How Do Planes Actually Land?
A Brief Rundown of the Technical Aspects of Landing a Plane
I know this topic seems a bit strange to discuss, but given some of my audience isn’t well-versed in technical aspects of aviation, and because I feel like I have a duty to help those who have anxiety while flying, this article is important! I will go over one of the most important aspects of flying a plane…putting it back down on the ground.
A few articles I’ve written have covered the new STAR routes into Haneda Airport. But what are these “STAR routes?”
These are the basic air routes taken by arriving aircraft into an airport. For smaller airports, these routes are pretty straightforward…a couple of turns here and there to align and file aircraft into a 20 or so mile final. Here’s an example:
Many times, airplanes are guided in through ‘visual approaches.’ A pilot will report to the control tower that the ‘field is in sight,’ allowing the tower to clear them to land on the assigned runway without the use of navigation instruments. Visual landings are a lot less technical, and can be done pretty quickly, if the aircraft is at an appropriate height.
At larger airports, such as Haneda, Narita, Seattle, Boston, and even mid-sized airports like my hometown’s airport Cincinnati, a high volume of traffic and surrounding terrain, buildings, or restrictive airspace requires controllers to vector planes in via the STAR patterns: Standard Terminal Arrival Routes. With modern navigation technology, planes can be programmed to fly this route via autopilot. Speeds and altitudes are also programmed. ATC might inform the flight to lower or raise their speed, or increase or decrease their altitude in order to accommodate for traffic. Arrivals using STAR are sometimes done as RNAV and ILS arrivals, or visual, as mentioned above. Here’s an example of a STAR plate at Haneda, called the “RNAV Bloom I Arrival”:
Larger airports require more traffic spacing, and you can see the altitudes at which the flights are supposed to fly. The direction arrows are the heading that the flight is to track, and the number below the airport is the distance between waypoints. If there’s an ‘at or above’ number, that indicates the flight is to be no lower than that altitude, but more often than not, the controller will tell the pilots how high they should fly.
If you listen to ATC radio, you’ll hear the controller instruct the pilots to advise when they are ‘established on the ILS.” This is called the ‘localizer,’ an instrument on a Pilot’s dashboard which tells the pilots they’re lined up with the runway. A second instrument helps guide the plane along its ‘glideslope,’ the safest descent into the runway. If a plane is too high or too low, an alert might show up, or the ATC will tell the pilot to check their altitude.
Here’s an ILS arrival at CVG Airport in my hometown. Take a look at the arrow-shaped icon. Remember that from Sioux Falls?
When a flight is making a turn on approach, the approach ATC will issue a message similar to this: “Delta Flight 9999, you’re 7 miles from PHILO, maintain 5000 feet or greater until PHILO, turn right 150 to intercept the Runway 18L localizer, upon established, contact CVG Tower at 118.975.”
This instruction to the flight tells them they’re 7 miles from the PHILO waypoint (look closely on the map above!), they should maintain a 5000 foot altitude until they are at PHILO and established on the localizer, and they should turn to a heading of 150 degrees to reach PHILO and be able to reach the localizer. Once they’re on the localizer, they are to contact the control tower at Cincinnati and then align their heading for landing on 18L.
It looks like a lot of instructions, but in all realities, landing using a RNAV and ILS, basically, landing via GPS and the radio signals from the localizer, is the safest and most efficient way to land an airplane.
When a flight lands, pilots go through a rigorous checklist…they routinely check their speed and altitudes to make sure they’re at an appropriate height and airspeed, they check the landing gear is down and locked (indicated by 3 green lights on the landing gear panel), and adjust their flaps to guide the plane down safely and slowly. The flaps generate lift so the descent into the airport is smooth and safe.
Have a look at this timelapse from one of my recent travel vlogs. This was a Delta flight making an RNAV and ILS approach into Minneapolis. Note the turns, and the gradual deployment of the flaps.
Right before touchdown, engine power is set to almost idle, and the braking system is ‘armed,’ which allows the brakes to apply almost as soon as the plane touches the runway. The spoilers deploy, wheel brakes activate, and the pilots activate the engine thrust reversers, calling out the deceleration at 80 and 60 knots, and then safely turning off onto the taxiways.
Watch this video here to see how pilots land, and note their callouts.
I hope you learned a thing or two about the process of landing your flight! If you’re curious about the route you’re taking, Flightaware will sometimes publish which ‘approach’ plate you’re to arrive on…run a search on Google of that approach, and follow along as your pilots guide you into landing. When you know about what’s going on, and the machinations involved with guiding your flight, it really takes the anxiety out of flying.
Have a safe flight! Let me know on social media what topic of flying I should cover next.