Training On Grass: For Fun And Safety

It has become old hat to complain about the decline of General Aviation. We can rant about the costs, how airports have been fenced off, or any number of ailments.

This tract is a little about one of those symptoms, a little about how to make flying more fun, and about making flying safer.

There is a vicious circle, a fully developed spin that we must recover from. Something that used to be ordinary, but is now feared.
Something that is fun, but potentially lifesaving.

I am of course talking about landing on grass.

We have entered a feedback loop of insurance companies not allowing training or rental planes on grass. So students practice “simulated soft field” techniques. This of course increases the chance of an incident on grass, which causes more insurance companies to not allow training or rentals on grass…

It was not until I owned my first plane that I ever even performed taxi operations on the stuff. The panel of my poor 150 was probably flexing and straining as the yoke got pulled back. I had no real idea what maneuvering on what may as well have been hot lava would really feel like.

My second plane, the Seven-Oh-Fun, was designed for rough field operations. Never having been the type to let capability go to waste, I took advantage of my airports “grass” strip. At the time it seemed like grass, but really it was mostly dirt.

I slowly accustomed myself to the stuff. First some taking off from the grass, and then landing on the pavement. After comfort was reached with that, then finally a landing.

All this was done with much trepidation. Why? The FBO where I got my primary training was not allowed by their insurance to allow grass operations. This in turn triggered the CFI, who had gone through the same, to preach a fear of grass runways.

After getting used to grass, a whole new world opened up. Next came unimproved grass runways, gravel bars, packed beach sand, dirt, mud, and snow.

Each new surface gave me a better understanding of how to handle my plane. Each practice gave my muscle memory new vocabulary to work with… which brings me to my point.

Landing on grass, landing on unimproved strips, landing on any new surface that is within your comfort level may one day save your life.

Having that practice, knowing how the plane reacts… being able to read your plane’s reactions will give you that edge you may need during an emergency landing.

When my I lost my fuel pump in flight and had to make a forced landing, I spotted what looked like a paved runway. When my wheels touched, something felt different. I can’t explain why or how, but it felt different. I kept the nose up more than I would have. I used the aerodynamics instead of the brakes. This was “instinct”, trained muscle memory.

After getting out of the plane, it was obvious why the landing felt weird.The runway was made from fabric. I don’t yet know of any other pilot who has landed on fabric, hopefully I never will.

All that practice on rough fields, grass, sand, gravel, whatever, gave me the practice to deal with something new.

So I beseech you, go and land on the grass. Convince your FBO or their insurance to let them train off of grass. Get a CFI and train in your own plane.

One day it may give you the edge you need and be a ton of fun along the way.

 

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Comment by Bob Pustell on May 9, 2016 at 9:17pm

I learned to fly in the 60's at a small field in the Berkshires of Mass. There was a paved runway but the grass alongside it was used more than the pavement. Half a century later I live in retirement in an airpark with a grass runway. I am in heaven. My Stinson 108 was designed and built to use grass and the plane and I are very happy here. I expect my Zenith will be happy also when it finally becomes an airplane rather than an assortment of parts. I remain mystified by the current world's aversion to grass airports. We loose a lot of sales up here because the prospective buyer or their insurance company is not comfortable with our lovely 4,000 foot by 150 foot lighted grass runway. We will actually be considering a plan at our upcoming annual meeting to run a strip of pavement the length of the runway to stop scaring those folks away. It is expensive and may or may not pass at the annual meeting. If it fails I will continue to love my grass airpark. If it passes I am glad the plan includes leaving a lot of takeoff and landing quality grass on the field also - that's where I'll be.

Comment by Lawrence Van Egmond on April 18, 2016 at 4:52pm

I think I have 3 landings on pavement. All my friends have grass strips and so do I. Pavement is to hard on the tires.

Comment by Brian Thomas on April 16, 2016 at 2:14pm

I learned to fly from a grass strip.  Their policy - don't land on grass anywhere else.

Comment by Doug MacDonald on April 15, 2016 at 3:13pm

The flight school where I did most of my training has a fairly wide grass and gravel runway with a narrow strip of asphalt down the middle.  The narrow asphalt surrounded by grass/gravel gives the opportunity to practice different surface behavior and makes you get good at staying on the centerline, all without having to ferry the plane to another airport.  To make the learning experience even better, there were about ten other airports/landing strips within a twenty mile radius which provided a range from fully paved municipal airports to semi-improved farm landing strips.  It was a great school to learn to fly a Citabria at and made me far less nervous about landing my 701 at less than ideal strips.

Comment by william davidson on April 15, 2016 at 3:08pm

Did my primary training back in the early 1980's and flew off grass more often than not in fact my second solo was from a 1200 ft grass stripTheres still a lot of grass fields in NJ. Md. and De

Comment by Greg Booker on April 15, 2016 at 12:59pm

I was very tense practicing Touch n Goes with my instructor, figuring the grass strip was too short and soft.  I knew it was going to swallow up the Cherokee.  We did a full stop to debrief prior to continuing.  We were closely followed by a Canadian Forces - Buffalo aircraft practicing Touch and Goes on the grass. I guess it was safe for the Cherokee

Comment by Wayne Clagg on April 15, 2016 at 6:36am

I'll take a grass strip any day. I was lucky, I trained at a time when grass was part of the curriculum at my flight school, obviously long ago. After I built the 701 I got used to it on the asphalt and then landed at my farm, which took 3 attempts, and I've never looked back. When going on a cross country I'll look for grass strips vs. asphalt for fuel stops. The problem I had was getting insurance coverage because my airfield was grass and only 1320' long, my first carrier dropped me but Falcon was able to get another underwriter and my premiums have gone down each year. Guess they figure I'm more experienced each year, lol.

Comment by Michael Petersen on April 14, 2016 at 9:20pm

We are hosting the 2016 "Grass is a Gas" Poker run at Brainerd Minnesota on June 11.  Fly to 4 other grass strips and pickup a card at each and play your hand back at Brainerd.  Great prizes for top hands and numerous door prizes too!  If you are in the area, join us to fly the lakes area and some great grass strips!!  More information call Mike @612-750-2981

Comment by John Clark on April 14, 2016 at 8:51pm
I never thought of insurance companies keeping pilots off the grass, my instructor kept me on grass most of the time to "save the tires"
Comment by Harmen van der Velden on April 14, 2016 at 8:29pm

And don't forget that (here in the northeast) grass becomes an unplowed snow field in winter, the ultimate soft field experience on skis (especially in a 701) where you have to drag your own runway  by making repeated low passes long enough so you can take off after landing

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