Why your lizard brain can’t land an airplane


Photo by verdian chua on Unsplash

THIS IS A short post about some thoughts from a flight yesterday. I was talking a new student – actually someone on their very first flight in a small airplane – through a descent to land. Winds were light and smooth and they were doing a good job with control of pitch. I was managing the power and flaps, so I just asked them to maintain seventy knots and make a base turn and then a final turn, to line up with the centreline.

Things were going great until very short final, when the airspeed began to bleed off, as it often does. I put that down to a combination of a drop in the winds, as you get closer to the ground and a touch of groundshyness on the part of the student. “Lower the nose,” I said, a couple of times, and when that didn’t result in the action I wanted I took control, lowered the nose myself, and finished off the approach and landing.

What makes this worthy of a blog post? Well I started to think about non-pilot instincts when the plane is close to the ground. The ground is rushing up to meet you, and your instinct says the yoke is the up-down control (we even call the surface it controls the “elevator” for goodness sakes), so when your brain tells you now is a good time to stop going down so fast you pull back on the yoke, and your airspeed bleeds off. That’s a bad idea, leading to a hard landing, or worse.

Another instinct, for many new pilots – when they finally are able to get the plane close to the ground – very close to the ground – and sometimes too close to the ground (so that one wheel or both wheels touch down a bit too early), instinct tells them they want to stay on the ground, and – forward goes the yoke. For a nosewheel airplane that’s the wrong response. What you should do is be bringing the yoke back, to slow down while staying in the air as long as possible. Not suddenly, or sharply, which will provoke a balloon, but there definitely should be a rearward motion of the control and a raising of the nose.

It’s easy to understand that the yoke is actually the airspeed control (pull to go slower) and therefore exercise it in such a way as only to reduce airspeed when you’re six inches above the ground and not sixty feet above the ground. But that’s the brain speaking and not the heart, and the heart (instinct, or the pilot’s lizard brain, as I enjoy hearing it called) overrides the brain at moments of stress and/or terror. Such as during your first few landing attempts in a small airplane.

For a new pilot your lizard brain is probably telling you to pull when the ground starts to look bigger, and when the plane is about to touch down your lizard brain wants you to push to make the plane stick on the ground. But your flight training should teach you to push on short final to maintain your airspeed (if you need to), and to bleed off as much airspeed as possible by smoothly pulling to raise the nose as you skim the runway. If a wheel or two touch down earlier than they should then the flight’s still not over, and you need to keep raising the nose to reduce airspeed, even if you get airborne again. If you do, that’s ok. There’s definitely a knack to raising the nose at just the right pace so as to avoid ballooning up in the air, but the yoke should be coming back towards your chest and definitely not go forward to try to “plant” the airplane on the ground.

So if you want to speed up your progress to making good landings at the start of your flight training see if in a quiet moment you can tune in to your lizard brain and see if you can persuade it about the correct use of the elevator at the end of your approach and during your landing.

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