What makes the difference in an airplane landing between a smooth glide to the runway and a bone-jarring thud?

By Chris Cooke
Updated: March 21, 2016
EyesWideOpen

This story originally appeared on Fortune.com

It was a beautiful, clear night as our Boeing 757 descended into Chicago. The captain I was flying with had been with the airline more than 11 years. He had plenty of flying experience, having been on the 747-400 as a first officer, but he was new to the 757 as captain.

As we descended through 75 feet on our approach to the runway, he unexpectedly pulled the throttles to idle and raised the nose to what he thought was a good landing position and sight picture. It wasn’t the proper technique to land a 757, and it botched the landing. What he did put us into a stalled condition 40 feet above the runway, essentially dropping us out of the sky onto the tarmac. Luckily, no one was hurt, and we didn’t damage the aircraft. The landing was the worst I’d experienced in almost 35 years of military and commercial flying.

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I spent the next hour instructing the captain on how to apply basic flying techniques to the 757. Unfortunately, he made the same errors on his next three landings. Upon pulling in to the gate after our final leg together, I gave him the option to volunteer for more training or be reported to the chief pilot. Thankfully, he opted for the former and was out with an instructor for another round of training later that week.

Landing a large jet aircraft smoothly and safely is a challenge, especially when there are numerous variables. First and foremost is the experience level of the pilot who’s landing the plane. Pilots with the major U.S. legacy airlines are only authorized to fly one aircraft type at a time. As a pilot gains seniority with a company, he or she will progress to bigger aircraft for pay grade boosts or to smaller aircraft if moving from first officer to captain. Experience levels vary with flight time in a particular aircraft.

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Weather, crosswinds, visibility and turbulence affect a pilot’s ability to land a plane expertly, as well. In addition to these variables, pilots may have different landing preferences: There are those who fly their aircraft all the way to the ground, while others just don’t have the air sense.

Even the best, most experienced pilots have the occasional rough landing. I’ve had a couple of them, myself. Usually, those happen when a pilot is new to a particular aircraft and isn’t completely comfortable with how it handles close to the ground. Another cause might be excessive crosswinds combined with landing on a short runway. In that case, the pilot must force the plane onto the runway to stay in the smaller touchdown zone.

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Those situations are not dangerous because airliners are built to handle stresses well beyond the typical hard landing. But beyond consideration for the equipment, a pilot’s job is to get passengers to their destinations as safely and as comfortably as possible. Providing smooth landings is one way pilots show their skill and finesse, and it’s something all pilots strive for.

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