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I recently flew on an Avelo (brand new airline) Boeing 737-800 to KBUR, 6886’ x 150’ runway. It was a VERY rough touchdown, the braking system made a lot of racket, and our foreheads hit the seats in front of us.

On exit, the flight crew just smiled and said “short field airport”—as if that excused them. But we were 5 minutes ahead of schedule, and it was not windy or gusty as we debarked—and the temperature was only 85°F (30°C) and clear. Surely those were conditions to finesse a better flare out etc? I later heard that pilots do sometimes make soft landings there—but shouldn’t good landings be routine?

The terminal has been cited as too close to the runway, and in May FAA gave approval to build a new one. Am I being too critical of Avelo?

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    $\begingroup$ Related: What vertical speed at touchdown makes a 'perfect' landing? $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Sep 27 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ "I later heard that pilots do sometimes make soft landings there—but shouldn’t good landings be routine?", surprisingly soft and good are not synonymous, see: Is a firm landing an indication of the pilot inexperience? $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Sep 27 at 9:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Bianfable: Also you own answer is a good one and specifically deals with low cost airlines and their link with short runways. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Sep 27 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure what the terminal being cited as too close to the runway has to do with this... $\endgroup$
    – MD88Fan
    Sep 27 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ Avelo usually uses the shorter runway 8 on KBUR, 5802' x 150', so 6886' is relatively long. According to wikipedia all landings of commercial aircraft take place on runway 8. Note that the 6886' runway, when used from the North (RWY 15) has a 1.2% downslope. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Sep 28 at 11:12
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You're probably being hard on them...

it was not windy or gusty as we debarked (disembarked)

The conditions you feel on the ground can be very different 50 feet in the air. Even from one end of the airport to the other can be different. As you were disembarking, I'm guessing you were near the terminal, which means you may have had some wind shielding as well.

the temperature was only 85 and clear

To you that sounds like a perfect smooth day, we pilots know better. Clear skies and a warm day means a bumpy ride.

I later heard that pilots do sometimes make soft landings there

A common misconception with passengers that a "soft" landing is a good landing, and that just isn't the case, especially with short fields. "Greaser" landings mean you are spending a lot of time bleeding off lift when you could be on the ground and effectively using your aircraft weight and brakes. Light aircraft (soft on the feet) means you can't brake as hard without skidding.

but shouldn’t good landings be routine?

Good landings are those you walk away from. OK landings are when the aircraft can fly again, bad landings require repairs, and everything else is a crash.

Just as a little side note, there may have been some mechanical issues with your aircraft like inoperative thrust reversers requiring them to brake much harder than they normally would. The crew could have also encountered a thermal crossing the threshold making them land a little long.

Or Avelo (I'm not familiar with the airline) could be notorious for those types of landings, I believe another one that has that reputation is Ryan Air.

To answer the title question:

Can a Boeing 737-800 make a smooth landing on 6886’ runway?

The 737-800 has the capability to operate out of fields less than 5000' long, depending on the exact capabilities as ordered. The Short Field option is standard on the 737-900ER, and an option on the -600, -700, and -800.

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    $\begingroup$ Good landings are those you walk away from. I take exception to that nonsensical phrase. I have personally walked away unscathed from a heavily damaged aircraft in what I can tell you was definitely not a good landing. And several times I have also witnessed others walk away from written-off aircraft; those were not "good landings" either. $\endgroup$ Sep 27 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinArgerami It is a famous quote by Chuck Yeager: "If you can walk away from a landing, it's a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it's an outstanding landing." (source) Of course it should not be taken literally ;) $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Sep 27 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ @MartinArgerami try not to take it too seriously, it's a long running joke between pilots. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Sep 27 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer: you are answering a question from someone who is definitely not a pilot. I doubt they understand the "joke". $\endgroup$ Sep 27 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ A good joke is one you can walk away from, an increasingly desperate task to accomplish in these times... Wonder when sense of humor is declared an endangered species. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Sep 28 at 13:05
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Could be that crazy winds or wake turbulence (from another aircraft) pushed the aircraft out of the funnel and forced some maneuvering to get it back on centerline and guide slope.

I later heard that pilots do sometimes make soft landings there — but shouldn’t good landings be routine?

You are relying on "passenger comfort" as an indicator of a good landing. This ... depends on your goals.

Remember, flying is as dangerous as it would seem at first. What makes it the safest mode (expect perhaps post-PTC rail) is constant, unflinching attention to detail, to eliminate every X-factor, to make darn sure all of a huge list of bad things don't happen.

So what makes a good landing?

A transition from "flying" to "NOT flying" which is definite and authoritative. It happens quickly and definitely, and is entirely in command of the pilots, not left to wind and fate. Now we're flying, and now we're "driving". And we have lots of weight on the landing gear so the wheels can brake and resist side loads.

Will it feel "bumpy"? Sure, a bit... hopefully not so much that a Hard Landing Inspection is required, for the sake of airfares.

What you don't want (least, not for safety) is an indecisive floating along the runway, flying at 0 feet altitude. Makes for a really gentle touchdown, but 2 bad things are happening during that time of indecision.

First, you're "on the bubble" balanced between flying and landing, and that means external forces, like gusts or wake turbulence, will unexpectedly knock you off the bubble. Now the pilots are "behind the curve" - reacting to events, not authoritatively causing them. They must instantly decide "do I want to go along with this or fight this?" This indecision adds reaction time which segues to our second problem.

Also, in that state of indecision, you are vulnerable to a headwind gust tossing you back up in the air again, and the end of the gust dropping you right back down, amplifying the pilot's own reaction of trying to descend.

Or a crosswind gust pushing you sideways off the runway. Your wheels won't help resist this if there isn't any weight on them.

Anyway, second problem: The plane is using up runway fast. Floaty time, or confusion time, is making the remaining runway shorter and shorter. Which then adds another point of confusion: shall we try to save this screwed-up landing and stop in the remaining distance and bet on good braking action and thrust reversers? Or "go around": max the throttles and take to the air again? Every path here also has a path to monumentally screwing up.

See, the key to aviation safety is not to tolerate variables like this.

Generally, safety favors the go-around: punch out of there to the safety of sky, get back in the queue and do the approach again. Managements are discouraged from judging pilots by this; it's bad for safety if pilots fear political consequences for a go-around. (because it costs some money in fuel and knock-on effects of the aircraft being delayed to the gate).

So a floaty comfortable landing on a short runway, that pilot isn't doing you any favors.

What makes a good approach?

Stabilization early. Have everything in order, early, for a no-brainer of a landing.

Many items. Flaps correct. Speed correct for weight, altitude and temperature. Compensated for gusts. Engine power correct. Gear down. Autobrakes armed. Spoilers armed. Go-around armed. You are heading into the correct airport. You are lined up on the correct runway not the taxiway. Radio on right frequency. (Air Canada, go around!). Localizer (compass direction) and glide slope ( descent angle) dialed in.

And then, crosswinds, gust, wake turbulence, and wind shear are tossing you all over the map, and you're dipping and swaying to keep it in the funnel. This is what happens when you fly in fidgety air that large airplanes used a minute ago. This is trying to de-stabilize your landing, and you're constantly re-stabilizing it.

The more wackadoodle the winds are, the more you'll want to make that positive, authoritative transition from "flying" to "driving" with lots of weight on the main landing gear so you don't get shoved sideways off the runway by crosswinds.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Generally, safety favors the go-around.... Managements are discouraged from judging pilots by this...": I suppose that there a need to discourage management from judging pilots by their go-around statistics because go-arounds are costly (in terms of money, primarily). The answer might be improved by mentioning this explicitly. $\endgroup$
    – phoog
    Sep 28 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ Not wanting to scare non-pilots here, but it must be kept in mind that go-arounds are not inherently safe maneuvers. So each go-around must be justified, a well trained and proficient pilot can easily make the decision whether or not to commence with landing. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Sep 28 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Jpe61 If anything, I would say OP is not scared enough, and does not feel like "any landing you walk away from is a good landing". Wants to fly through the air like the Red Baron without seeing any ripples in their coffee cup. $\endgroup$ Sep 28 at 19:39
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Your pilot flying simply made a really firm landing. I'm typed on the 737 and have flown the -800 in and out of short runways (Chicago Midway and New York La Guardua). A skilled pilot can grease it on in gusty winds and can slam it on in calm conditions.

(Don't flame me bruhs, this next bit is about copilots, but anyone - in either seat - can make a firm landing.)

During a stint overseas, I had a lot of ab-initio copilots routinely slam the hell out of the -800 on 11000 ft runways. Most of the time, they had trouble executing the flare just before touchdown. They were robotically following the book and had no idea how to "work that plane down from 30 feet."

Burbank may scare a lot of pilots, as may LGA and MDW. You must fly a tight and stable approach, with no goofing around in the flare. A lot of the captains would pull up the spoilers and force the plane down if the copilot floated past the 1000 ft marks.

(sound of touchdown) BAM! (sound of angry captain) "Don't f*ckin' float here!"

My most recent airline used a Quick Access Recorder (QAR) to monitor pilots and punish them for exceeding a tight set of company preferences. Hard landings over 2G increased when they started busting balls over long landings or touchdowns over 1.5G. Boeing told the company that the G sensors were inaccurate and being QAR police would not produce better flying quality, but the authoritarian management refused to take the advice. They still have pilots slamming the runways.

So, yes the 737-800 can be landed smoothly, but there are a lot of reasons for it not to happen, especially on shorter runways.

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    $\begingroup$ It is better to make a positive landing than float it. Especially on low hours. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Sep 28 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ thanks for the excellent, real-world info! great stuff !!! $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Sep 29 at 19:41
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Yellowknife, as an example I'm personally familiar with, has 2 runways: 16/34 is 7503 feet, 10/28 is 5001 feet. I've been a passenger in assorted models of 737 landing in all sorts of conditions on both of them and have had hard landings and soft ones, and the runway length didn't have much to do with it. I was once in the same aircraft with the same flight crew that kissed the runway in Yellowknife on 10/28, landed smoothly in Rankin Inlet (6000 feet) and then slammed into Iqaluit (8600 feet).

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