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Prepare for landing!

Prepare for landing!

Someone told me once that landing is the only maneuver that we fly that is absolutely mandatory. If you think about it, this makes complete sense. We don’t have to take off, but once we do, the only thing that we must do is land! So, once you have takeoff down, it’s a good idea to make sure you are 100% competent in landing.

The tricky part about landing is the fact that you will be flying so close to stall. Unlike full-scale pilots, we do not have an airspeed indicator and the connection to the plane that allows us to feel the stall. However, to me, landing a model aircraft is still very much a “by feel” thing. We just feel the stall in a different sense. The way we feel it is in our thumb that is on the stick that controls the elevator. As our model flies slower, the wing will need a higher angle of attack to maintain altitude. Therefore, while you are setting up for landing, if you suddenly have a need to add more and more elevator to maintain your altitude, it is time to add throttle to avoid the impending stall.

Now, let’s talk about the hardest concept to grasp. When flying a model airplane, especially during landing, the concept is this: elevator controls speed, while throttle controls rate of descent/ascent. Most people believe the opposite to be true. This is painfully obvious when you are flying close to the ground and you run out of up-elevator and your plane comes crashing to the ground. The biggest mistake people make is using elevator alone to try to maintain their descent to landing. Instead you want to use throttle to slow your descent and avoid contact with the ground and elevator to slow the plane down, as it gets closer to touchdown.

With a tricycle gear you can afford to bring the nose a little higher without worrying about losing control of the model once on the ground. We will try to cover this in a future article.

Landing at different fields can add to the complexity of landing a “difficult” model. When you are landing a model that you need to focus on flying, you will want to lighten the load wherever you can. Here are a few things that I use to make things easier on my brain. The first things that I like to utilize are landmarks. When I first arrive at a new field I will take a few minutes to scan the area and look for visual landmarks. Some of my favorites are peaks of hills or mountains in the background, power poles, trees, or other things that stand out to the eye. Next is knowing the stall characteristics of the model that I am flying. Anytime I fly a new model I like to take her up to altitude once I know everything is working as it should and pull the throttle back. I then apply more and more elevator until I reach stall and see what the plane’s response is. This will remove any surprises when I am on final and altitude is at a premium. These two pointers can help save a number of models if you take the time to utilize them anytime you are at a new field or flying a new model.


Although it’s not a warbird, you can use the steps in this article to help increase your success rate when landing aerobatic biplanes like the Checkmate pictured here.

Notice the nose level attitude while landing this warbird. The increased airspeed helps to maintain rudder authority on touchdown.

Of the different configurations of models, the tail-dragger plane is definitely more difficult to land well. Of course, we have to count out the “floaty” 3D models and aerobatic planes such as the Extras and Edges that are so popular.

In general, our models are not difficult to land. Even most of our “heavy-metal” warbird models are so lightly wing loaded that they really don’t qualify as a “difficult” to land aircraft. However, even though they don’t have high wing loading, the fact that many of them are tail draggers makes this the “trickiest” class to land so we will focus here.

So, what qualifies as a good landing with a tail-dragging warbird? To me, it is a nice, 2-point touchdown with no bounces and a controlled rollout. The most common mistake we make, as modelers, is not carrying enough speed when landing our warbirds. Just because the wing will fly down to a walking pace does not mean that is the speed we should land these models. Landing too slow will cause the bounces and uncontrolled rollout previously mentioned.

I will first address airspeed. I like to land my models about 5 to 10mph above stall speed. This keeps enough airflow traveling over the vertical fin and rudder to control yaw on touchdown as well as over the horizontal stab and elevator to keep enough pitch authority to minimize bouncing.

The next point of conversation is the attitude of the model. Unlike the 3D aerobatic planes we want to come in with the nose fairly level. Try to avoid coming in nose high like a jet fighter. This just leads to trouble.

The third bullet point would be the flare. Since we have ample airspeed to keep the plane flying the flare is going to be more of a leveling out. I like to flare at about 6 inches above the runway. Once I level the plane off at this altitude, I will pull the throttle back to idle and allow the plane to slow. As the wheels get to the point of contact with the tarmac I will slowly release the back pressure on the elevator lessening the tendency of the tail to drop which creates a positive angle of attack of the wings, which will ultimately lead to the model taking to the skies again unintentionally.

Once the main wheels are solidly on the ground, I focus on my rudder control and be sure to keep the model tracking as close to the centerline as possible.

Finally, once my plane’s air speed is below flight speed, I will slowly add the up-elevator back in to firmly plant the tailwheel on the ground to avoid the undesirable nose over that we have all witnessed at the field.


If you take the tips above and focus on improving your skills one at a time, you definitely will see an improvement in your landing skills. All of the above points have proper timing. Additionally, every model you fly will require different timing for each of the points. Be patient and work on each step one at a time with every model you fly. Eventually, everything above will become second nature and you will not hesitate to fly any new model no matter how “scary” it is supposed to be on landing. Now get out there and shoot some landings!   By Jason Benson

Updated: January 26, 2017 — 1:59 PM
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Add a Comment
  1. True. I´m flying model airplanes since 1978, the first 2 months sailplanes only, then the first motor models came into my hangar. With my first motor model, i practised much “touch and go” for learning the plane handling for landings. If something goes wrong, i´ll open the throttle to start over for a new approach. That´s the best tip i can give you, always be ready to open the throttle and start over if something goes wrong with your landing. This can save your model and your day. Always leave some fuel in your tank or capacity in your flight battery so you can change your landing attempt to a nice touch and go.

    Happy landings!

  2. I agree with Georg. Your best friend is the throttle stick.

  3. There is also those of us that tend to toss the landing gear, and instead of sliding in, you are bringing it to a complete stall inches above the ground. Most of mine had enough wing loading to cause it to float down gently that way.

  4. While many of your pointers are good, they all depend on having power (a running engine or electric motor), and only represent one way to land the model. I do not think that your approach is the best way. I have seen so many models crashed, usually as a result of a stall, when the model has suffered an engine failure and the pilot is trying to keep it in the air. I learned to fly RC models at a very young age, and soon after, I was learning to fly full size aircraft. In both cases, the model and the “real” aircraft were sailplanes (“gliders” to some). Without an engine, learning to glide an aircraft to a landing, and getting it right the first time, every time, is definitely mandatory! Having said that, it is so simple that you can legally solo a sailplane at the age of 14, 2 years before you can get a license to drive a car in most places. It’s all about managing pitch attitude (with the elevator) and also adding or reducing drag as to control airspeed and glide path angle. Drag devices you may have on your model or real airplane are things such as flaps, spoilers, speed brakes, and retractable landing gear (this last often overlooked as a means of controlling drag). If you don’t have any controllable/deployable drag devices, then all you have left is the ability to side slip as a means of increasing drag. I won’t go into a lesson on how to properly set up a glide path to a landing here, but learning your aircraft’s glide characteristics is the very next thing I do after exploring its stall characteristics, which you rightly mention in your article as the first thing you should do when flying a new model. If you set up every landing approach as a power off landing, you will be more consistent with getting your model to the runway on speed and where you want it to touch down. Knowing how to fly power-on approaches in the way you describe is a skill that should be learned, because there are times when that is the more practical way to fly the model in for a landing because of some particular set of circumstances, but know that if you do so, and your engine fails on approach, you will likely not make the runway and will be looking at trying to set the model down somewhere far short, possibly in terrain or obstructed area that will definitely damage the model. In such a case, keeping the model flying in a controlled glide until touchdown will normally yield less damage than if you stall it at low altitude with no power.

  5. Thanks for an excellent article

  6. Thank you my friend…try out your method of landing and wow I’m landing nice and smooth now… I’ve been landing sort of opposite of how you land your planes…thanks again

  7. Most RC pilots forget that the elevator trim setting needs to be adjusted throughout the flight envelope. Some folks just set the trim for flying at their favorite flying speed, and think they should never change it when landing because it was ”so hard” to get it set flying just the way they want it. But,,, if you have ever flown full scale aircraft, you know you have to set the elevator trim depending upon what flight conditions you are in… take off, climb, cruise, and LANDING!! When in the downwind portion of the landing pattern, you should be ”close” to the approach speed and trim the elevator accordingly, to help keep a level flight in the landing pattern. If you haven’t dialed in some up elevator from the trim you had at your favorite cruise speed, you will be holding back on the stick throughout the landing, and if you are like most people, you will not have a perfectly steady hold on the stick, and it will lead to a bumpy/bouncy landing. Most of the folks who see me land are always commenting on my ”good” landings. I try to explain to them, that if you trim the plane for the landing, it will ”almost” land itself, and it will make you look like a better pilot than you ever thought you could be. And, you will start to get compliments on your landings too !!

    1. I agree with all of the above, with this proviso: although each technique has its place in the landing regime, sometimes one is the better. As an example, I’ve had much success using the “LANDING MODE” feature on my TX, where the flaps and elevator are pre-set and then activated by an assigned toggle switch. But even this is no cure-all: There are times when wind conditions or tall trees near the end of a field’s runway force me to hand-fly the plane all the way down to roll out. But as day mentioned, as I get older, my hand is not as steady, requiring a healthy dose of exponential. Before landing, I call a “low pass.” Nobody is the wiser…but what I’m actually doing is testing the approach. From this I can determine if I’m going to get away with using the LANDING MODE feature or will just have to fly ‘er in, “seat of the pants!”

  8. thank you for the excellent column. it helped to define a couple of problems I’m having with my apprentice S15e. could you possibly write another article about using flaps on takeoff and landing. I recently purchased the 1875 millimeter B 17 and its giving me fits trying to take off without nosing over into the ground. I also have tried to land this when I had a buddy box partner and it was also very difficult. I’ve already replaced numerous props and engines. the exciting part was yesterday when I got an absolutely vertical takeoff for 10 feet and then nosing over into the ground breaking the fuselage in half. HELP PLEASE!!

  9. This is one of the best articles on landing I’ve read, especially the emphasis on using throttle to control altitude and elevator to control speed. I mostly fly tail draggers and agree that landing is more of an art than a science.

    The advice to maintain some speed on landing — staying above the stall speed a bit is excellent. This also gets one used to landing with a little speed which is crucial if you lose power (I disagree with Kieth, I think this article does address dead-stick landings). In terms of slowing the plane down, nothing works better than wheels on the ground so getting them firmly planted is key — as is reducing, then re-adding elevator to keep the plane under control.

    My biggest issue on landings is actually nose-overs due to my landing surface which is dirt. Combined with my laziness (not wanting to walk to get the plane) I end up breaking a lot of propellers. So the only thing I would add is to have a switch that fully kills the engine so that if you see the potential for a nose-over happening, you kill the engine quickly to save the propeller. Thanks Jason!

  10. Thanks, Well written and easy to understand – good ‘can’t go wrong’ logic that will help to improve my landings and help me focus on the basics explained. Good – Bad experiences I’ve had supports the write-up.

  11. I really enjoyed this excellent article. When I flew full-size airplanes, there was some disagreement about throttle for altitude and elevator for airspeed, but there is no doubt in my mind and experience that you are spot on in this regard. I well remember the first time I flew a plane to the back side of the power curve and had to add throttle to fly slower because of the build-up of induced drag. It was very interesting to me. Thanks again!

  12. Greetings,
    I just wanted to add a quick note to offer my praise on your article. I found it well written, concise and to the point. Although short, It was one of the best I have read on this subject. Kudo’s.

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