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I have read people's stories that they landed their small planes (e.g. C172) on bigger airports. They strongly recommended landing at a higher speed and without flaps as the runways are quite long, and there is traffic behind them.

Hence, if I want to land an airplane at higher than recommended landing speed (e.g. VS0):

  1. How fast can I go?
  2. What is the procedure to do this?
  3. What consequences are there (good or bad)?
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As a practical matter, aren't landing fees set high enough at major airports to discourage small planes from using them (among other reasons)? Would anyone want to pay those fees (plus the hazards of having heavies ahead and behind you) to routinely fly in and out of a major hub? Are we talking about doing it only out of absolute necessity? –  Phil Perry Jun 23 at 23:13
@PhilPerry At least in the US the fees can be quite reasonable. For example the off-hours landing fee at JFK is $25 for something like a Cessna 172. (There are however a bunch of OTHER fees that can make it an unattractive option, the fuel is hideously expensive, etc.) I know a few folks who have flown into JFK and forked over the $25 (plus fuel) just to have the entry in their logbook. –  voretaq7 Jun 24 at 1:58
@PhilPerry depends on the airport, and sometimes of course you have to. Maybe you need customs facilities and it's the only place in a wide area that offers them, or you've an appointment at the business jet terminal to drop off or pick up someone. Some flight schools associated with airlines use light aircraft to train people the procedures at their future home base. Etc. etc. –  jwenting Jun 24 at 7:00
Clearly the title is missing the word "safely" :-) –  Carl Witthoft Jun 24 at 15:15
@PhilPerry: Take a look at this question –  abelenky Jun 25 at 21:27

5 Answers 5

Note: Much of this material, and more, is also covered in answers to the question: Can you fly a light GA airplane into a major hub? (Didn't know that at the time I wrote this answer.)

Landing at higher than normal speed is not recommended.

  • Tricycle gear airplanes require a nose-high attitude on touchdown in order to ensure the main gear touch down first. The nose gear is not designed to support initial touchdown forces. In many typical small planes, forcing the plane onto the ground at too high a speed will strike the nose wheel first, risking a collapse or prop strike.

  • At high speed, the control surfaces and wings are still capable of producing significant aerodynamic forces. If you've forced your wheels onto the ground, you may be producing a lot of torque with the elevator, again, risking gear collapse.

  • Kinetic energy is proportional to the square of your velocity. And crash damage -- both to the airplane and to its passengers -- is proportional to energy. If you do collapse the gear or lose control, you're going to have a lot more energy to dissipate. And if that energy is dissipated by your body, it's going to hurt. A lot.

  • You might overheat your brakes, causing brake pad/rotor damage or even a fire (I'm aware of at least one instance of a Piper Cherokee catching on fire because the pilot attempted to take off with a half-stuck parking brake.)

It is true that you will sometimes be pressured by controllers at large airports to keep your speed up as much as possible on approach. It's hard for them to sequence you when you're only flying half as fast as the guys in front of and behind you. The important thing to remember is that this is their problem, not yours. There's no FAR that says you must hot dog your airplane in order to fit in with the big boys.

Here are some things you can do safely to make everyone's job easier when operating at large/busy airports:

  • Practice your controlled-airport/airspace proficiency.

    • Know, and use, standard ATC phraseology.
    • Listen carefully for your callsign. Don't make them repeat themseleves.
    • Have a plan in advance, know what you want, and make sure you communicate that to them clearly.
  • Have the airport diagram handy, and study it before the flight so you know where you'll be taxiing and won't mess up ground operations. Ideally you should be able to taxi on your own, but if you're not comfortable when you get your taxi instructions, request a progressive taxi.

  • Know your airplane and its capabilities. Fly your approach at the highest practical speed, but no faster. Know how fast you can go on a 3 mile final in order to be able to decelerate to normal short-final and touchdown speeds.

If you're not comfortable with your proficiency in these areas, consider getting some more practice before attempting a flight to a "major" airport. Or, bring a CFI along with you who can help you out and give you pointers.

The bottom line is under no circumstances should you compromise safety in order to please ATC or the airline pilot behind you. As long as you are proficient and do your best to accomodate ATC's requests within the safe capabilities of your airplane, you'll do just fine. (In fact, I've found controllers at major airports to often be very pleasant to work with.)

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This is a great answer, but some of it is already covered by this question: Can you fly a light GA airplane into a major hub? What operational considerations are there if you do? –  fooot Jun 23 at 17:09
@fooot I see you're right. I edited in a link to that question at the top of my answer. Thanks; wish I had seen that first ;-) –  dvnrrs Jun 23 at 18:07
Nice answer (I think). +1 I was wondering whether it would be helpful to all concerned if you would simply touch down much further down the runway? (Assuming there are no intermediate veer-off points.) –  Glen The Udderboat Jun 23 at 18:16
@GlenTheUdderboat Most major airports have plenty of turnoffs for exactly that reason (spend less time on the runway). If not, aiming further down the runway is fine, but coordinate it with ATC first. They'll be expecting you to aim for the touchdown zone unless otherwise arranged. Also, watch out for "wrong-way" (> 90°) high-speed turnoffs. Don't use them unless arranged with ATC beforehand. –  dvnrrs Jun 23 at 19:51

I suppose it depends on what you mean by "land" -- For our purposes I'll define landing as putting the aircraft on the ground and decelerating to taxi speed, while meeting the other requirements of a "good landing" (shiny side up; rubber side down; aircraft, pilot, and passengers in reusable condition).

How fast can I go?

Generally you want to put the wheels on the ground at (or at least very close to) the aircraft's stall speed and then decelerate to a safe taxi speed. You can certainly force the wheels onto the ground at higher speeds, but you're still an aerial vehicle at that point and you have to bleed off the excess speed to transition to a ground (taxiing) vehicle before you can leave the runway.

As a general rule of thumb your final approach speed should be about 1.3 times stall speed for your selected landing configuration so you can get down to taxi speed reasonably quickly. Putting that into some kind of context, a normal approach speed (with full flaps) in the Piper Cherokee I fly is around ~65 knots. A no-flaps approach is ~75 knots.

Looking a little deeper, you can fly the approach as fast as you want (within reason) as long as you're comfortable doing that and confident in your ability to bleed off the extra speed with precision.
At my home field I've been chased down final by jets often enough that I know I can maintain 85+ knots until about a half-mile final, at which point I can reliably dump the extra speed, put the wheels down in the touchdown zone, and decelerate to taxi speed in time to make a "normal" turn-off. I also know that if it seems like I will need to carry more than about 85 knots by the half-mile point I'm better off telling ATC I'll go around and land after the faster traffic because I may not be able to safely decelerate and turn off the runway with enough room for the traffic behind me to land.
Keeping your speed up is really only helpful if you don't botch the landing.

What's the procedure for doing this?

The procedure is basically "Keep your speed up until short final" -- It's something you can practice with your CFI pretty easily.
If you elect to land without flaps the procedure is the same as the "no-flap landings" you should have done in training, and in most small aircraft that should be a non-event. Again, this is something you can practice with your CFI pretty easily, and it's a technique you should be familiar with in case your flap controls ever fail.

What are the consequences?

Well, the good part is you'll be helping out ATC and the traffic behind you: if you can keep your speed up ATC will be better able to maintain separation between you and the faster aircraft behind you, instead of having to send them around or vector / re-sequence them for spacing.
It's also fun to do this kind of thing occasionally, and helps keep your skills sharp.

The bad part is that any time you're not flying a "normal" approach you're accepting some additional level of risk. In this case you're also touching down faster, which means more energy to dissipate (hopefully through braking, but if something goes wrong you'll be dissipating that energy through impact, and as dvnrrs pointed out the energy you need to get rid of is proportional to the square of your velocity so the number goes up fast).

Remember that ultimately flying a fast final or touching down in an alternate (faster) configuration is a courtesy to ATC and the traffic you're mixing with.
If you're comfortable doing it everyone will appreciate your help, but if you aren't comfortable with it just fly a normal approach and let ATC know you are unable to fly faster -- the worst thing ATC will do is ask you to go around and re-sequence you with more space next time.

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ATC should ask the traffic behind you to go around, not you. ATC's mandate is first-come, first-served (stretched a lot in practice but not that far). And you quite properly mention "accepting more risk." I would encourage readers to consider that aspect carefully. –  dvnrrs Jun 23 at 23:15
Can it be said that at anything above stall, you're essentially flying at an altitude of 0ft agl? –  CGCampbell Jun 24 at 0:51
@dvnrrs I agree that ATC should ask the traffic behind you to go around everything else being equal (particularly on instrument approaches). In practice I don't think I've never been asked to go around for faster traffic behind me, but I've been turned off a (long-ish) final on a visual approach to be re-sequenced behind faster traffic several times. In the hierarchy of "Safe, Orderly, Expedient" first-come first-served is a big part of "orderly", but there's a lot of wiggle room under "safe". –  voretaq7 Jun 24 at 1:45
@CGCampbell You could definitely say that, and I would argue you're still effectively "flying" a good amount below stall speed too - your control surfaces are still at least somewhat effective while you're bleeding off speed braking on the runway. "Always treat the aircraft like it's flying until it's tied down." –  voretaq7 Jun 24 at 1:59

Final approach at a major hob will begin a LOT further out than at the single-strip country airport most students learn at, and mixing a 172 with the larger planes really is a significant (and expensive) issue. The cessna in the queue has everything including the glove box wide open while the 767 behind it is dancing with the Stall Demons.

However, approaching at full throttle and landing at full throttle are not the same. You have a lot less inertia and thus can slow down rather quickly. Once you pass the middle marker, pull the power back to idle, set the prop to full fine, and drop the flaps. You will decelerate rather quickly (and bob around a lot, practice somewhere first) and thus land at a better speed for your aircraft. If the next exit is a long way don't use any brakes, raise the flaps and just keep rolling at 60 kts.

I used to work at a busy skydiving center, when we went into the nearby international airport ATC recognized our aircraft and often cleared us for either a fast approach or a cutoff approach ( "Squeeze in behind the Dash-8 that's about to land and the 737 on 5-mile. Take the first exit.") Our guys made 20-30 fast-approach landings a day and could pull this off easily. The flying club got to wait.

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Others have covered this subject pretty well but I will add that landing too fast will put your nosewheel down first. The nosewheel is the weakest leg of your landing gear and if you put it down too hard you can break the nosewheel off or bend/wrinkle the firewall. Cessna 182s are notoriously easy to damage if you slam the nose gear down. Fixing or replacing the firewall is not an inexpensive task.

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ATC is responsible for aircraft separation and they are aware of the speeds your aircraft operates at. Land at your normal landing speed. A large, busy airport is a bad place to try something new.

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