DISCOVERING NEW FLYING ADVENTURES ON GRASS RUNWAYS
By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, AGI
The soft rumble of the grass comes up to meet my wheels and softens the touchdown. It slows my plane faster than the hard asphalt I normally land on. It welcomes my plane and me back to the earth in a very different way.
Flying to grass fields opens up a new world of airports to pilots. Many pilots are unaware of some of the airport gems that are hidden near them that just are lacking a hard surface runway. Sometimes, taking advantage of grass runways can open up your world and provide some cool opportunities and conveniences that are not present at paved airports.
Before you decide to check out some of these opportunities near you, there are a few things to think about.
Use Good Safety Margins
Add extra margins to your takeoff and landing calculations. Ok, I know some will take me to task on part of this. Landings technically shouldn’t require as much distance on a grass runway with all things being equal due to additional friction, but I like to add the margin to the landing also in case of a damp runway, a desire to roll out longer due to roughness, or just the jitters from being not as used to grass runways as paved ones.
With that said, it is important to add a margin of safety to takeoff calculations.
Some aircraft operating manuals will provide information for takeoff considerations when operating off-dry, or even wet grass runways. Many do not. For those that do, it is pretty common to see figures that would indicate a pilot should add 15-30% extra distance from normally computed takeoff requirements.
I add 50%. More can’t hurt, right?
For aircraft that don’t have the above-noted takeoff information, a way to know for sure is to go to a longer grass runway and practice. Have a passenger, or CFI with you, note the start of your takeoff roll and where you got off the ground. Counting runway markers can help, or you can go high-tech and note the point and check it with a real measurement using something like Google Earth when you are back at a computer. Doing this where you have plenty of safety margin will let you learn what your aircraft, and your skills, can do. This is a great starting point to then add the 50% safety margin on and use it to evaluate other runways you might want to use.
Get Some Training
Many pilots never get training on grass fields. It doesn’t make you any less of a pilot if you didn’t, it just is something you haven’t done yet.
If you have a plane, and it is suited for grass runway usage, find a CFI who is familiar and proficient, and go get some training!
Start with bigger fields. Longer and wide fields. Get a feel for the operations and then build your skills from there.
Know the Local Conditions
Finding out the quality of the grass runway you are going to use is important. Seasonality can be a factor. There are certainly some runways I will use much of the year, and others I know I can’t use when it has rained recently. If in question, talk to someone local.
In some cases, there are even airports where I will use “part” of a runway but not other parts during certain seasons. When they are long enough for a decision such as this, it might be a consideration.
Checking out a grass strip is easier these days ahead of time than it ever was before. Refer to NOTAMs and any published data about the airport, but also be willing to use other resources such as Google Earth or even call the airport manager to ask about current conditions. Look deeper than just the NOTAMs. In many cases, you will find grass runways are seasonally closed, something that would be found in the Chart Supplement data about the airport. Make sure if you are going to use a grass runway it isn’t during the times when the airport officially has it closed. This is something that wouldn’t show up in a current NOTAM because it is a permanent seasonal effect on the airport.
Know Your Plane’s Limits and Consider Modifications
Not every plane is destined to be a grass field warrior. Your 7000lb Twin Cessna probably isn’t suited. At the same time, you might not want to do so with your (insert special bush plane type you prefer here) when the runway is soggy and messy, and you are going to have to just clean your plane after doing it. Then again, I have flown planes that were properly set up for places I knew were going to generate a need to wash the plane after. Some of us don’t grow up and we still like to play in the mud. It’s darn fun.
Make sure your plane is the right one to be able to take advantage of grass fields. Most of us don’t have that kind of plane at our disposal all the time, but there might be a couple of things you could do to modify your everyday flier aircraft to make it a little more suited.
Many owners and operators that visit grass runways frequently remove those wheel pants. I do. I took them off and never put them back on for our flying in Michigan in our Stinson. On grass runways, when it is rough, they tend to rattle a bit. When there are soggy or, in the winter, snowy conditions, they get filled with gunk so I go without them. If you are going to use grass runways frequently, you might choose to do the same.
Related to this, and a potential side effect, many pilots choose to go with slightly larger tires. Now, I am not saying go to some monstrosity of bald bush tires here, but going from a 7.0 to an 8.0 tire might be something to consider with the assistance of your mechanic and if it is allowed by the aircraft type certification or an STC. In many cases, this may also be a motivation to go without the wheel pants. They might not fit anymore.
There are lots of things a pilot might choose to do for an aircraft with the help of a mechanic for operating frequently on backcountry strips, but that isn’t what we are talking about here. These are two things that are commonly done by owners of very common general aviation aircraft to enhance their tolerance for well-maintained grass runways. You might want to consider them also.
Not All Grass Runways are Bumpy, Rough, or Short
There are some that I can think of that are like landing on smooth buttery bliss. Many of them are smoother than our roads out here in Michigan. I know that isn’t saying much for anyone who has driven on our roads, but I mean it.
Some of the grass runways around the country are manicured and maintained as well as any fairway at a golf course. In some cases, better. There are lots of them that are 4-5000 feet long and even as wide as 200 feet. Some of these are used by a variety of aircraft including gliders, agricultural aircraft, hot air balloons for launching, and light sport aircraft of every variety. There are even a few lighted grass runways you can find if you look hard. What a treat these are!
Thinking of another favorite of a couple of friends of mine, there is an airport with two grass intersecting runways on an island they like to go camping. Yet another example of this is a runway on an island in Lake Michigan, North Fox Island to be specific where many local Michigan pilots like to venture for a day trip or to camp overnight. Thanks to the Recreational Aviation Foundation, this strip was opened up a few years back and has become a popular destination.
Learning to properly fly off non-paved runways opens lots of new places you and an airplane can go. Venture to them. There are hundreds of such gems all around the country. I am sure if you look just a little bit you would find some near you that might just entice you to brush up those soft field skills, break away on a weekend or even play hooky on a late afternoon workday in the summer, and check out some new frontiers as a pilot. Do it sooner than later.
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Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with a focus on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason has published works in many aviation publications, a full listing of which can be found at www.jasonblair.net.
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