The Soft Field Landing

Yesterday, I gave my insights to the short field landing; today it is time to discuss the soft field landing. Again, as with the short field landing, many pilots today have little or no experience on actual soft fields. It is an almost long forgotten art, that of landing on a soft field.

A Cessna 170 departing a "soft" runway

I am sometimes amused when I stop in at a large metropolitan airport and wander around talking with local pilots, students, and instructors on what it is like to fly. Flight schools located on former military bases or at airports also serving the airlines typically have hard surface runways longer than 6000 feet. Consequently, the students (and many of the younger instructors) rarely have had a chance actually to fly off a short or soft runway.

A soft surface is anything that is not paved. This could include grass runways, dirt strips, muddy fields, or snow covered fields.

In talking to low time pilots about how they would fly into a soft field, when asked to describe exactly what they would do, they are usually very good about reciting the procedures for the aircraft and the Practical Test Standards (PTS). What they lack is practical experience.

Here is the ugly truth about today’s pilots and soft field landings: without working off an actual soft field with an experienced flight instructor, they will not get the practical experience. I am concerned for the newly rated pilot who makes his or her first real soft field landing solo using the techniques described in their books.

Without having really seen it or practiced it on an authentic soft field, all bets are off regarding the successful completion of the maneuver. More than likely, it will all work out and they will learn so much from that first genuine dose of practical experience. It is, however, so much easier taking the student out to a grass runway and practicing a few landings in the real environment.

Many younger pilots are surprised to learn of my technique. When I tell them it usually takes two or three passes for me to get an airplane into an actual unknown soft strip, they ask why.

My first pass at a strip I have never landed on, I explain, is a low pass a couple of hundred feet above the landing surface to check out the area. I maintain a good airspeed—not too fast and certainly not too slow. I fly “downsun” from the strip so that if there is any standing water hidden by the grass, the sun will reflect off it letting me know it is there.

The second pass I fly, I will bring the airplane to the surface and “test” the runway. You can think of this as a modified touch and go, if you will, where I fly the airplane in slow flight at the surface. I keep aerodynamic control over the airplane with the weight completely supported by the wings while I let the wheels touch, and therefore “test” the surface. If it feels too mushy, I will go somewhere else; if it is okay, and there remains enough runway to stop safely, I may land on that pass.

If there is not enough runway remaining to stop the airplane safely on the second pass, I will come around and set up for the third and final pass to the landing.

 The key to all of this is slow flight. The whole point is to fly the airplane close enough to the ground to evaluate on the first pass, then on the ground to evaluate the surface on the second, and finally, the last pass is for landing.

This is what real flying is all about: soft and short runways at non-towered country airports. Try it, I promise you will like it.


© 2011 J. Clark

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