Jason Schappert, the blogger behind the MzeroA site, has recently written a post where he compiled his three videos about short field landings. He also noted that in his most recent video, he took one of his students over Cedar Key for some short field landing practice (and of course, a bite to eat). This video contains mostly raw footage of traffic patterns plus short field landing practice.
Hence and if you think that you will need to do a short field landing at some point as a pilot, all three of Jason’s videos are well worth watching.
It seems to me that in most cases, when talking about short field landings, there really isn't much that is changed in a pilots mindset as compared to a normal landing, except flying a slightly slower final approach, doing your best to hit a specific touchdown point, and utilizing your aerodynamic breaking upon touchdown. It is normally taught in a way that a short field landing essential the same as a normal landing, other than the changing of these three things. Realistically however, these two types of landings are a completely different ball game. Now don't get me wrong, the instruction given in the videos I just watched is all useful information, and can be an effective way to land an airplane on a short field. However in my experience completing the MOST effective short field landing should be approached in a different way.
The method I use for short field landing technique is what I call the "Flare through ground effect" technique. The most important thing in accomplishing a true short field landing is "hitting your spot". It doesn't matter how well you can hold an airspeed, are how good your breaking techniques are, if you consistently can't land on a specific point of the runway, your short field landing will never be what you want them to be. Consistency is the key and it starts on the downwind leg of each approach.
My explanation of this technique will be given as if flying a 152, the aircraft I have the most practice in regarding short field landings.
Once established on downwind, it is important to maintain a designated airspeed, as well as altitude (1000ft agl for the purpose of this discussion).
Maintaining a downwind airspeed is important because it allows you to have a better idea of how an airplane will perform. A faster downwind will result in more time needed to lose altitude because of the extra time needed to bleed off airspeed. The airspeed I use for downwind is 90 knots. Carb heat an mid field downwind.
Just like a normal approach, the descent is started by a power reduction (1700 RPMs) once abeam your touchdown point, and the first 10 degrees of flaps used once the airspeed indicator is the white arc. Next, is where things start to change. In a normal approach, once you make your initial power reduction, you have specified airspeed for your downwind descent, a different airspeed for base, and a different airspeed for final. For my short field landings however I c change that up and immediately establish a descent at 60 knots. Advantages to this are 1. Best gliding distances are maintained at this speed, and 2. Maintaining one airspeed throughout the remainder of the approach allows you to have a consistent ANGLE OF DESCENT, as well as again having a better idea of how the airplane is going to perform.
The next step is deciding where to turn your base leg. In most cases, this decision usually goes something like this… "Alright the runway is approximately 45 degrees behind me, so I am going to turn my base leg now". For short field landing I change that up as well, and when the base turn is made, is based on when a specific altitude is reached in the descent. As you practice this technique you can change what that altitude is to fit what works for you, really what altitude you chose to turn at will vary from day to day depending on weather conditions. But let's say you start off practicing on a standard day with no wind. You decide to make your base turn at 750 AGL. You do this and ultimately determined that turning at this altitude led to you making a high approach. So the next time around you decide make the base turn at 700 AGL and learn this leads to a perfect approach. Odds are that continuing to use this altitude will consistently yield a good a approach in these wind conditions, and with that specific airplane weight, as long as you the pilot are consistent with your airspeeds, flap usage, etc. The altitude you decide to turn your base at will also change depending on the winds for the day (A strong wind will normally result in a need to turn base at a higher altitude). Airplane weight can play a role in the altitude you chose. It can take some time to master this, but once you spend enough time practicing, and take good mental notes of what conditions yield what results, Your approaches will become much more consistent.
Maintaining coordination as well as that 60 knot airspeed is very important during the base turn. Being uncoordinated results in unneeded drag which will cause you to lose more altitude than you are ready to lose. Once the base turn is completed, you immediately need to start determining whether or not your are too high, too low, or right on. The decision making during this leg is just the same as a normal approach. In a perfect situation you want to be able to add the next 10 degrees of flaps as soon you roll wings level. However if you are too high, or too low, the flaps can be used according to help get yourself back on glide path.
Final approach is very critical in determining whether or not you are too high or too low being too high will most likely result in being too fast and landing to long, being to low will most likely result in dragging the airplane in through ground effect. The main goal behind this technique is where the name of the technique comes from, and the whole idea is to eliminate ground effect as much as possible, there for eliminating any floating that is caused by ground effect. To accomplish this, you need to picture in your mind a final approach in which you maintain the same angle of descent all the way down to your touch down point. If you think about a normal approach and flare, the angle of descent normally remains constant right up to the point where you being your flare, then it begins to level out. That leveling out of the descent angle, is exactly what the flaring through ground effect technique aims to eliminate. In any approach to landing even in short fields, it is normally taught to start the flare somewhere around 15-20 ft above the ground, however that will result in spending a lot of time in ground effect. To eliminate this, you must flare THROUGH ground effect rather than flaring IN ground effect. To do this the flare must be start usually from an altitude of 50 ft agl and in many cases as high as 100-150 ft or more. The flare will be slightly different in the fact that you will raise the noise much slower than you would in a normal flare. As you start slowly pulling back on the controls to flare you also want to simultaneously to start slowly reducing your power so it has reached idle before you touch down. Again as you are doing all this you want to imagine in your mind the airplane maintaining and angle of descent THAT DOES NOT CHANGE all the way to the point of touchdown. Begining your flare high will allow that nose to slowly be raised up, and have an airspeed slow enough that allows the airplane to 'cut through' ground effect there eliminating any leveling off that would result in the airplane floating passed your touchdown point. Ideally, the airplane should touchdown at the exact moment a "full stall" is reached to eliminate the possibility of the wings wanting to pick the wheels back up off the ground. For people that are not comfortable with how an airplane performs this is where some may start to get uncomfortable due to the slower airspeeds that are required. On the runway that I have had the most practice with this on, my touchdown point was approximately 400 ft from the runway thresh hold, on a calm day I would know that as I crossed the thresh hold at wanted to be at 50 ft AGL, and see 50 kts on the airspeed indicator, all the while slowly bring the noise up in the flare, slowly pulling out the power, and still slowly losing airspeed to yield a full stall landing. Again depending on conditions these numbers would change.
I realize why short field landings are taught the way they are today. It comes down to what an examiner wants to see on the checkride. It is understandable that you want teach/learn what is going to help you pass a checkride, and the way is in no way a poor way to teach it. As it is frequently mentioned most "short field landings" are just practice landings that are done a 5000' runway that you could take-off and land on 4 times, and as long as you can demonstrate a decent technique, that's all a check airmen wants to see, and thats all most pilots ever really feel the need to learn how to do. However in my experience of using both techniques, to accomplish a true short field landing there is no better way to do it than to "Flare through ground effect After 1000s of landings practicing this technique, that ultimately led me to receive a 7th place finish out of over 130 competitors in a 2010 national short field landing competition, I would never use anything different.