Flare is a four letter word in my flight instructor vocabulary, because using it to teach a student how to land an airplane may cause both the student and the instructor to think (or perhaps say) some other naughty, socially unacceptable four letter words. Telling a student to flare generally will not produce a smooth landing. The same goes for the word rotate with regard to takeoffs, but we’ll get to that at the end.
The website Dictionary.com offers several definitions of the word flare, none of which are aviation specific. The most relevant, however, are these: “to start up or burst out in sudden, fierce intensity or activity” and “to spread gradually outward, as the end of a trumpet, the bottom of a wide skirt, or the sides of a ship.” Flare is not specifically defined in any FAA publication, so when the common understanding of the word is applied to landing an airplane it describes an overt, discrete physical action instead of what most instructors probably intend to describe — deftly manipulating the flight controls to effect a gradual process of descent and deceleration in the final moments before touchdown.
The FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, the foundational text for any private pilot curriculum, uses another term — round out — interchangeably with flare. “The round out is a slow, smooth transition from a normal approach attitude to a landing attitude, gradually rounding out the flightpath to one that is parallel with, and within a very few inches above, the runway,” the handbook states. “When the airplane, in a normal descent, approaches within what appears to be 10 to 20 feet above the ground, the round out or flare is started. This is a continuous process until the airplane touches down on the ground.”
A student pilot reading this paragraph for the first time should immediately be asking him or herself two key questions: What is a normal descent, and how do I know when I’m 10 to 20 feet above the ground?
The handbook continues: “As the airplane reaches a height above the ground where a change into the proper landing attitude can be made, back elevator pressure is gradually applied to slowly increase the pitch attitude and angle of attack (AOA). This causes the airplane’s nose to gradually rise toward the desired landing attitude. The AOA is increased at a rate that allows the airplane to continue settling slowly as forward speed decreases.”
Whoa. Lots going on here. More questions from our star student pilot: How do I know when the airplane is low enough to transition to the proper landing attitude? What is the proper landing attitude? How do I judge the rate of settling, and how do I control it?
The handbook continues: “When the AOA is increased, the lift is momentarily increased and this decreases the rate of descent. Since power normally is reduced to idle during the round out, the airspeed also gradually decreases. This causes lift to decrease again and necessitates raising the nose and further increasing the AOA. During the round out, the airspeed is decreased to touchdown speed while the lift is controlled so the airplane settles gently onto the landing surface. The round out is executed at a rate that the proper landing attitude and the proper touchdown airspeed are attained simultaneously just as the wheels contact the landing surface.”
Hold the phone. Can you imagine trying to learn how to land an airplane just by reading these paragraphs? It would be almost impossible. This is why we now recommend students watch videos and even use a flight simulator while learning the fundamentals of flying. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The FAA handbook then attempts to provide some additional guidance on how to visualize and assess what’s happening during the descent, round out (flare) and landing. “The rate at which the round out is executed depends on the airplane’s height above the ground, the rate of descent, and the pitch attitude. A round out started excessively high must be executed more slowly than one from a lower height to allow the airplane to descend to the ground while the proper landing attitude is being established. The rate of rounding out must also be proportionate to the rate of closure with the ground. When the airplane appears to be descending very slowly, the increase in pitch attitude must be made at a correspondingly slow rate.”
Again, more subjective descriptions and more questions from the confused student. What is excessively high? What proportion am I aiming for here? How do I judge the rate of closure and how do I know whether it’s appropriate?
The handbook then goes on at length in an attempt to describe these visual cues, ending with: “Location of the visual interception point in conjunction with assessment of flow velocity of nearby off-runway terrain, as well as the similarity of appearance of height above the runway ahead of the airplane (in comparison to the way it looked when the airplane was taxied prior to takeoff), is also used to judge when the wheels are just a few inches above the runway.”
Assessment of flow velocity? Ok, now you lost me. I give up. And I still don’t get what flare means. Before you toss that book and your headset into the trash, hang on. The last sentence of this paragraph is the golden nugget in this entire chapter, and provides a key clue to help us understand what’s going on during the round out and flare.
It’s all about the sight picture, that view out the window that this chapter makes an admirable, albeit verbose and complicated, attempt to describe. Here’s my simpler explanation.
Consider that every landing is preceded by a flight which began with a taxi and takeoff. Students often think the taxi is wasted time, when in fact this can be some of the most valuable time spent during a flight lesson. During the taxi, the airplane is in the same level pitch attitude as it is after the landing is completed. Use this relatively relaxed, pre-takeoff taxi time to capture in your mind’s eye what it looks like for the airplane to be level with all three wheels on the ground. As you roll down the taxiway, scan the length of the taxiway from the nose of your airplane toward the end, back and forth, taking in the entire length of the taxiway. You’ll notice that when you focus too close to the nose of the airplane, it’s difficult to assess your attitude but if you look far off into the distance, your peripheral vision kicks in and makes it easier for you to know that you are level with the ground.
Once you’ve established what a level attitude looks like on the ground, it becomes fairly easy to set the slightly nose-up attitude that must be maintained during what the FAA refers to as the round out and flare. The nose wheel only needs to be a few inches off the ground as the airplane settles onto the runway on the main wheels. So if we know what level-on-the-ground looks like (the taxi sight picture) we simply need to hold the nose slightly above that until the landing occurs.
When instructors tell students to flare this typically causes them to pull back suddenly and somewhat randomly on the yoke or stick, often at the wrong time. What we should be telling them to do is to look all the way down to the end of the runway, and to keep flying the airplane and hold it just off the runway as it decelerates and gently touches down. Smooth, continuous, gradual back pressure on the yoke is all that’s needed to set and maintain that slightly nose high or not-quite-level pitch attitude as the airplane gradually decelerates and descends. If you pull back too much and lose sight of the centerline and the end of the runway, not only do you lose your pitch reference and run the risk of a hard landing, but it makes it exponentially more difficult to maintain directional control, especially when dealing with a crosswind.
The key to a smooth touchdown is recognizing that your job as the pilot is to simply keep the airplane flying as long as you can until the main wheels touch. A smooth landing will occur when the airplane is finished flying. Be patient with it. Just as you cannot successfully force an airplane to take off and fly before it’s ready (hence why we teach students not to over-rotate), you won’t make a good landing if you “force” it to the ground. If you approach with too much speed, the airplane will need a little more time — and perhaps a lot more runway — to decelerate and reach the proper airspeed and angle of attack. This is why the pilot needs to not only be patient, but be ready to execute a go-around if the airplane does not settle to the ground within the predetermined touchdown zone.
If the objective of the takeoff is to generate enough lift to get airborne and climb, the objective of the landing is to maintain just enough lift to keep flying in a shallow, stabilized descent until the main wheels touch the ground and the wings reach a stalled angle of attack. Think of a landing as a takeoff in reverse. If you were to take a snapshot of your airplane at the moment it becomes airborne during a takeoff, it would look nearly identical to how it looks at the moment of touchdown during a landing.
With practice, setting and maintaining the proper pitch attitude for a stabilized approach and landing is relatively easy. The most challenging aspect of any approach and landing, however, is assessing sink rate and mitigating the effects of thermals, wind shift and low-level turbulence. With experience, a student will learn to “feel” the air and use his or her physical, tactile, and kinesthetic senses in addition to peripheral vision to assess sink rate. With experience a pilot can sense relative slack or tension on the yoke with just a very light fingertip touch, and use this to his or her advantage when landing. This is why flying an airplane is just as much an art as it is a science.
Sometimes just when we think we’ve got everything set up perfectly and a “greaser” landing is imminent, Mother Nature throws us a curveball. Even experienced pilots with thousands of flight hours sometimes “balloon” or get “dumped” by unstable air right before touchdown. This is why we teach students to always keep their right hand on the throttle during the approach and landing, so that if they sense any instability, they can immediately apply full power and go around.