Jet Airplane Approach and Landing (Part Two) Stabilized Approach, Approach Speed and Glidepath Control

Stabilized Approach

The performance charts and the limitations contained in the FAA-approved AFM are predicated on momentum values that result from programmed speeds and weights. Runway length limitations assume an exact 50-foot threshold height at an exact speed of 1.3 times VSO. That “window” is critical and is a prime reason for the stabilized approach. Performance figures also assume that once through the target threshold window, the airplane touches down in a target touchdown zone approximately 1,000 feet down the runway, after which maximum stopping capability is used.

The five basic elements to the stabilized approach are listed below.

  • The airplane should be in the landing configuration early in the approach. The landing gear should be down, landing flaps selected, trim set, and fuel balanced. Ensuring that these tasks are completed helps keep the number of variables to a minimum during the final approach.
  • The airplane should be on profile before descending below 1,000 feet. Configuration, trim, speed, and glidepath should be at or near the optimum parameters early in the approach to avoid distractions and conflicts as the airplane nears the threshold window. An optimum glidepath angle of 2.5° to 3° should be established and maintained.
  • Indicated airspeed should be within 10 knots of the target airspeed. There are strong relationships between trim, speed, and power in most jet airplanes, and it is important to stabilize the speed in order to minimize those other variables.
  • The optimum descent rate should be 500 to 700 fpm. The descent rate should not be allowed to exceed 1,000 fpm at any time during the approach.
  • The engine speed should be at an rpm that allows best response when and if a rapid power increase is needed.

Every approach should be evaluated at 500 feet. In a typical jet airplane, this is approximately 1 minute from touchdown. If the approach is not stabilized at that height, a go-around should be initiated. [Figure 15-24]

Figure 15-24. Stabilized approach.

Figure 15-24. Stabilized approach. [click image to enlarge]

Approach Speed

On final approach, the airspeed is controlled with power. Any speed diversion from VREF on final approach must be detected immediately and corrected. With experience, the pilot is able to detect the very first tendency of an increasing or decreasing airspeed trend, which normally can be corrected with a small adjustment in thrust. It is imperative the pilot does not allow the airspeed to decrease below the target approach speed or a high sink rate can develop. Remember that with an increasing sink rate, an apparently normal pitch attitude is no guarantee of a normal AOA value. If an increasing sink rate is detected, it must be countered by increasing the AOA and simultaneously increasing thrust to counter the extra drag. The degree of correction required depends on how much the sink rate needs to be reduced. For small amounts, smooth and gentle, almost anticipatory corrections is sufficient. For large sink rates, drastic corrective measures may be required that, even if successful, would destabilize the approach.

A common error in the performance of approaches in jet airplanes is excess approach speed. Excess approach speed carried through the threshold window and onto the runway increases the minimum stopping distance required by 20–30 feet per knot of excess speed for a dry runway and 40–50 feet for a wet runway. Worse yet, the excess speed increases the chances of an extended flare, which increases the distance to touchdown by approximately 250 feet for each excess knot in speed.

Proper speed control on final approach is of primary importance. The pilot must anticipate the need for speed adjustment so that only small adjustments are required. It is essential that the airplane arrive at the approach threshold window exactly on speed.


Glidepath Control

On final approach at a constant airspeed, the glidepath angle and rate of descent is controlled with pitch attitude and elevator. The optimum glidepath angle is 2.5° to 3° whether or not an electronic glidepath reference is being used. On visual approaches, pilots may have a tendency to make flat approaches. A flat approach, however, increases landing distance and should be avoided. For example, an approach angle of 2° instead of a recommended 3° adds 500 feet to landing distance.

A more common error is excessive height over the threshold. This could be the result of an unstable approach or a stable but high approach. It also may occur during an instrument approach where the missed approach point is close to or at the runway threshold. Regardless of the cause, excessive height over the threshold most likely results in a touchdown beyond the normal aiming point. An extra 50 feet of height over the threshold adds approximately 1,000 feet to the landing distance. It is essential that the airplane arrive at the approach threshold window exactly on altitude (50 feet above the runway).