Cleared For Landing: The Science Behind Arriving At Your Gate

June 14, 2016 | Author: Jeremy Dingman

Landing is the highlight of any flight. It means you’re at your destination (or connecting airport), you finally get to stretch your legs and you no longer have to share the arm rest with the guy who forgot to brush his teeth that morning (yuck).

However, understanding what goes into landing has always been a mystery to me. And, when you’re a Honeywell employee at our Phoenix Sky Harbor office, you’re greeted every day by several commercial airline jets as they soar over you at what appears to be 10 feet as they get ready to land (no need for coffee in the morning).

So, in order to better understand the part of every flight we all look forward to, here is the science behind arriving at your gate.

Cleared For Landing

Air Traffic Control

Before I begin explaining how airplanes land, it’s important to understand that commercial airlines operate under different rules than smaller, privately-owned aircraft. For example, commercial airlines are required to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). These are rules created by the FAA so that Air Traffic Control can separate commercial aircraft from other aircraft. ATC also helps commercial airline pilots fly a more efficient flight by offering shortcuts along the route, avoid bad weather, manage their flight plans, and much more. This is an integral part of landing a commercial airplane since ATC and its many entities monitor every flight from start to finish. These same rules are not required for smaller airplanes, but that’s a whole other story.

Cleared For Landing

The Descent, Final Approach and Landing

From what I’ve read on forums, blogs and miscellaneous aviation publications, landing a commercial airplane is truly an art form. There are many reasons why landing seems to be much more difficult than taking off, but simply said, it’s challenging to take an aircraft flying at speeds of 550-600 miles per hour (cruising speeds) to an abrupt stop on land.

Once a pilot starts the initial descent to land, it can take up to 30 minutes and requires the highest attention to detail in order to do it right and safely. While the airline pilot is preparing to land, three different speeds (sometimes more) have to be calculated to ensure the safest landing possible:

  1. Approach Speed, is one of the slowest speeds calculated and is used during the final approach to the runway. It’s used to compensate for weather conditions as wind plays a major factor into this speed.
  2. Go-around speed. While this is a very rare occurrence, the flight crew calculates this information to understand the best climb rate in case they need to make a sudden go around.
  3. VREF, is the lowest of the three speeds. This speed is calculated to achieve the target speed when crossing a runway’s threshold. This is used to provide adequate airspeed to fly while making your landing as smooth as possible.

It’s also important to note that on top of calculating the various speeds required to land, there are many possible approaches a pilot can make to the airport to land. This is normally determined by ATC based on which runway is being used.

There are also a variety of procedures that the pilots are responsible for in order to ensure that the aircraft is ready to land such as extending the flaps on the wings, lowering the landing gear, and much more. However, this varies depending on the aircraft and is something that is normally memorized by the pilots and checked using checklists.

Clearance and Local Control

Cleared For LandingWhen all the above has been successfully executed, the pilot is ready to land with the help of local controllers at the airport tower control. This team is responsible for checking the runways to ensure your runway is clear and is able to view the aircraft as it makes its descent by using surface radar.

Once the plane has landed, the ground controller gives the pilots instructions to get you to your gate safely and efficiently. This is still a large and very important task as the ground controller is responsible for making sure the aircraft doesn’t cross active runways or interfere with ground vehicles and other airplanes.

To learn more about landing requirements of commercial aircraft, please visit the FAA website at

Jeremy Dingman

Jeremy Dingman

Jeremy Dingman is the Senior Manager of Marketing for Honeywell’s HGuide Inertial Sensor and Navigation business and UAV Inspection Services business. Jeremy joined Honeywell in 2015 and has worked in e-commerce, channel marketing, digital marketing, copy-writing and web development.

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