Pilot's tip of the week

Soft Field Landings


Subscriber question:

"Do you have any tips for landing on unpaved or grass runways?"
- Charlotte S.


“Unpaved airports can vary from beautiful long smooth grass runways to a gravely sand bar in a river. So there is a lot to think about here.

Probably the first place to start is with your insurance. Most FBO’s that rent aircraft prohibit them from landing on other than hard surface runways. It will also make a difference if it is a charted airport or an uncharted strip in the woods. In any event you need to check that out before, rather than after the fact.

Next it is important to learn as much as you can about the airport prior to arrival. In fact, I think there is a FAR that requires us to know that information. That rule goes double if you are landing on an unpaved runway. The best policy is to visit the airport first (by car if possible) and walk the field and parking areas.

Naturally checking the AFD is a good first step but better information will come from a phone call to the airport prior to departure. Every airport is different and you need to learn things like the length of the grass, the condition of the surface, any low spots that might be wet, where it is safe to taxi, any special noise abatement procedures and anything else that might be appropriate.

Then there is the performance aspect to consider. What obstructions are involved and is it long enough to land and stop safely? Usually landing and stopping is not the problem, it is taking off. Some pilot operating handbooks give a performance decrement for grass as opposed to hard surface runways. But remember that is only a guess. Again the length of the grass and the softness of the surface will have a big effect on takeoff distance. Be very conservative in your planning here.

Now let’s talk about the actual approach and landing. Depending upon the airport, some pilots like to make a low pass down the runway prior to landing. This gives them a chance to look over the runway surface and to scare off any critters on the runway. Critters on the runway? Oh yes, that can be a real problem at airports that are out in the country.

Some pilots feel a soft field landing is required on all grass runways, but there are many very smooth grass runways where a normal landing is fine. There are lots of great airports with grass runways that are as good or in some cases better than the hard surface runways we use. Our airplanes like to land on the grass and it is easier on our tires.

So do your homework, then go out and have a great time.”

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