I can't tell you how many times I've been asked that question.
My step-daughter once brought a date over, a rather full-of-himself attorney. He'd recently mastered Microsoft Flight Simulator and now thought himself an expert on aviation as well as law. At dinner he leaned back and rather smugly asked me "So, is it really that hard to land a jet?".
Well, sometimes it really is that hard. Do it wrong and I may find myself having a rather one-sided conversation with someone from the company, or worse the FAA.
Screw it up bad enough and I may not be around to worry about it.
As the old saying goes "A doctor buries his mistakes. A pilot gets buried with his."
So how exactly do we get 200,000 pounds of metal moving at 130 mph on to the ground without breaking anything? If you're curious, read on.
Mind you, I've been flying jets for almost 30 years now and most of that time has been in "heavies". I've made thousands of landings. It comes pretty much second nature at this point. Even so I will occasionally plant one hard enough to go looking for a good chiropractor. There are enough variables that no two are exactly the same.
I'll use my 757 as an example, but most airliners are similar. Each one has its own quirks but the basics are the same.
The 757 is a sweet ride, by the way. It has all the bells and whistles. Auto-throttles, auto-spoilers, auto-brakes. We can land without all that stuff, but it makes our lives easier. Having cut my teeth on Fred Flintstone technology like the B-52 and KC-135, a modern jet is so much nicer to fly.
So, let's get down to this business of landing.
Long before we get to the destination we check the weather, figure out which runway they're landing on and then plug all this into a software app that calculates important numbers like how much distance it will take to stop and what speeds we need to fly (the heavier we are the faster we need to go to stay airborne).
When we get within 20-30 miles of the airport, the approach controller will start giving us vectors (directions) to the final approach. 10 to 15 miles out we'll start slowing the plane and putting some flaps down. The flaps reconfigure the wing to let us fly at slower speeds.
5 to 10 miles from the runway we're normally lined up on the final approach. If the weather is bad we're doing this on instruments. In clear weather we'll probably do a "visual approach" but we still dial up the instruments as a backup. We don't leave things to chance. I'm getting paid to get the freight there, not to show off my flying abilities.
Around 5 miles from the runway we intercept the glide-slope. Most runways have a set of lights near the approach end that appear to change color if we deviate from the glide-slope. I want to see half red and half white. Too much red means I'm getting low. White means the opposite. We also back this up with our instruments. No sense leaving anything to chance.
As we start down we lower the landing gear, extend our flaps all the way, slow to approach speed and finish our checklists. Our speed will be anywhere from 115 to 135 depending on our weight. Those numbers are in "knots" or nautical miles per hour. So 135 in a plane is like 155 mph in a car. Not quite NASCAR but we're still moving pretty fast.
Somewhere on final approach I'll likely disconnect the autopilot and hand fly. It doesn't need the practice. Now I have 3 main tasks. I have to maintain the glide slope with a combination of pitch and power. I also have to stay lined up with the runway by using small heading changes.
Sounds pretty simple. If I'm getting a little high I point the nose down a little more. Oh, but now we're going "downhill" faster so the plane will want to speed up. Better pull a little power off. Oh, but our engines are hanging under the wings on pylons so this makes the plane want to pitch down even more. This is when I miss the 727 with its tail-mounted engines. Every time I change one thing, two other things have to change. Throw in some gusty winds and it can get, ahem, interesting.
Meanwhile I make small heading changes to correct for wind drift. The winds may change speed and direction as we get lower, so what worked 30 seconds ago may not work any more. I try to imagine the center-line of the runway extending all the way out to where I'm sitting. In a strong cross-wind we may be "cocked off" noticeably. If you're back in seat 32A and you can see the runway out your window, the pilot is probably fighting a stiff crosswind. If you feel the plane rocking back and forth as it comes down final, the pilot is probably correcting for shifting winds.
So what's the other pilot doing all this time? They're talking on the radios, running the checklists and most importantly - backing me up. If they see me messing up they will start telling me what I need to fix. If I'm not meeting certain parameters they may tell me to go around. I will not question this. They may know something I don't. They'll explain it to me later when we have time. Safety is paramount. If it's their landing, I'll do the same for them.
Even the airplane working to keep us honest. It's using GPS and other sensors to monitor our position relative to the airport, runway and the terrain. If "Bitchin' Betty" comes on the cockpit speakers and says something like "Too low! Glideslope!" we need to take notice. I'm not proud, I'll take all the help I can get.
So, now we're getting close to the runway. I should have my speed, alignment and glideslope sorted out by now. Now things get interesting. Keep in mind that the main landing gear are over 60 feet behind me and we're sitting 2 stories up. Just imagine looking out your bedroom window and landing your house.
As we get close to the runway "Betty" starts calling out our altitude every ten feet. By 50 feet, preferably sooner, I want to take out any cross-wind "crab" and line the nose up with the runway. I do this by dipping the upwind wing (not too much! there's an engine hanging out there!) and stepping on the opposite rudder pedal. If we land in a crab it's rough on the tires and landing gear, and my pride.
At 30 feet I shift my eyes down to the end of the runway so I can stay lined up. At 20 feet I start to "flare" by pulling back slightly on the yoke. The 757 doesn't really need much flare, it's almost in a landing attitude already (I love this plane!). I also start smoothly bringing the power to idle right about now. Then it's just a matter of playing the last 10 feet or so until I feel the main gear touch. Hopefully smoothly. Or not. Oh well, at least the boxes won't complain. What's most important is that we land in the center of the runway and not too far along. Runway behind us does us no good.
If the runway is wet or icy, or if the winds are really gusting I probably won't go for a smooth landing "Thud!......I meant to do that!". Sometimes it's better to just get it on the ground and not give the wind a chance to blow us off center-line. Plus the plane slows down a lot faster on the ground than in the air. Very important on a short runway (Burbank I'm talking to you).
Now we need to get this thing stopped. We weigh as much as several 18-wheelers and we're traveling at race car speeds. Fortunately we have awesome brakes. Each main wheel has disc brakes like on your car, but it has several of them stacked together. This is all powered by our hydraulic systems. We also have anti-skid which is just like the ABS on your car.
Once the plane senses weight on wheels, some things start to happen automatically. The spoilers should deploy. That's those sections of wing you see come up after landing. In addition to acting as air brakes, they dump the lift from the wing, putting the weight of the plane on the landing gear and greatly improving our braking. If we're using them, the auto-brakes start working right about now. I lower the nose to the runway and move the thrust levers to reverse, which deflects our thrust forward, helping us slow down. I like the thrust-reversers because they make noise and sound cool. Yes, I'm a geek.
If you feel the pilot really jump on the brakes, the tower may have asked them to clear the runway quickly so that someone else can land. This is common at busy airports like Atlanta or JFK. Otherwise we may let it roll to the end of the runway to save wear on the brakes.
Once we're slowed to taxi speed we clear the runway, run our checklists and get our taxi instructions. Whew! That was almost like work.
Oh, and I really like Microsoft Flight Simulator. It's just not quite like the real thing. Sometimes I actually wish it was that easy.
Almost forgot - yes the plane really can land itself, under certain conditions. But that's a topic for another day.