The South African National Spot Landing Nationals held in Brits on 13 November 2021 was my second Spot Landing competition. My first Spot Landing Competition was on 07 November 2020 and followed hot on the heels of my first ever flight competition. At first, I was wary, having never attempted a spot landing before, never mind in different configurations! Normally, the aim is to have as smooth a landing as possible. On top of that, I did my pilots license at a grass field where there are no lines on the runway, so a few metres here or there is not even noticed.
I attended the theory training held the week before the competition hoping to learn from the experts so I could practice for the next year. After much encouragement and guidance from other pilots (mostly Jonty), I decided to give it a go, but not without some practice first! A few of us gathered at Brakpan the day before to put the theory into practice. So much for practicing alone so I could avoid embarrassment!
While I would have preferred that nobody could see my horrible first attempts, flying in a group meant that we could share what we learnt with each other after each round before trying again. It also helped to get used to the race day conditions where you also fly in groups and need to manage your spacing. This led to Piet becoming known for his go arounds and it soon became apparent that Fanie was on his way to being the landing king in his Sling!
After 4 hours of practice including 38 landings, I learnt is that the key to a good landing starts on the downwind. You need to be trimmed and ready at your selected altitude and speed early on the downwind as things start to happen very quickly once you are in line with the landing line. The stress level goes up significantly from that moment until your landing, confirmed by my rapidly rising heart rate with each touch and go.
In a normal landing, you land in the same configuration every time: power as required, flaps down, power off over the threshold, hold the flare and touchdown smoothly when ready. But the spot landing competition demands that you land in different configurations one after the other, all while trying to land within the 60m “box” or preferably on the 2m “bingo” line. In 2020, I decided to enter the Sportsman’s Class, which involves three different landings.
- First comes a normal landing where all settings are pilot’s preference with the use of power and flaps at pilot’s discretion.
- Second is a glide approach. In this configuration, flaps are allowed but the engine must be throttled back to idle on the downwind as you get in line with the landing line, to simulate engine failure.
- Third is a glide approach, similar to landing 2 but this time no flaps are allowed either, simulating the addition of electronics failure or just forgetting flaps in a stressful situation.
- Finally, if you enter the Unlimited Class, a fourth landing is required where you land over a 2m tall obstacle that is placed 50m before the bingo line (this is just some flags that can be dropped if you are too low). Power and flaps are allowed at pilot’s discretion. Theoretically this has no impact on your approach, but mentally, it is another story!
The intention of the spot landing competition is to improve critical pilots’ skills in a high stress landing scenario such as engine failure. During training for my pilot’s license, we practiced simulated engine failures in almost every flight where you set up for an imaginary landing in a field. The difference is during training you are normally at altitude, so you have lots of time to plan and execute. In addition, once you are close to your chosen field and you think you will make it, you take power and climb away. In the competition, you have to follow through and actually land, and more than that, try to land exactly where you planned so that you don’t end up either landing short or deep, which could mean ending up in a fence, a tree or in a stall trying to stretch that glide in a real emergency.
In the competition, my first powered landing ended up right out the box as I didn’t anticipate the very long approach of the competitor ahead of me but I managed to get back on track with a -5m for my first glide approach. In the second round, I had to do a go-around when I realised that I was descending way too quickly and wasn’t going to have a safe landing. The rest were not too shabby and more importantly, all in the box. I was very happy with my 4th place in the Sportsman’s Class and felt like I dramatically improved the accuracy of my landings as well as learning so much about handling the Jabi in different situations.
In 2021, the Nationals had a twist: they would be held in two locations, Brits and Stellenbosch, each with their own results which would then be combined into an overall score to determine the South African Landing Champion. With a full year having passed and various rally competitions flown, I had plenty of opportunity to refine my normal configuration spot landings but had neglected the other configurations. In addition, this year’s competition would be at Brits, which is not as familiar as my home field. Doing at least a few circuits at the competition airfield is invaluable as you fly a much tighter circuit than normal and your approach, especially your glide approach, is quite different to one that is completed for the comfort of passengers. Unfortunately, I only got “Bonsai” back from annual service the evening before the competition, meaning that I didn’t get a chance to practice this year.
At Brits, we had a small field of six competitors this year sharing only three planes, but competition was fierce. Fanie the landing king was there and Hans, Ron and Frank had multiple World Champion gold and silver medals between them. I decided to go for it and enter the Unlimited Class.
The conditions were really calm on arrival in Brits, but quite quickly the wind started to pick up and the heat really started to build. By Round 2, the heat and variable gusty wind made setting up on downwind a challenge, with turbulence bouncing you around while the wind was helping one moment and hindering the next. Maybe this ups your concentration level as surprisingly most of us managed to reduce our scores in Round 2.
On my first landing in Round 1, I surprised myself with a +5 landing and thought that this was a promising sign for the day ahead. I was immediately brought back down to earth in my first glide approach where I was descending way faster than expected and had my hand itching on the throttle, ready for a go around as I expected to land in the field before the runway. Luckily a go around wasn’t necessary, but I landed way short and out of the box. Luckily this is a competition and not real engine failure where landing so short could be a real problem if you aren’t able to go around!
Things improved from here, and I managed to get all but one landing in the box! It becomes very clear during the day that managing speed is key. If you are too fast, you will float much further than you think, especially in my Jabiru where the plane and I have no weight to help settle onto the ground. If you have too much speed, your flare can float you more than 70m and right out the other side of the box or worse, it could cause you to bounce!
Managing speed on a glide approach is quite different as you are also managing distance to the runway based on your descent rate and you need to judge your turn. An important lesson is the sharper the turn, the faster you descend!
Overall, I am very happy with my results. Compared to last year, I managed to shave off over 100 points. This is including the two additional obstacle landings that you have to do in the Unlimited Class that were not required in the Sportsman’s Class I competed in last year. Next year I hope to get under the 400 point mark!