Brian Lecomber 2
Special feature

Think before you land... then think again

Sheer embarrassment causes Brian to think harder – much harder – about landings

As we climb away embarrassment curls my toes and prickles my face. Beside me on my left, although I dare not look at him, I can feel Frank Delisle’s eyes swivelling round to me, brows raised as he peers past his Roman centurion’s beak of a nose. Not for nothing is he known as the Bald Eagle. And I have just incurred his displeasure.

“Why,” he asks with commendable restraint, “did you do that?”

Climbing out on instruments in the gin-clear Caribbean sunshine I search for words. Frank Delisle is a legend in West Indian aviation. He founded an airline called LIAT (Leeward Islands Air Transport), eventually sold it to the British company Court Line – who turned out not to be so clever at running it as Frank Delisle was – and then in semi-retirement bought a Beech Twin Bonanza to keep himself amused flying a few air taxi contracts. He is very deservedly a legend.

And I have just presented Antigua’s Air Traffic Control with the spectacle of the legend’s personal aeroplane aborting a perfectly normal landing and going around again for no apparent reason whatsoever.

“Sorry, Frank. I just suddenly… couldn’t see. Sitting here. I hadn’t thought of that…”

“Ah.” To my surprise Frank is almost sympathetic as he looks me up and down, eyeing my stature. Or lack of same.

“I have control,” he says. I pull the release and swing the throw-over control yoke to him. The control yoke which was so much a part of my embarrassment, and which I now wish might have been electrified at mains voltage so that I could never have touched it in the first place.

The D50 Twin Bonanza is a fine aeroplane – a light twin as you might say on the heftier end of ‘light’. It has six seats and a pair of supercharged and geared 340hp Lycomings. It is fast, a good load-carrier, tough, and even spacious within the meaning of the act.

The successors of Walter Beech have observed far in advance of demographic science that Americans tend to be not among the slimmest beings on the planet, and have accordingly provided a fairly wide, roomy cabin. To me, four decades ago, the Twin Bonanza is Big Iron. The very engine nacelles proclaim it. Long, wide and chesty, they jut aggressively forward from the wings so that the propellers are maybe six feet in front of the pilot.

On this day these nacelles are part of the cause of my present red face.

The next villain is the throw-over control yoke. If you’ve never encountered a throw-over yoke, it consists of a vertical column to the right of the Captain’s starboard knee, at the top of which is a horizontal outrigger pointing left, and at the end of that is mounted the actual control yoke in front of the pilot in the usual place.

Should the Captain deign to pass over control to some minion on the right, he releases a lock on the vertical column and as the name suggests literally throws over the outrigger to the right where it re-locks, so presenting the yoke in front of the P2.

This system has its pros and cons – the most obvious con being that the skipper has now truly relinquished control, cannot suddenly grab it back and is reduced to chewing his nails and worrying about his personal life-insurance arrangements.

In this particular Twin Bonanza this con is compounded by the right-hand front seat being an untypical narrow affair scrunched as far to the right as it can go. Why this is I do not know – possibly because Frank wanted to use it as an extra passenger seat and some officious airworthiness guru decided it should be as far away as possible from the controls.

Whatever the rationale, the result is that in order to get positioned behind the thrown-over yoke one has to move a lever on the seat and slide same leftwards on lateral runners into the correct place.

On this day I have simply been hitching a ride with Frank from one island to another. Droning over the Caribbean Sea I am surprised when Frank says, “Brian, you like to fly?”

“Most kind, Frank, yes please.” I slide the seat across and nod ready. He gently throws over the yoke, then apparently loses all interest. I try a few experimental turns. The thing is predictably unexciting to fly, and an irritant is that on this Spartan seat I am sitting too low behind the wide instrument panel, so that in level flight I can only see the forward horizon by craning mightily. The seat-height is adjustable, but not readily so in-flight. I mentally shrug, subside back in the seat and fly mainly on instruments.

The coast and mountains of Antigua crawl into view – well, they do if I stretch up. I glance at Frank and make a waving-over gesture at the control yoke to hand it back.

“You land. If you’d like to.”

Ha! Damn right I’d like to! Quite why the great Frank Delisle has decided to honour me thus I have no idea… but Ho! I will prove myself capable of flying Big Iron.

Big Iron
Big Iron – or at least slightly big iron. Note the Twin Bonanza’s engine positions, props well forward of the broad cockpit. Now try… (Photo: AKC Aviation)
Control yoke
…throwing over the control yoke from the left seat to someone sitting a bit too low roughly behind the centre of that wide panel. And ask him what he can see sideways/forwards as the nose comes up. The answer is – not a lot. (The seats here are in fact slightly different to Frank’s Twin Bonanza, but the control positions are the same.) (Photo: AKC Aviation)

I start the descent 30 miles out, very gently throttling back the roller-balanced engines, which do not appreciate abrupt power changes. Going down I can now see out forwards better. Gear and flap, sweep gently onto final approach, start the landing flare and e-a-s-e the throttles shut. Look to the side of the nose to judge the final hold-off.

And now the conspirators get together. There is no looking to the side of the nose.

Sitting too low in nearly the middle of this broad instrument panel, I look to my right and forward for my final height-cue.

And that long and hunchy right engine nacelle is bang in my line of sight. The nearest I can see anything forwards is about 80° to my right. And with the nose rising in the flare I, the short-ass, am completely blind forwards at a height of 10ft and descending.


I can only ease the power up as smoothly as my left hand can manage, and climb away. On instruments in the climb for exactly the same reason – I can’t see anything ahead.

Frank is silent throughout this brouhaha, since there is nothing he can do about it at this point thanks to the throw-over yoke. He waits until we are established in the climb, gear and flaps up, before he says, “Why did you do that?”

Later, over a beer, I explain. He finally delivers his verdict. “Should’ve eaten more greens as a kid. You’d be taller. But you did a good go-around.” He says nothing else, but does later invite me to fly his aeroplane again. Sitting in the correct place and at the correct seat-height it then becomes a benign flying machine instead of a tricksy prankster suddenly slapping a blindfold over your eyes at 10ft and chortling, “Guess who-oo?”

If one should be so bold as to teach flying to others, it can be said that any salutary lesson inflicted on oneself is a good lesson. Even if humiliating.

This inflicted lesson makes me think ever harder about landing.

In a couple of thousand hours of instructing I have long ago learned that the two major requirements for a satisfactory reunion with terra firma are (a), a good stable approach so that the assemblage arrives in a state of grace over the threshold at the right height and the right speed; and (b), that at the start of the landing flare the aviator must subtly but quite rapidly start changing where he or she is looking.

This is vital. Many a time and oft have I been handed a student who is reasonably competent in general flying but then gets all in a dither during the landing flare, resulting in either a bounce or a balloon.

And always – not just most of the time, but always – it came down to where the aspirant was looking.

As ever, divide the problem and conquer. On approach, you’re looking ahead, gauging the runway aspect. If the threshold’s going up the windscreen you’re low, if it’s going down you’re high. Non-rocket science.

Cut to the final hold-off of the landing flare, a foot or two above the deck. Now it’s no use trying to crane a foot taller to keep looking ahead over the nose (and instructors, the clue here is that they will always have their head tilted back if that’s what they’re doing). You have to be looking slightly sideways, alongside the rising nose, to fine-judge the last feet of height. Looking maybe a ‘cricket pitch’ ahead.

Why do you think all – almost all – instrument panels dip down at the corners, rather than a car’s panel which usually carries straight-across? It’s to give you that bit more of a sight-line alongside them. Not the whole picture – but it helps.

So that’s the two extremes – looking ahead on final and looking a cricket-pitch ahead forward but alongside the nose during the final hold-off. But in between…

In between – during the flare – is the trickier part, and most difficult to describe in words. You might say that at the start of the flare, maybe 20ft up, you slam your eyes down to the cricket-pitch ahead alongside. Well, that will work – and most certainly be better than trying to stare ahead throughout – but the truth is that as time goes on you learn to divide your attention and shift cues gradually from ahead to aside. Gradually being maybe a period of five seconds or so.

High-time pilots, think about what you do. And think, if you can, about how you could possibly put that into words for a neophyte.

If you can explain the peripheral cues you take in to yourself I would be surprised – and if you can explain them to someone else I will personally recommend you for the Nobel stop-landing-accidents prize. Me, I just sit there while the student teaches it to himself.

But instructors, I do have three things to say.

The first is to put the student in the aeroplane on the ground then walk out to where he should be looking at the fag-end of the hold-off, and tell him to look there. Which may surprise him. Secondly, make sure he or she is sitting at the correct height in the cockpit. Easier to ignore than you might think. Is his/her eyeline about the same as yours?

Lastly, bless those students who might have come to you from a previous experience of tailwheel aeroplanes. They won’t have the problem because it’ll never have occurred to them to look ahead anyway…


  • This article first appeared in FLYER in May 2013.
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