An enterprising Southend-based company provides specialist short-strip training at three locations selected for their progressive difficulty
One of the questions that often appears in Pilot is ‘What do I do now I have my licence?’ There are the usual options of night and multi-engine qualifications, the IMC rating and making a longer distance flight to foreign parts, the latter often appearing in print as a ‘Flying Adventure’. These activities require an element of further study, commitment, money or time: commodities not always available, post licensing, and not necessarily designed to build the confidence and hours of the new pilot hoping to add gently to VFR skills recently acquired.
Although it is not a formally recognised qualification, the Short Strip Landing Course developed and delivered by Stuart Overton Smith through VVB Aviation Ltd, based at Southend Airport, is designed to get the newly qualified pilot confident in handling the aircraft they will probably have used for their initial PPL training in landing and taking off from short strips. These skills could prove invaluable in the event of a future precautionary or forced landing, and enhance what has already been learned in the basic flying syllabus.
The course is relatively quick (five hours) and convenient (all strips are within thirty minutes flying time of Southend Airport). Whilst it is reasonably challenging, it is in my experience thoroughly enjoyable and should be within the capabilities of any new pilot.
The aims of the course are to ensure the pilot can confidently and safely touch-down within 25 metres of a projected point, stop within the minimum distance quoted in the pilot operating handbook (POH) and subsequently take off using the short field technique as published ? again within the minimum distance quoted.
The course begins in the classroom with a review of the POH, noting the variability in the takeoff and landing performance of the aircraft based on airfield elevation, air temperature, headwind and runway type. The various techniques of the landing are discussed: closing angles; use of flaps on approach and immediately after landing; indicated air speed; braking (without skidding); use of elevator on landing (to keep the weight on the main wheels); and decision height on the approach to execute a go-around if things aren’t going well. The takeoff distance is affected much more than the landing distance by air temperature and elevation, and the takeoff run required to clear a fifty foot obstacle can increase by 300 percent even on a still day and on a dry, paved runway (this example comes from the Cessna 152 POH). The variation in landing distance is nearer to fifty percent under the same conditions. Flap settings for take-off, the technique of rolling onto the runway and maximising the use of ground effect are all discussed, with a view to trying each one on a runway marked with measured distances as the first practical demonstration. Again the importance of the decision point on the takeoff run is stressed to ensure that a safe stop on the runway is possible.
The aircraft used for the course at Southend is a Cessna 152, G-BPME. The first strip of choice is the grass runway at North Weald, where prior permission is required (PPR) and care/communication with Stansted advised en-route to joining, as it is situated beneath the Stansted CTA (1,500-2,500ft). Approximately 750 metres long, grass runway 02/20 runs parallel with, and just to the northwest of the much longer (1,920m) asphalt runway. The runway edges are marked by white strips placed 90m apart ? these are used to determine an accurate, pre-determined touch-down point and to calculate the length of the landing and subsequent takeoff runs. The short approach and landing techniques used allow several circuits to be fitted into a forty-minute visit. The first approaches concentrate on decision height, use of full flap and approach speed (54kt IAS for G-BPME). Subsequent approaches work on braking, immediate retraction of flap on touch-down and maintaining weight on the main wheels.
Initial takeoffs explore the use of flaps, going to full power with brakes on before release, raising the nose early on the take-off run and immediately lowering to horizontal after lift-off (approximately 50kt IAS) to make best use of ground effect before climbing away at 54kt IAS. Later takeoff runs look at the technique of rolling onto the runway with power already applied to shorten the ground run even more. Each landing and takeoff appears to result in a shorter performance and the point of touch down is more accurately identified and achieved. My shortest landing was measured at 150ft and my shortest takeoff run at 450 ? both well within the published figures.
It was of no surprise to Stuart that the aircraft’s performance was much better than that officially quoted in the POH, despite the age of G-BPME.
Once the basic techniques are mastered the next strip is Stow Maries. This airfield has two mown grass runways, R02/20 being 686m in length and R16/34 550m, although power cables effectively preclude the use of 16/34. The aim of the ground briefing for this flight is to learn to assess the strip from the air. A subsequent flight over the field at 800ft to assess runway length, obstacles, wind direction, runway surface and slope puts the theory into practice. A lower pass/go-around 100ft above the runway confirms the initial impression and ensures any smaller obstacles are identified. It also suggests to anyone on the ground without access to a radio of the likely intention of the aircraft to land. Once again the earlier techniques are put into practise although without the benefit of runway markings.
As a bonus, landing to pay the fees and to meet the owners of Stow Maries gives the opportunity to see a valued historic airfield currently undergoing restoration to bring it back to its original WWI condition.
Having satisfied the requirements of the technique on an unmarked, relatively flat strip, the course moves on to the much more challenging Nayland Strip, where the single 600m runway 14/32 has a severe upslope to the north-west measured at sixteen per cent by Stuart’s inclinometer. It’s strictly PPR and you make a ‘Nayland traffic’ radio call inbound on safetycom 135.475. Arriving by air and making the first approach to the upslope is best demonstrated by the instructor. (If the slope was first viewed from the ground on a visit by road, it is unlikely it would ever be attempted solo by a novice from the air!)
The approach needs to be accurate and the decision height carefully obeyed as the top of the runway is significantly higher than the landing point, leaving little room to climb away from much below 180ft asl. The landing roll doesn’t need the newly-acquired short strip technique as, counter intuitively, power is required to run the aircraft up the slope to the plateau where you find a small club house, a book to record your safe arrival and a place to pay the £3 landing fee. Five movements are allowed in one hour and only ten in one day. In order to ensure these rules aren’t breached please contact the airfield operator.
The takeoff from Nayland requires first a walk to the edge of the plateau which marks the start of the down slope approximately 3/5ths into the strip and at the point by which you may or may not expect to become airborne. The direction of the runway and the last 2/5ths of the runway are invisible from the aircraft for the majority of the takeoff run. Picking a point on the horizon and in a line with the start of the takeoff run, together with use of the compass should allow you to arrive on the ‘lip’ pointing in the correct direction.
In the 152, the previously practised rolling with power onto the runway is required in order to reach 54kt before the lip. If flying speed has not been reached another counter-intuitive technique comes into play as you pitch forward down the slope to gain the last few knots before rotation. Once you’ve completed four approaches and takeoffs satisfactorily, Stuart will be happy to provide you with an illuminated certificate to record your achievement.
Whilst the certificate carries no weight with EASA, this is a course that may one day help you deal with the unexpected, and it allows you to explore the local countryside, improve your navigation and meet like-minded farm strip pilots more than happy to share their experiences. On returning to Southend, suddenly the massive 1,856m stretch of asphalt with a 0.35% slope seemed much less daunting than during my initial flying training.