Soft-Field Takeoffs and Landings

By Steve Krog, EAA 173799

This story first appeared in the December 2018 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.

If you were asked to
explain a soft-field takeoff and landing, could you do it? How long has it been
since you’ve done one? Like many, you may not have attempted one since your
initial checkride with an examiner. Others may have tried to demonstrate either,
or both, during a flight review. To say soft-field procedures are seldom
practiced would be a truthful statement.

Soft-field takeoff and
landing techniques are a mandatory training segment for all sport, private, and
commercial pilots. However, very few students ever experience true soft-field
conditions. Rather, the procedure is taught on hard-surface runways and taught
just well enough to pass the checkride. Unfortunately, this practice can lead
to an unplanned incident.

We’ve experienced
significant amounts of rainfall throughout the country throughout 2018. Too
much rain, in fact. Farm fields are flooded, waterways are overflowing their
banks, and turf runways are oftentimes unusable. We had to cancel numerous
training flights this past summer and fall due to standing water on all our
turf runways. When they do dry out somewhat, we practice a lot of soft-field
takeoffs and landings out of necessity. We’ve had no problem practicing these
procedures under real conditions due to the excess rainfall we’ve experienced.

I mentioned this to our
local FAA Safety Team manager when he stopped by one day. He rolled his eyes
and asked us to please keep doing this as he’d recently been involved in
inspecting three incidents where the aircraft ended up on its back due to soft-field

What is the key objective
when attempting a soft-field takeoff? Obviously, to get the aircraft out of the
muck and off the muddy surface as quickly and safely as possible. But how do we
do this? There may be several ways to teach soft-field techniques, but this is
how I prefer teaching it.

If we know the takeoff is
going to be made from a soft field and requires that we taxi on the soft field,
it is imperative that we take care of all pre-takeoff checks prior to taxiing
onto the soft field. Mags are checked, flaps are checked and set (if so
equipped), and radio is checked. We do not want to have to stop our movement
once on the soft surface. Should we stop, it may be very difficult to have
enough power to get moving again. If back-taxiing is required, do so along
either edge of the runway to allow room for making a 180-degree turn for
takeoff. Clear the approach end of the runway visually while back-taxiing to
prevent any conflict with landing traffic.

When flying a conventional
gear or tailwheel aircraft, it is important to keep the tail wheel in contact
with the runway surface for directional control, but use common sense and a bit
of finesse so as not to bury the tail wheel in the muck. Light back-pressure on
the stick or yoke should be applied rather than full back-pressure, which is
the proper procedure under normal conditions.

As you approach the
departure end of the runway and have visually cleared the final approach area,
begin your 180-degree turn onto the center of the runway and continue adding
power to keep the aircraft moving. As full power is applied, begin moving the
stick or yoke forward taking the downward pressure off the tail wheel. Once the
tail wheel has broken ground, keep the tail low while accelerating,
establishing a positive angle of attack. As groundspeed is increased, move the
stick or yoke very slightly fore and aft, helping the main gear become free of
the sticky muck. Once airborne, remain in ground effect by lowering the nose while
building airspeed. As you approach either VX or VY,
initiate a normal climb attitude and continue climbing out of the traffic

If flying a tricycle gear,
it is important to keep the nose wheel from burrowing into the mud. This is
done by holding back-pressure on the yoke and keeping as much weight off the nose
wheel as is safely possible without compromising directional control. While
back-taxiing, clear the approach end of the runway and then begin your turn
onto the center of the runway. Hold the yoke in the full aft position while
continuously adding power to prevent the soft surface from stopping you.

Once aligned with the
approximate runway centerline, smoothly apply full power, keeping the yoke in
the full aft position. As groundspeed increases and the full prop blast passes
over the tail surfaces, the elevator becomes effective causing the nose to rise
off the runway surface. Here is where a bit of finesse and practice becomes
quite beneficial. Too much back-pressure and the nose is too high, creating a
stall configuration for the wings as well as banging the tail off the runway.
Too little back-pressure and the nose wheel drops onto the soft surface and
begins digging in. Neither configuration is safe or desirable.

When teaching students in
a tricycle-gear aircraft, I’ll first practice soft-field takeoffs on a hard
surface. I control the power while the students have all of the other controls.
Just enough power is applied to feel the nose lifting off the runway. Then I’ll
work with the students to hold that attitude for four to five seconds before
applying full power. As the aircraft becomes airborne, we push the nose over
and fly in ground effect for several more seconds before initiating the climb.
Assisting students through this procedure three or four times significantly
increases their ability to recognize each step, safely execute the needed
inputs, and then perform the procedure with confidence. Then I’ll move students
over to the soft field for demonstrating the takeoff under real circumstances.
If the aircraft is flap equipped, flap application as recommended in the pilot’s
operating handbook is employed.

Landing on a soft field
also requires some finesse. The primary objective is to get the aircraft to
touch down as softly and lightly as possible while maintaining some forward
momentum, preventing the aircraft from bogging down and possibly going up on
its nose or, even worse, flipping on its back.

When teaching soft-field
landings in tailwheel aircraft, I begin by having students set up to make a
normal three-point landing. Then, while in the flare attitude and just before
touching down, I’ll apply about 150-200 rpm. The airplane is suspended in
ground effect well below the published stall speed. While students hold this
attitude, I’ll slowly reduce the power, and the airplane gently settles onto
the runway. Once the wheels touch the runway, a slight bit of power is again
added to help maintain a bit of forward momentum while the airplane continues
settling onto the surface. Maintain some back-pressure on the stick or yoke,
but not full back-pressure. We want to keep the tail wheel on the ground for
handling directional control, but we don’t want to bury it in the mud.

After students have experienced
two or three approaches and landings with me operating the power, they’re ready
to take over and demonstrate it for me. I add one additional step, however.
They are to explain to me every input they’re making during the approach,
touchdown, and rollout. Getting students to verbalize while flying a maneuver
helps drive home the procedure so they never forget.

When landing a tricycle
gear aircraft on a soft field, my approach to teaching is quite like the
tailwheel approach. The student does the flying while I control the power for
the first two or three landings. A normal approach is flown. Then, as the
aircraft is leveled off and begins the flare, I’ll add just enough power to
keep the airplane airborne for a couple of seconds before slightly reducing
power, allowing the main gear to touch down. Some power is still maintained, or
slight additional power is even added, to keep the nose gear from touching
while the groundspeed is dissipating. Once the nose wheel has touched down, I continue
to hold enough back-pressure on the yoke to prevent the wheel from sinking or
digging into the muck. It is also important at this stage to keep moving until
reaching higher ground or a firm surface. If you allow the airplane to stop,
you may need help to get it moving again. I never use a full flap setting when
teaching soft-field landings in a flap-equipped aircraft. Too much flap and the
nose has a tendency to drop hard onto the landing surface creating a problem
that can easily be avoided.

Soft-field takeoffs and
landings are not difficult, but they do require a bit of practice from time to
time to establish and maintain the level of proficiency needed should you find
yourself in a situation where they are required.

Steve Krog, EAA 173799, has been flying for more than four
decades and giving tailwheel instruction for nearly as long. In 2006 he
launched Cub Air Flight, a flight training school using tailwheel aircraft for
all primary training. For more from Steve, check out his column The Classic
Instructor every month in EAA Sport Aviation.

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