Control Techniques During A Round Out / Flare

By Hank Canterbury

During training, I often observe pilots overcontrolling the elevator during the flare process.  It is a perfectly natural thing to hunt and peck for the right attitude while searching for the ground.  But occasionally, that results in a Pilot-Induced-Oscillation (PIO), which can cause damage when close to the runway. PIOs can also make for a hard landing because pilot actions are out of phase with what the plane is already beginning to do.

Here’s what I think is a better technique.  The altitude to begin round out (or flare) varies with aircraft weight, descent path angle, and airspeed.  Faster, heavier planes will need more altitude to arrest the descent, whereas lighter, slower ones take less.  In our Bonanzas and Barons, I find that when approaching at the usual speeds and descent path angles that altitude is about 10-15 feet above the touchdown zone.

Do I look at the altimeter to determine that?  Of course not.  I’m looking up near the horizon and gathering cues from my peripheral vision as to sink rate and drift.  This is where experience develops the right sight picture and judgement, and it will not be exactly the same each landing—it’s the ‘art’ of piloting one gains from experience and practice.

I recently earned my rating in gyroplanes, which are light and land at relatively slower speeds (low inertial)—but descend at steeper angle.  The flare altitude is only about 3 feet, which took several tries to get right!  I kept trying to land about 12 feet above the runway; it was smooth, but I had trouble taxing in at that height.

When you begin to flare regardless of how fast or what descent angle you approach, patience is a virtue.

Remember from my last article how ground effect reduces drag and airspeed does not decrease very quickly?  As power is reduced, the plane begins to slow while you smoothly raise the nose.  The trick is to raise the nose at just the right rate necessary to reach the correct touchdown position, as speed steadily decays, and you continue to descend at a decreasing rate.  Raise it too fast and you level off or balloon.  Raise it too slowly and the arrival is noted by a loud thump as your chin hits your chest.

If you pull back too soon or too rapidly, the tendency is to correct by briefly pushing the yoke forward followed immediately by overdoing it the other way. And so, begins the cycle of porpoising.

Here’s what works better.

Once you start the yoke aft to begin the flare, it should not go forward again unless the balloon is excessive (more on this below).  If you realize you’re too quick on the pull, freeze it a few seconds and shortly — as the plane slows — it will begin to descend again. Don’t push forward or release a lot of yoke back pressure.  When the plane starts to descend, resume the aft movement with more back pressure.

Neil Armstrong got it right on the moon, but he also had lots of practice.  Adjusting the pitch trim during the flare to relieve the progressively heavy pull is a good technique, just don’t overdo it in case you have to go around.

Should you really overdo the initial pull and either find the nose alarmingly high or you are way too high above the ground, it will be necessary to quickly reduce the pitch attitude somewhat and add power to prevent an impending stall.  In that case, experience will show you how aggressive your reaction needs to be.  In any event, it is perfectly acceptable to simply execute a full go-around and try it again.

Give it a try next time and see if it works better for you.  I found it makes my landings more consistent and smoother — even in gyroplanes!

Fly Often – Train Regularly – Practice More!


Hank Canterbury