Flying Citabria N5156X on my First Solo Cross Country Flight As a student pilot, you're told that learning comes in phases--phases that often have non-trivial plateaus between them. When you're on one of those plateaus, it seems not to matter what you try. You simply can't "get" the thing you're trying to accomplish.

Until one day it just "clicks" and you can't remember how it was ever difficult to do that thing. It can be an amazingly frustrating experience. Sometimes there are things you can do to help move it along: trying a different technique, ask a different instructor for advice or an explanation, and so on. But more often than not, the answer is to simply keep trying.

I'm stuck on one of the final plateaus before my FAA checkride: short field landings.

My instructor and I practiced them a few weeks back and he recommended that I do some solo practice. I did that and then flew with him again last weekend. My short field landings were still not right. But, amusingly, the one wheel landing he asked for was the best I've ever done. And now I can't imagine how it was ever hard. (See above.)

The idea behind the short field landing is that you land a bit differently on a shorter runway (or field) than when you have a few thousand feet to spare. In the case of the Citabria 7KCAB I'm flying, that means flying about 60 mph after I bring the throttle back to idle on final. It means giving up a bit of margin, but doing so without giving up all your margin.

I practiced again today and the results were no better than last weekend when he and I flew together. Clearly I need to keep at it.

What I should be doing is flying an extended downwind leg, turning base, and then maintaining an altitude of roughly 600 feet AGL onto the final approach until I've got the runway made. This should all be done at a fairly slow speed, like 70 mph.

Once I've got the runway made, I should bring the throttle back to idle and try to hold the speed closer to 60 mph for my glide to the runway. My sink rate is higher at 60 than 70, so I'll be dropping faster than I'm used to. And the attitude is more "nose high" than I'm used to. And when I flare at 60 mph, I should have a lot less "float" than I normally do. That means I'm able to get on the ground using less runway.

But for whatever reason, I can't seem to hold my airspeed down. I suspect it's psychological. It just doesn't feel right, so I let the airspeed build up, float too far, and end up missing my aim point.

On the plus side, we may have found the source of the small oil leak. :-)

Suggestions from any pilots in the crowd?

Posted by jzawodn at November 12, 2006 09:11 PM

Reader Comments
# Mark Fletcher said:

My problem wasn't with short field landings, it was with wheelie landings. I was always afraid that I would nose the plane over too much and bend the prop. Or I was afraid that I'd fly right into the runway. It took me a lot of practice (and go arounds) to get over that.

Maybe play with the trim a bit?

on November 12, 2006 10:42 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

Heh. My wheel landings took some time to settle down too.

I think I've used up my trim tricks already. I'm pretty agressive with it as is, but I may give that a shot anyway. It can't make things too much worse.

Well, there was that one bounce the other day. I didn't know a plane could bounce that high! :-(

on November 12, 2006 10:53 PM
# Marc Olson said:

One thing that I find helps me when I have too much speed on final is to go fly some slow flight at minimum controllable airspeed with the stall horn (does the citabria have one?) blaring. It helps me remember that even at short field approach speeds, the plane isn't anywhere near falling out of the sky. It also gets you more used to the sight picture.

on November 13, 2006 05:35 AM
# VaibhaV Sharma said:

Me a student pilot too but just starting with the first few lessons, so this may make no sense at all. :)

Have you tried flight simulator? Maybe try the situation on the simulator, click some mental pictures of how the aircraft behaves in the slow/short field situation and try to duplicate it?

on November 13, 2006 06:35 AM
# rr said:

Perhaps fly the whole final at the slower speed to get used to the attitude and glide path without being as low.

I also agree with the slow flight at altitude suggestion. Good confidence builder.

on November 13, 2006 07:25 AM
# James Briggs said:

Sure, you can try some more MCA.

If that doesn't work, switch instructors for a couple weeks
and work on your problem landings.

Original instructors often get complacent once you have
90% of it right. You need objective feedback and instruction
from somebody who is focused on the 10% you're doing wrong.

It's really important that you get primary training right.


on November 13, 2006 10:51 AM
# Eric Caplain said:

You don't really need to worry about airspeed. It's the ground speed that counts, so what I recommend, especially with a good head wind, is come in steep by crabbing and hit the ground fairly hard. This will translate some of your forward motion downward and you'll have a lot less lift at the point when your wheels touch. This will also give you pretty good visual for your touch down spot. Then immediately raise your flaps and hit the brakes hard while applying forward pressure on the yoke.

on November 13, 2006 11:58 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:


My understanding (I'll double check the PTS) is that for a stabilized approach to a short field landing, they don't like to see a slip or change in the throttle setting.

In my particular case, there are no flaps. ;-)

Oh, and I've tried the "hit the ground hard" before. With the srpung steel gear legs on the Citabria, it means you end up bouncing down the runway. Heh.

on November 13, 2006 12:21 PM
# Harry Fox said:

Hi Jeremy --

The Citabria lands pretty short even when approaching at 70 mph, but you can plop it on even shorter with the 60 mph final approach. Its simple but not necessarily easy (at least at first). You need to maintain your airspeed discipline and not let the nose drop (if there is a strong wind gradient you may need to put the nose down a little as the headwind decreases). Trim for 60 mph, of course. The flare needs to be more positive and a little quicker than usual, but don't get carried away. The only way to get it right is just to go out and practice. Keep the needle on 60, make a quick but smooth flare, and keep your throttle hand ready to go around if you flare too high or too abruptly.

You might try practicing a few at altitude first. I.E., glide down at 60mph and see if you can level off precisely at a target altitude. But its the sight picture on a real runway that counts.

-- Harry

on November 13, 2006 01:14 PM
# Joe Zawodny said:

I sort of agree with Marc Olson to practice the whole scenario at altitude where a stall won't cause any real harm. Go fly some stalls too. Sounds to me that you really need to be more comfortable with the nose high attitude while descending. Where is your focus when flying a short field landing - inside on the gauges or out the window? On the other hand and at first glance, Eric Caplain's suggestion of hitting the brakes and pushing forward on the yoke sounds risky with a tail dragger.

on November 13, 2006 01:15 PM
# Keith Wannamaker said:

I teach short fields by adjusting just a few things from a normal landing, and practicing with students on a short runway:

1) on downwind, choose a visual reference halfway down the runway. If you aren't on the ground at this point, go around. Period. This is more important in real life than anything that follows.
2) fly a wider pattern to give yourself plenty of time to set up a stabilized approach, and not get in a rush.
3) use a slower approach speed (manufacturer's recommendation or 1.3Vs0). Nail this.
4) choose an aiming point prior to the numbers
5) PTS is -0 +200 for touchdown point -- err on the side of passing your point slightly rather than touching down prior.


on November 13, 2006 11:08 PM
# Paul Vidrine said:

Here's a little bit of advice that may not improve your landings but is definately worth considering (you've got plenty of technical advice from the previous comments). It comes from my grandfather who was my mentor and an airforce academy instructor during WWII. No matter what the conditions, you should always do everything the same way. Every take off and landing that I make is done using short field techniques. He and my father have EACH amassed roughly 20,000 hours of flight time (airforce, commercial, and crop dusting) and they use this philosophy. Take it for what its worth.

on November 14, 2006 03:06 PM
# Tom said:

Precise control of a slightly lower than normal airspeed is the key to Short field approaches.

This is counter-intuitive, since Glider pilots usually understand that you "speed up to land".

Especially in the case of the Citabria, the operative word with respect to airspeed control is, "precise".

I believe that one of the pilots involved in this landing Stall/spin accident was an experienced CFI.

on November 15, 2006 10:15 AM
# Mark B said:

Hi Jeremy -- "I should bring the throttle back to idle..." ??? I disagree. PTS says "stabilized approach." Throttle at idle is a commercial manuever for power-off landing. In no wind, this might be ok, but with any gradient, I need to be able to pull off some throttle to avoid overshooting as the headwind decreases.

I practice a very low (700-900 but not idle) throttle setting on final, and tiny adjustments. Very slight throttle back (and a coordinated very tiny stick back) as I go through gradients. I also try some landings (with a CFI or safety pilot) with the ASI covered. My stall warning horn is primary for the last 50 feet of landing. Heck, in the Diamond Star DA40 I rented recently, if the horn ain't on I ain't landing :)

If the throttle is idle for the final approach, how do you adjust for overshoot when you hit a gradient? I think slips or reducing airspeed are "destabilizing," well, at least in the last few hundred feet.

Palo Alto is famous for huge sink right over the water on final for 31. I often have to ADD power the last 200 feet, and then to idle for a good short landing.

I'm also guessing you can consistently meet the PTS standards just fine, but perhaps you aren't perfect? C'mon, factually you touch down within -0/+200 every time, right? If so, pass the test and then practice more later for "perfection."

on November 18, 2006 12:50 PM
# David Marks said:


When I was doing my PPL, I found this site offered useful, specific, debugging tips when I was stuck:

What helped me nail my short field landings was confidence at the slower airspeed, combined with the understanding that full flaps and a slower airspeed you equals a steeper approach. The landing will be what my instructor referred to as very "positive." ;)

on November 19, 2006 11:10 PM
# Eugene Loj said:

"My understanding (I'll double check the PTS) is that for a stabilized approach to a short field landing, they don't like to see a slip or change in the throttle setting."

On the slipping issue: most POHs don't recommend slipping, but it usually isn't a prohibited maneuver.

Slips have anti-spin characteristics. If you exceed critical AOA the airplane will "snap" to a wings level attitude.

I get in trouble all the time with GA CFIs that don't like slipping. I get a much different vibe from military and air show pilots.

All the best!



on November 20, 2006 08:25 PM
# Mark B said:

Changes in throttle setting (just enough to compensate for vertical shear, or slight glideslope corrections) are no problem at all for the PTS. Otherwise, how does one compensate for wind gradient: wind decreasing with altitude? Slips are another matter; they change the ASI and mess up stabilized pitch. But one can certainly descend more steeply with a full slip, so if you can master that, that's great. But I wouldn't do it on a checkride :P

on November 21, 2006 12:11 AM
# Stu Kissel said:

Being a little fast is the place to start just be patient with getting the airspeed/pitch correct. It feels different, because it is. Try a few of the suggestions so far, there have been some good ones. My two-cents...develop an ear for how the airframe sounds at the slower speed, and go practice verrrry slow flight including departures. What you are doing now is just what you have been properly taught, which is when unsure close to the ground give yourself a little speed, now just reconfigure your comfort zone.

on November 24, 2006 04:55 PM
# Brent Van Dussen said:

Use pitch forward/back to maintain airspeed and use throttle to control your glide slope, that's the easiest way I've learned. Once I stopped using the throttle to maintain speed my landings got a lot better :D

on July 14, 2007 10:54 PM
# Mike Sim said:

Brent's right - pitch for airspeed and throttle for altitude. I fly a Maule trigear and like to come in steep for landings and add just a touch of throttle at the end of ground effect to soften the landing, preferably with the stall horn going off a second or two before touchdown. You will be surprised at how little throttle you need to soften the landing - finesse.

Paul advised doing the same thing every time and I agree - except in a strong crosswind - landing with no flaps is best.

Also, an exaggerated pattern works for me on short field (which is my "same thing"). Short field - long approach. Practice much. Good luck.

on February 13, 2009 05:37 PM
# Wilmar Eko said:

Yes I agree Pitch for airspeed, power for controlling your altitude.... and for practicing with long final approach to establish speed...
and start the horn just before end of runway...and in the real short field airstrip..if you think to much floating...get rid the flaps up...simultaneously when starting flare...

on April 14, 2010 08:14 AM
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