Soft field landings: Benefits, hazards, and quirks

How often do you practice soft field landings? How well could you execute one should the opportunity arise?

Depending on your operation, it’s likely that you don’t make soft-field landings on a daily basis. But situations may arise where knowing how to perform one will prove useful--you may need to make an unexpected landing at a grass-strip airfield (or no airfield at all), or perhaps your passengers are traveling somewhere remote.

Ensuring you have a well-stabilized approach is the first step to a good soft-field landing, with a recommended approach using full flaps at 1.3 Vso. Try to make the transition from in the air to on the ground as gently as possible; you’ll want to hold the aircraft 1-2 feet off the runway for as long as possible in ground effect, adding a bit of power right before your wheels make contact. Expect to taxi for longer, and don’t work the brakes too hard (or at all, in some cases), as you may tear up the runway for the next person. Keep full back pressure throughout the landing and subsequent taxi; don’t be afraid to increase speed a bit if needed to keep the aircraft moving to where you want it to go without getting stuck.

Of course, there are some challenges to expect on soft field runways--if the runway is poorly maintained or if it has recently rained, you run the risk of getting stuck at some point on the strip. If able, always call ahead to check runway conditions, especially for soft or rough fields. If there’s nowhere safe for you to land, you may have to find a different destination airport or fly a different day.

Soft Field Landings

Finally, keep in mind that in a situation where your landing gear won’t extend, you may actually be better off landing on an asphalt runway than a soft field. Of course, this is setting aside other factors that may be involved, such as in an emergency situation where your choice of landing area may be extremely limited. But a typical gear-up landing, where a pilot has a few moments to plan and make useful choices, ought to be done on asphalt--you’re more likely to slide forward, if uncomfortably. Soft field gear-up landings can result in parts of the aircraft catching on uneven ground for a sudden and dangerous stop that may injure your passengers.

After landing, be sure to perform a thorough post-flight inspection to ensure that no stones, gravel, mud, or other debris migrated into a critical area of your aircraft or damaged the surface somehow. Though unlikely on a well-maintained runway, if you’re making an unexpected landing on anything other than a hard surface, you’ll want to look things over (assuming your aircraft is in a condition to leave again).

Whether soft field landings are common or rare for your operation, knowing how to execute them properly can expand your options, especially in situations where you may need to land somewhere unexpected.

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