First, there are no tricks to flying an airplane. There is only sound technique; and a good landing is the result of well planned and well executed traffic pattern. So a good a good landing really begins on the downwind leg at the proper distance from the runway, which can be difficult to judge for many pilots. Now that may not seem all that difficult, but trust me when I tell you, it's not as easy as it looks. It's like hitting a golf ball down the fairway. There is a lot more going on than meets the eye. Case in point: every good golfer will tell you the secret to driving a ball is not how hard you hit it or the design of your club, it's your stance, grip on the club, your swing and follow through and your ability to keep your eyes on the ball. Now that may sound easy enough, but it's not. It takes a lot of practice to develop that skill. Flying an airplane is no different. There is a lot of planning, timing and control and coordination going on that is not readily apparent which can only be learned through practice.
But you must realize practice does not make perfect--particularly if you are practicing your mistakes. It only makes it difficult to correct at a later date. So you Should make every effort to practice the maneuver or procedure right each time, for only through correct repetition are good habits developed.
So to judge the proper runway distance, let's begin with the planning element and that is to fly the downwind leg at 3/4 of a mile from the runway which should result in a 3/4 mile turn to final when flown properly. Now keep in mind, it is difficult to estimate distance in flight due to the difference in runway perspective between a short and long runway. For example, a pilot that is used to flying at an airport with a short runway will unwittingly fly too wide a downwind leg on a long runway in an effort to visually shorten the runway and achieve the same visual perspective as a short runway. And a pilot that is use to flying at an airport with a long runway will fly too close a downwind leg on a short runway in an effort to achieve the same perspective as a short runway. Consequently, the short runway pilot will tend to fly too long a final, while the long runway pilot will end up flying too short a final.
So why is this? It has to do with the perception of distance which is based on the distance between the object in the foreground and the object in the background. The short runway pilot unconsciously tries to shorten the apparent length of the long runway by flying further out, while the long runway pilot tries to lengthen the apparent length of the short runway by flying in too close.
The best way to prevent this error is to pick a familiar reference point on the wing so that the runway passes through that point when you are downwind at pattern altitude and 3/4 mile from the runway. Depending on the airplane, that point may be half way between the gas cap and the wing tip or half way up the wing strut. Either way determining that point will give you a quick distance reference to the runway regardless of the length of the runway.
Then from abeam the touchdown zone you can begin your descent from 1000 feet at a consistent 3/4 of a mile from the runway. Then set up a 500 fpm descent down to 800 feet AGL where you will turn base. (Note: this is a much better reference than the 45 degree point which often changes with your wind correction or your ability to fly a square pattern.) On base leg you continue your descent to 500 AGL which will enable you to turn final at approximately 3/4 of a mile on a 4 degree glide path/attitude, which will clear a 50 ft obstacle on final. This technique will put the airplane in the right position at the right distance and altitude from the runway, which is a perfect setup for a perfect landing.
I will discuss the perfect landing in a future blog...