Last week I was in Kerrville, Texas, flying Mooney’s new M20V Acclaim. (Spoiler: It’s kick-ass cool.) Because the external cameras freeze and die at altitude, I rigged them up for a series of takeoffs and landings so as to keep the viewer mildly amused with as many views as possible. The POH recommends an airspeed of 74 knots for the landing which is itself probably a little high. We had about 15 knots of wind, slightly quartering. So the approaches were flown at 80 over the numbers and sometimes a little higher because in turbulence, the airspeed tape is like a berserk slot machine.

And here a sidebar. I wonder if some seriously smart young Embry-Riddle student did a study, he or she wouldn’t find that pilots flying steam gauges would get better landings than those flying glass tapes. A modern skill for the modern pilot is to avoid target fixation on that digital airspeed value. Not that I’m blaming glass for bad landings, but wondering if it helps or hinders.

Anyway, my too-fast landings weren’t horrible—an LSO might call them fair passes. But they were long and floaty. I was flying with the preternaturally calm Premier Aircraft Sales’ Lee Drumheller, but there’s a certain deferential nature to the flight demo dance that causes an understandable nervousness when approaches in a near million-dollar airplane are flown a little slow instead of a little fast. So I don’t fool around trying to hang it on the prop.

But I would if I were alone. Although I talk to myself and sometimes answer, I don’t make myself nervous. When I get serious about this stuff, I’ll do eight or 10 landings, nibbling the airspeed back right to the point of the impending mush, then easing it off. In my view, the best landings ensue from a slow approach with a taste of power right into the flare. Finishing it with that final tug of pitch causes the airplane to surrender all of its energy at once. Done right, you make the first turnoff by adding a little power, not stomping the brakes. Probably won’t be a greaser and who cares?

Confidence accrues from performing well without the right seat adding sotto voce tension, needed or not. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only guy to think this, but I’m also pretty sure not enough pilots actually go out and practice it, given the number of metal-rending arrivals. And as I’ve said before, the NTSB only hears about a fraction of them. But there are more than enough to populate one of my annoying spreadsheets.

Comments (23)

The one thing I took away from your LSA video was exactly what you said ... too much speed is an issue.

After many decades of flying my C172 with zero issues, I came close to crunching it on a blustery day last year (coming back from an ADS-B Rebate flight, BTW). I couldn't hold the centerline and was headed off the runway into the cross wind when I decided to get outta Dodge. I then ended a subsequent approach to a grass runway when I decided that wet grass would be worse. I shoulda gone around to line up with a "backup" runway locals use -- a taxiway -- but didn't. I then found out how good my brakes work. Subsequent self analysis yielded that I was too fast on the first landing and forced the successful one because I got nervous. Watching your video solidified my own thoughts and I learned from your analysis. Thanks.

We're taught to fear stalls so much that we go too far the other way, I think. During my FR two years ago, the CFI complimented me on holding heading during a pretty deep stall sequence. I think that practicing slow flight and being confident on recognize what 'your' airplane does -- as you say -- is far more important than adding speed because you fear stalling.

But NOW ... I have a new tool. Talk to myself and then answer. Why didn't I think of that? :-)

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 26, 2018 10:37 PM    Report this comment

With 1,000 hours in a Mooney C, the one thing I learned from good and bad landings, speed matters. Too fast, and you're seeing the end of the runway sooner than you'd like. Too slow, and you may be wondering if you're going to be picking twigs out of the landing gear.

An old crotchety instructor showed me how he determines the touchdown speed in any airplane he flies, takes off in landing configuration and when the airplane lifts off (not capable of flying at that speed), that is the touchdown speed. Obviously, flaps play a big part in that speed determination, as generally one doesn't takeoff with full flaps.

I also learned that my Mooney preferred 1/2 flaps instead of full flaps, unless I really really needed to land short. Better rudder control, a little bit more tolerant of speed mismatch, and less affected by ground effects.

Posted by: Phillip Hecksel | August 27, 2018 9:11 AM    Report this comment

My only claim to aviation expertise is that I've flown with AVWeb contributor, Paul Burge, in his Champ. However, it seems to me that a LSA has less inertia on landing than, say, a Mooney and can tolerate a somewhat higher speed on landing. My apologies to Paul for dragging him into this.

Phil DeLong

Posted by: phil delong | August 27, 2018 9:19 AM    Report this comment

Slightly lower stall speeds and very minimalistic light structures don't prevent accidents.
There was zero logic to support the idea that LSA would be easier/safer than a Cherokee 140.
LSA was a political idea and was not based in reality and physics.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 27, 2018 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Good old round airspeed instruments provide FOUR kinds of information, simultaneously:
1. Absolute value.
2. Relative value.
3. Direction of change.
4. Rate of change.

Designers of popular "glass" displays would do well to eschew "tape" ASI presentations.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 27, 2018 9:46 AM    Report this comment

There is no too much speed that is good, or too little speed that is good for an airplane. From a Cub to the Space Shuttle, there is an appropriate speed for the weight, CG, and all of the circumstances of that flight at that particular time. Violate those laws of physics and the door is open to whole lot of trouble.

Because many of us get away with these speed violations over time, we become accustomed to flying this way. However, sooner or later, our lack of speed control will result in an accident.

Of course, the debate rages on the cause(s) or contributing factors for lack of speed control such as poor training, light wing loading vs heavier wing loading, high wing vs low wing, crosswind components, wind gusts, tail wheel vs nose wheel, glass vs steam gauges, etc. Certainly, all of these issues plus more play a contributing role even if they are good and valid reasons or not.

At the end of the day, we must learn what the correct speed is for that particular day, weight, circumstance, etc and actually make all the right decisions and control inputs the airplane demands. To me, that is learning the art of flying rather than just being another, that's good enough to get away with it airplane driver.

Granted, some airplanes tolerate poor speed control better than others. And we all have benefited to some degree from their forgiveness. But forgiveness for sloppy techniques may allow us to fly another day, but combined with apathy about speed control simply because we got away with it, sets the stage for flying an airplane that is less tolerant of our lack of technique dishing out a less than favorable outcome.

In the end, to me, a large part of these accidents caused from lack of speed control, is one's attitude toward that particular flight. Are we going to invest in the time, expense, and training to perfect our skills in the art of flying, or are we looking at flying techniques simply as good enough to accomplish the task at hand. Is each flight an opportunity for improvement? Or is each flight a practice of good enough? No one can answer those questions for us but ourselves.

We all have heard the saying practice makes perfect. I believe practice makes permanent. Now the question is what are we practicing when we fly?

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | August 27, 2018 11:10 AM    Report this comment

The good glass displays I've seen show absolute value, direction of change, and rate of change information. If by "relative value" you mean in relation to the entire speed envelope at once, I haven't seen any tape display that shows that. But if by "relative value" you mean in relation to important V-speeds, they will display that too. So depending on what you mean by #2, tapes can display all four pieces of information.

That being said, I still think an analog ASI is more intuitive to read than a moving tape (which can often be difficult to tell in which direction it is moving, absent a secondary indication that shows direction of change).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 27, 2018 11:12 AM    Report this comment

Many moons ago when I was at Edwards AFB, I got involved in reactivating a massive facility called the Moments of Inertia platform built in the 50's. You guys wouldn't believe the size or massiveness of the thing located in the floor of the Weight & Balance hangar there. Basically, it was a very large rigid platform which could rotate on four 4' hydrostatic bearings pointed at an imaginary point above it and act like a pendulum. An aircraft as large as a B-47 could be tied down to it and measurements about the x, y and z axis could be measured and inertia figures calculated from the period of oscillation when disturbed.
See: dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/243012.pdf (Fig 14)

As a very new pilot then, I learned that longitudinal weight & balance wasn't the only issue one should be concerned with. Vertical and lateral centers of balance and moments of inertia in the three axis should likewise be considered. Before the advent of computer modeling, actual measurements were the way these figures could be calculated. As it applies to LSA vs heavier airplanes, that's basically what we're talking about here. I've never ever heard a CFI talk about these issues and how they apply to the handling qualities of an airplane. But they should be. A C-5A and a C150 both have to fly within their weight & balance envelopes but there's a BIG difference between the way they handle. Why ... moments of inertia. Google it.

I'm with Yars :-)

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 27, 2018 12:39 PM    Report this comment

I recently invested my birthday money in an Angle of Attack (AoA) indicator. I've been practicing landings using it and I must say I like it. My trouble is the AoA is a fairly new addition and I have to develop the brain memory to incorporate it in my landing routine. When used correctly I'm usually able to turn off at the first taxiway. Wondering if LSAs could benefit from this device...

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | August 27, 2018 12:49 PM    Report this comment

Learning to land a very light aircraft and watching a GA pilot learn to land a very light aircraft is instructive in how airplanes transition speed to lift and vice versa. Very light aircraft (under 1000 lbs gross) have less momentum than higher gross weight aircraft and tend to slow down more quickly. On a gusty day the transition from flying to landing can be abrupt. One manufacturer even cautions pilots to increase airspeed by 10 mph below 100 feet AGL. They don't say why but I believe this is because if the engine quits, you need to get the nose down quick and transition the extra airspeed into lift to arrest the decent. I learned to land very light aircraft by flying the aircraft on to the ground. There is no flare and no stalling the aircraft on to the runway. This insight has helped me land biplanes, high wing, low wing, fast and slow airplanes. Take a Steerman for example, high momentum and high drag. Be on speed, over the runway, pull the stick back into your lap and wait. Lots of mass to slow down. The other trick is to sometimes land at an angle to the runway.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | August 27, 2018 1:04 PM    Report this comment

"Tyro", "august", I can dig it. But "soto voce"? It's enough to increase Vso by a couple of knots.

BTW, I like your take on "but short in describing what was actually transpiring between the pilot's ears, if anything at all was."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 27, 2018 5:28 PM    Report this comment

YARS, I agree.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 27, 2018 9:01 PM    Report this comment


The critical difference between a traditional round, moving-hand display, and a "sexy" moving-tape display is this: the tape display has to be READ; then the acquired information has to be processed - the dial display information can be swallowed whole.

Example: You've likely seen one of those large-form-factor clocks - the ones where the hands are visible; mechanism that drives them is buried in the wall; and the presentation may or may not include wall-mounted numerals or place-marker chits. Even without the chits, most people can glance at the display and tell the time within three minutes or so. Even when the display includes only an hour hand (no minutes pointer), most folks can gauge (couldn't resist the pun) the time within ten minutes or so. At a glance. No pondering required. Neatly, the angular presentation also offers a way to add and subtract blocks of minutes - or hours - VISUALLY: 90 degrees = 15 minutes or 3 hours, etc. It's a marvelous piece of human-factors engineering. Really.

A ROTATIONAL sweeping-needle display leverages humans' amazing ability (adaptation?) to see and interpret ANGULAR-presentation information, including direction-and-rate-of-change - right to the point of being able to fly accurate phugoid trajectories based solely on the ASI display.

By contrast, in Paul's own words, "the airspeed tape is like a berserk slot machine."

Not to mention (but I'm about to) the running argument over whether the tape displays should show higher airspeeds descending from above, or rising from below...

Cool is tempting, but effective is good. I say this less as a pilot, than as someone who has spent a LOT of time designing man-machine interfaces.

As a side point, I'm STILL waiting for somebody to do what seems obvious to me: integrate AoA information into an ASI display, WHERE IT BELONGS. Just put colored AoA arcs (or pointers) onto an OLED "dial" face; expand/contract and rotate the arcs in response to changes in AoA - by reference to the MOVING airspeed needle. After ten minutes of practice, you could maneuver through the full range of airspeeds at a constant angle-of-attack - by loading and unloading the wing with the elevator. What a teaching tool THAT would be!

Lecture/rant over.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | August 28, 2018 5:53 AM    Report this comment

Yars - Love your "side point" above.

Posted by: Robert Mahoney | August 28, 2018 8:13 AM    Report this comment

Ingenious enough YARS. Good lecture.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | August 28, 2018 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Aerovonics introduced this instrument at AirVenture. It happens to have a digital ASI, but it could be analog, too.


Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 28, 2018 11:22 AM    Report this comment

"Even without the chits, most people can glance at the [analog clock] and tell the time within three minutes or so."

I find it actually takes me a couple seconds to figure out what time an analog clock is displaying, whereas I can tell in half a second what time it is by glancing at a digital clock. And I'll admit to occasionally misreading an analog altimeter (though I'll catch myself after a mental sanity check). But then again, I grew up right at the end of the "analog" era and at the beginning of the "digital" era when digital clocks and such were just coming in to favor, so for me a digital readout is often less error-prone, more accurate, and quicker to interpret than the analog representation.

My point being that there are advantages and disadvantages to both analog and digital representations of numbers. Which one you prefer (that is, the one you generally find you have fewer misinterpretations of) somewhat depends on what you're used to. Personally, I find I prefer digital clocks and "tape" altimeters, but analog airspeed indicators.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | August 28, 2018 11:41 AM    Report this comment

To Yars point, I installed a glass display (Aspen) in my plane as part of an avionics upgrade two years ago. I left the old ASI and altimeter in place. I find that, while flying in cruise, I read airspeed on the glass tape, but on approach and landing, I still reference the round ASI instead. Old habit, or better intuitive reference? You decide.

Posted by: John McNamee | August 28, 2018 11:50 AM    Report this comment

I spoke at length w/ the founder of AeroVonics and was quite taken by both the AV-20 and AV-30. In fact, the ONLY brochure still sitting on my desk since Airventure is theirs. I think they're gonna be pretty successful with their AoA ++ instruments.

Pretty cool that an old Sperry derived algorithm is being used to determine a pseudo AoA without the need for a special sensor using just static and pitot pressure. For MY needs / wants, the other functions are items I was going to have to incorporate but now won't ... when they get it certified.

AOPA had a good writeup on it and said, "Goal is Matching Mechanical-Instrument Price" in their title.

I can think of three Companies that're going to have to lower their prices when / if the AeroVonics items are available. Competition ... it's a wonderful thing. That's why their booth was in the Innovation Center pavilion.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | August 28, 2018 12:37 PM    Report this comment


Reading these responses have been a real education. I have no technical knowledge worth adding to the discussion. However, I can tell you that when my airspeed indicator failed my landings improved by an order of magnitude. When the replacement was installed they quickly slipped back into mediocrity.

Posted by: kim hunter | August 28, 2018 9:55 PM    Report this comment

You are onto something there, Kim.
I'd be willing to bet that if the ASI was covered, landings would generally improve. The airspeed number is irrelevant - look out the window and fly the airplane!

When I was flying as a CFI, I often covered the 6-pack while the student was flying the circuit. It was a bit stressful for them the first time (taking away their safety blanket!) but once they found they could fly the aircraft perfectly well without the instruments, they gained confidence and consistency.

Posted by: Cameron Garner | August 29, 2018 4:29 PM    Report this comment

"In my view, the best landings ensue from a slow approach with a taste of power right into the flare. Finishing it with that final tug of pitch causes the airplane to surrender all of its energy at once. Done right, you make the first turnoff by adding a little power, not stomping the brakes. Probably won't be a greaser and who cares?"

You really paint a good and safe picture with this description of your technique Paul, Thanks

Posted by: Christopher Lawrence | August 30, 2018 4:26 PM    Report this comment

Another thing that I think leads to speed deviation problems on landing is not considering that required speeds change with weight. In my aircraft, final approach speeds for a given flap setting vary as much as 10 degrees from min to max GW. Add in the change in speed for different flap settings, and the list of numbers to remember gets quite extensive, especially for a new pilot.

If you fly an airplane that has a significant range of approach speeds, you need to be prepared to adapt to weight and configuration changes. If your POH lists a single speed then tells you to make adjustments from there, maybe start by making a chart that has each possible flap setting compared with landing weight if that is what works for you.

Best of all, get experience in how the airplane feels when flown at the correct speed in different weight ranges. With enough experience, you'll find yourself nailing the speed without giving it a second thought.

Posted by: Ric Crouch | September 2, 2018 4:53 PM    Report this comment

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