Cleared for Landing: Determining if an Airstrip is Safe

Thusday Flyer BannerEDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from a post on the blog of MAF pilot Jon Cadd, who is serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this post, he shares about MAF’s process for vetting a potential airstrip.

The airstrip was still in the process of being rebuilt by the UN and as I landed and rolled to a stop in front of the UN camp I was surrounded by the soldiers there as well as the local population.  Emmanuel said I must be the first person to land here is about 20 years.

Only a portion of the runway was usable and I am continually glad for all the great training MAF has given me in the special flying techniques we require to stay alive and not wreck airplanes in the unusual environments we work in.  Just being able to evaluate a landing surface is something most pilots don’t have to deal with on a daily basis.  But with fast growing grass and the heavy rains and the lack of maintenance and going to new airstrips continually, we have a serious need to evaluate what is on the ground before we touch down virtually every day.

If you come to a new or suspicious looking airstrip we always go through a “Wind-LASSO” checklist.  You start everything with knowing where the wind is coming from. You won’t have a windsock as is normal in most airstrips, so you look for smoke in the area, or clothes on a line or leaves blowing in the breeze.  Water is a very good indicator, if there is any around. The edge that shows a smooth bit along the shoreline is where the wind is coming from, as it can not quite make it right down to the water surface as it passes over the ground.  We will usually make three passes before landing at a new airstrip if we do not know anything about it to answer specific questions.  These are the questions we need answers for:

L – Length – How long is the landing surface and is it enough for safe operations?

A – Altitude – How high is the strip?

S – Surface – What problems will I have to deal with;  holes, long grass, trees, is it safe?

S – Slope – Is there a major slope that will affect the landing? It can even be sideways.

O – Obstacles – Am I going to hit anything on the way to the strip? Wires (there is a story here), trees, mountains.

You must ALWAYS earn the right to go lower.

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