How precise are your landings? How do you practice your arrivals? Most modern Thermal contests require precision piloting at the end of the flight to obtain a decent score. The aircraft needs to land at a precise moment as closely as possible to the designated landing spot for maximum points.
Regardless of how accomplished we are at finding good air and keeping models aloft in thermals, we must also be capable of precisely completing the last minute of flight for maximum points.
Many “old school” pilots don’t like the sudden-arrival/lawn-dart approach that has become the norm in most modern RC Soaring contests, but we are competing in contests with models designed to take this punishment. Our landings are not scalelike and they aren’t meant to be, but to routinely accomplish them takes a certain amount of skill and practice.
This last 60 seconds, when well executed, can earn a pilot as much as 20% of the total flight score. It is vitally important to practice this segment of the flight task to ensure we receive these “free” points. Every pilot can benefit from practicing landings, but only if practicing a procedure or technique that is easily repeated.
When I returned to the hobby a few years ago, I was fortunate to have some guidance from a mentor, Gordy Stahl, who set me on the right path with a simple 30-second landing pattern to practice. In no time I was landing within a second or two of the maximum time and hitting close to the spot at the same time to make competitive scores.
It didn’t take long to discover that the 30-second pattern was too long on the Orlando Buzzard’s field in Florida, often taking the base turn too close to adjacent trees. Thirty seconds also left too much room for error so I switched to a 20-second pattern, which is used by many top pilots. This final 20-second landing pattern works with a simple, easy system to consistently get you to the landing spot within a second or two of the right time.
First let’s look at the preparation for the landing phase starting 60 seconds from arrival. Good landing technique begins with learning to do everything consistently, including the countdown from your helper. If your timer can call the time every 5 seconds under 60 then every second under 30, you are able to easily judge your setup, landing pattern, and approach to check whether your aircraft is at the preferred height, velocity, and in the right position, and then make adjustments if you are not.
I use five checkpoints with every landing to develop consistency and allow me to make necessary adjustments. At checkpoint one, 60 seconds from touchdown, the aircraft should be positioned a few feet upwind from the landing spot and the transmitter should be in landing mode (if one is programmed). It should be approximately 120 feet high and overhead in the immediate vicinity of the landing area.
Choose a piece of unoccupied sky (not in the sun) and hang out, controlling the descent rate to remain at a safe height overhead. If it is windy, err on the upwind side of the landing area and be conscious of not flying into sink. I have often seen pilots, after being at great height, fail to make time or fail to get back to the spot after flying into sink and losing altitude downwind during the final minute.
By checkpoint two, at 30 seconds out, the model should be at cruise speed, doing tight circles approximately 60 feet overhead, waiting to enter the pattern at 20 seconds (checkpoint three). The actual landing pattern begins at checkpoint three, with the model overhead or slightly off to either side, starting at light-pole height (approximately 40 feet high). Fly downwind, at a slight angle to make room for the base turn, for approximately 6 seconds with landing flaps 1/4 to 1/3 deployed.
The amount of flap used should have the model traveling slightly slower than normal and clearly descending to reach the base turn at 14 seconds (roughly 25 feet high). If it is windy, keep a little height in reserve at the base turn because it is easy to wash off this height during the final upwind segment. You will risk being late or being short if you are too low at the base turn.
Start the 180° base turn at 14 seconds and complete it at 10 or 11 seconds (checkpoint four), with the model flying upwind and directly back toward yourself and the spot. The base turn is roughly a 45° bank and the radius can be adjusted to make up or lose time if necessary.
During the final approach, it’s important to maintain a steady speed and descent by increasing or decreasing flap as necessary, to make the approach steeper or flatter. Avoid making huge changes with flap deflection. An abrupt change in the model’s speed makes it harder to control its descent and stay on course.
If you have flown the pattern exactly as described, the model should be over the spot at approximately 3 feet high, within a second or two of the max every time. There is no need to fly to the clock during the last 8 or 9 seconds, but rather concentrate on the model’s steering and descent.
The exception is during F3J contests, where the penalty for being late sometimes requires conscious speed adjustment approximately 5 seconds out (checkpoint five). Knowing the conditions, the model’s velocity, its distance, and its height, to judge if you are early or late at 5 seconds from touchdown takes practice, but it allows you to wait or hurry to make the spot exactly on time.
For most Thermal Duration (TD) contests, this adjustment is unnecessary because the risk of missing being close to the spot is far more consequential than being a second or two off the time. Adhere to the basic pattern described and practice guiding the model to the spot.
The final second of the landing, with the model 4 or 5 feet out and 3 feet high, requires a confident push with down-elevator to place the model’s nose at the precise spot. At the same time you are pushing the model’s nose over, retract flaps fully to avoid flap hinge, pushrod, or servo damage either from inertia or direct contact with the ground.
F3J and F3B pilots make the model stick without using skegs and the preferred angle of arrival is as much as 45°. TD contests that allow skegs mean that a gentler angle of contact is possible. It also depends on the type of model being flown. Many old-school fiberglass and balsa models don’t take kindly to sudden arrivals, so a less-abrupt touchdown is necessary.
I’ll share a few tips to score better landing points:
• Follow the pattern and make sure you are directly on course for the target at checkpoint five (5 seconds) then completely ignore the clock and concentrate on staying on line and managing the descent angle.
• Use half as much control as you think you need during the last 2 or 3 seconds. (Overcontrolling during the final few seconds of flight is often the reason pilots fail to make it close to the precise landing spot, or worse, break their models.)
• With full-house models, practice using your rudder on approach to keep the model on target during the final few seconds.
• If the rules allow, use a skeg to make sure the model sticks when you land it.
Being in control of where your model is in relation to yourself and the ground is essential to consistently earn great landing points. I discovered that many pilots are inconsistent because often they are not in total control of their models and they let the models fly their own course. They simply don’t stay with the pattern and then they can’t make it back to the spot on time.
Learn to use a bungee for lots of landing practice in a short amount of time and become confident, positive, and in control of your model when it is flying low. Use my five checkpoints to evaluate your position during every landing phase and watch your consistency improve. Happy and high scoring landings!
Go downwind and soar.
League of Silent Flight (LSF)
World Soaring Masters