NOTE: This is not a question about coordinated flight in the pattern. There is no disagreement that hasty skids to turn the plane faster from base to final can and do kill. The question is about what happens once the plane is aligned on final and now continuous micro- and small-adjustments are necessary to precisely land the plane on the centerline.

While flying Condor the other day, I noticed that when I depend on automated turn coordination it is exceedingly difficult to align the (simulated) glider with the runway. The reason is readily apparent in that a typical glider has a bank rate of less than 30deg/sec, and thus bank corrections happen far too slowly to effectively steer the plane. The world is simply going by too fast for the slow rate to yield the precision required for landing. And from a theoretical controls perspective, this is a poorly damped oscillatory system, which are famous for being touchy to control.

And yet, when actually flying for real, a century of anemically maneuverable aircraft have demonstrated that high roll rate is not a requirement for safe landing. What then is going on?

I hypothesize that while on short final we use the rudder extensively for fine control, while keeping the wings appropriately level for the cross-wind conditions. In other words, we intentionally and unconsciously slip and slide the plane in small amounts, because coordinated turns in this phase of flight are slow and even dangerous.

However, this is merely an uninformed hypothesis, and there is certainly a large body of evidence which can definitely answer this one way or the other. In particular, this must be well understood for autolanding systems.

Can anyone point to studies which looked at the rudder movement on final approach vs. in standard flight?

P.S. Anecdotes are interesting, but I think these should be confined to the comment section. I think in order to really answer this question we need results from empirical studies.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Anecdotally, I (and I think most GA pilots) don't use coordinated turns on short final, mainly because of crosswinds. Slips are also useful for losing a bit of airspeed, when you come in rather "hot" - as might be the case if you're sharing the runway with commercial jets. Though the gliders I've flown have spoilers and single wheels, so slips seem less useful there. Though trying to explain is rather like asking the centipede how it handles all those legs: I don't really think about it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Centipede%27s_Dilemma $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jul 27 at 5:36
  • $\begingroup$ It depends partially on technique, some use crossed controls for crosswind landings, others use crabbing. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Jul 27 at 7:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note that there is a real aircraft that relies on auto-coordination only and lacks separate rudder pedals, the ERCO Ercoupe. Quick search suggests it has a fairly high cross-wind limit of 25 knots too. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Jul 27 at 8:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Fwiw, the A320 has auto-coordination all the way to the ground, and pilots use rudder only below 30' to decrab, no rudder on final app whatsoever. Don't think it makes the airbus any harder to control on approach than any other conventional a/c $\endgroup$
    – Radu094
    Jul 27 at 12:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Radu094 That's true for every aircraft with a yaw damper. $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Jul 27 at 12:32

It is fine to slip and slide through a turn when you have enough altitude; doing so while being slow and close to the ground is much less advisable. Coordinating controls in turns is especially important when being slow and low.

The key to a good approach is space: Fly a large pattern so you have enough time to adjust heading and sink rate during the final. It is amazing how well the human mind can interpret small changes in the viewing angle - fly coordinated turns until your flight path is parallel to the runway and adjust flaps and flight speed so the glide path will intersect with the ground maybe 50 m (150 ft) ahead of the point where you intend to touch down. If you are too high, increase speed and shift that imaginary intersection closer to you, and vice versa. When all is adjusted, you should have used up maybe half of the final approach and can enjoy the nice, stabilized approach and prepare for the touchdown. Round out when maybe 3 m (10 ft) high and kick the rudder just when you think the wheel will touch the ground in order to align the fuselage with the direction of movement. Open the speed brakes fully only when the wheel has started rolling. This will produce a great landing.

Use side slipping if you are too high and make sure that your speed is at least 30% higher than stall speed. The direction of the sideslip should be with the nose pointing away from the crosswind so the misalignment between fuselage axis and glide path is small. If this produces a well stabilized approach, do as I said above and end the slip just before the beginning of the flare. But train sideslipping at altitude before doing this for real!

The scale of gusts gets smaller as you approach the ground, so the large ones which can shift the flight path and roll angle considerably should die down as the glider sinks lower. Also, gusts tend to cancel out over time, so you shouldn't be too upset about single ones. In gusty weather you need to fly your approach at higher speed so you have some margin against wind shear close to the ground. Because roll damping decreases and aileron authority increases with increasing speed, being thrown around by gusts indicates that your approach speed is too low.

The glider's inertia is already reason enough that you cannot fly in a coordinated way while being blown around by gusts, so short-term deviations of the yaw string can be disregarded. Your reactions, however, should be coordinated. When flying faster, adverse yaw is lower and it will be easier to keep the controls coordinated.

And if there are still gusts, a glider will find thermals and should not land yet.

  • $\begingroup$ This is great general advice, but once the plane is pretty-much aligned with the runway, and short-lived wind gusts push it around a meter to one side or the other of the centerline, I question if we are truly flying in a coordinated fashion or even if it makes sense to try. My instinct is that roll rate is far too slow to compensate for the quick lateral deviations caused by turbulence and gusts. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta Agreed, the answer needed improvement. I added a bit about gusts. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 17:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta a planes response to a gust is dependent on its mass to side surface area. The force of a gust will take time to build up lateral velocity. Keep in mind how strong the wing lift is, and how much horizontal force even a slight roll can generate. Yes, a very light wing loaded plane will be a bit more "twitchy" in the wind, but "perfect" landings under those conditions should not be expected. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 18:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KenSebesta bank does not equal turn, and frankly, using rudder will not make much difference in controlling a side gust. Fast and accurate aileron input is what you want. Remember also, dihedral is helping you here, in addition to "published roll rate". use that wing, coordinate with rudder. You get 5 degrees in 1/3 second! $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 0:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta you have opened a very interesting discussion. It may be helpful to specify what aircraft you are referring to. All turns low and slow are dangerous, coordinated turns are by far the safest. You may be overestimating the effect of gusts, although microbursts can overwhelm even the largest of aircraft. Keep in mind the "side gust" will also affect the tail, pivoting the plane into the wind. A pilot can feel the gust and react immediately. Especially under power, a coordinated turn into the wind will hold course while the pilot evaluates. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 at 2:05

You could be drifting into dangerous territory (pun intended...hahahah). There should be NO slipping and sliding going on in any airplane or glider on final except for side slips induced on purpose to lose altitude, or for crosswind compensation during the landing flare.

All maneuvering turns in flight must be coordinated. Cross control or skidding maneuvers, close to the ground, except for deliberately induced side slips, invite a spin if the plane gets too slow and stalls.

The technique you are describing, in effect, consists of pointing the nose at the target (the runway) with rudder because it gets results faster. This results in uncoordinated flight, and lots of people have died from spins originating from this habit.

Even in a glider with a ponderous roll rate, all maneuvering turns must be coordinated banked turns to make the necessary heading changes. You have to think of it in terms of headings on final, and adjustments to headings when required.

Like gliders, large airliners have similarly ponderous roll rates and they make coordinated turns on final like all other airplanes. It takes a bit of patience. If you are drifting off track, you make a heading change, the normal way, with a coordinated turn to a new heading, then another coordinated turn to adjust as required. None of this pointing the nose with rudder stuff.

The thing is, in gliders, you often need large aggressive rudder inputs just ahead of the aileron input to get a coordinated turn in the first place, and that's fine, it's the way gliders have to be flown. But the objective is still to keep the yaw string straight as possible while maneuvering.

  • $\begingroup$ This is the conventional wisdom, but I'd like to see data to back it up. It's important to note that I'm not asking about pattern maneuvers, but about maintaining the centerline on short final. A 2-33's roll rate is so slow that it's very very challenging to get it to turn quickly, but if I want to make a precise landing on the centerline I need rapid fine control. I suspect that we are doing lots of little skids to keep the nose aligned. Either way, there must be data out there... $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ See @quietflyer's anecdotal experience about "for small corrections, it works well to just keep the wings level with ailerons and steer with the rudder. For larger corrections, you'll need to make more coordinated inputs." $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ No no no no no no no. You don't need studies - this is very basic airmanship. Quiet Flyer is playing with fire. You will never get me skidding the glider around the keep it lined up except in the last few feet. It is very bad flying technique and applies to gliders and power planes. If the string is pointing off to one side and you stall, it's going to roll off on you. If you're side slipping to stay lined up, wing down and opposite rudder, that's fine if you ensure you have a speed and AOA margin. But skidding around flat to keep lined up at 100 or 200 feet is asking for trouble. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jul 27 at 20:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I could not agree with you more that if your yaw string is clearly pointing toward uncoordinated flight then you are playing with fire. I think we are talking about very different magnitudes, though. I am not suggesting that we are unconsciously kicking the rudder back and forth, which is what I believe you are concerned about. Instead, I think that we might be using it in such a way that it is not simply a slave to the bank angle, perhaps similarly to how we lead in with the rudder to counteract adverse yaw. And if this is indeed occurring, it is subtle enough to only be clear in the data. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 20:24

In a cross wind landing one can stay coordinated and crab their way down to the round/flare phase, but over the runway rudder and ailerons have specific purposes.

The rudder points the nose of the plane straight down the center line. The ailerons are used for lateral control, banking into any crosswind component.

For example, a 5 degree roll in a Cessna 172 at 2000 lbs lift would produce sin 5 × 2000 = 174 lbs of side force! So, even "ponderous" rolling is effective to hold track.

Interestingly, short final can also be flown this way, at a safe airspeed.

For example, approaching "cross controlled" in a 172 would be suicidal at 50 knots, but much safer at 65 knots. Importantly, while on short final, flying in a straight line, slipping is not nearly as dangerous as in a turn, where differences in wing tip speed can become critical.

Over the runway, basically one does what is needed to control the aircraft until it is down and stopped. Effect of rudder will vary with different aircraft. In a flaring 172, it does little more than yaw the nose back and forth without appreciably changing the fight path.

All uncoordinated manuevers should be thoroughly tested at altitude before use in a pattern.

Regarding "the world going by too fast for the slow rate to yield precision", this is definitely true for very light wing loads such as paper airplanes, models, and birds. Here, the "tricks" of controlling side wind gusts can be seen in the common seagull: high wing design with anhedralled wingtips and no vertical stabilzer. This design automatically banks into the wind without excessive yawing.

Full scale aircraft are seen in all shapes and sizes because their much higher wing loading (or mass to surface area) creates a much slower acceleration from a side force, that is more easily controlled.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.