When Grass is Better than Pavement
By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, AGI
“When is a grass runway better than a paved one?” a pilot might ask me.
And I might quip back, “When ISN’T it?” with a smile. I like grass runways. Of course, I would have to qualify that quip with contingencies such as, as long as you have the right aircraft, and the grass runway isn’t wet, it has been rolled and doesn’t have gopher holes, it’s been cut, etc. So, what I mean is “Grass is always better when everything is perfect.” Right?
Ok, that doesn’t always happen and not every aircraft belongs on a grass field. Some are too heavy for all but the longest and most perfect of fields. Others have gear systems that leave less prop clearance or might be susceptible to bumpy or rough fields.
But all things being equal, are there times when a pilot really might want to choose to land on a grass runway at an airport instead of a paved runway if one is available?
My answer to that is a resounding yes.
This question came up from an email Avemco received from a policyholder who mentioned how much more comfortable he was in his aircraft, a tailwheel, as he was building proficiency in the aircraft on grass compared to when he then ventured out to a paved runway for the first time. As a tailwheel pilot and instructor, I completely understand this sentiment.
There are cases where the safest, easiest, or most comfortable takeoff or landing might in fact be to utilize a grass runway at an airport. Here are a few thoughts you might have when considering the option.
Longer or Wider Runway Option at the Airport
I know of a few airports where the grass runways are actually longer or wider than their paved runways. A few even have better obstacle clearances than their other paved options. In one case, the gorgeous north-south aligned grass runway is just over 4200 feet long and nearly 350 feet wide! Utilized many times by gliders, it is a great, big, forgiving option I like to utilize.
While I know that an aircraft will require longer takeoff rolls on grass runways, typically a good consideration is 30% more than on paved surfaces; there are times that a grass runway will offer more of an available safety margin. I will take a 5000-foot-long grass runway over a 2500-foot paved runway most days.
When an airport offers a nice grass runway that is longer or wider than its paved runway offerings, it might just be time to make the choice to use the grass!
Into the Wind vs. Crosswind
When there is a strong crosswind, it might be time to choose a runway that is more directly aligned with the wind of the day, even if that runway is a grass one.
While most pilots default to using paved runways at airports, in some cases, we may find that a crosswind on a paved runway is less desirable than a headwind for a takeoff or landing on a grass runway. This might even be the case if a grass runway available is shorter than paved runway options.
Would you rather take a 20-knot crosswind on a 3500-foot paved runway or a 20-knot headwind on a 3000-foot grass runway? Assuming it is a grass runway in good condition, I know my answer would be to take the grass if I was in a plane that could appropriately utilize runway options.
At some airports, grass crosswind runways are maintained for just these situations to give pilots more options in windy conditions.
Going back to the question posed by the Avemco customer, many consider grass runways “more forgiving”, especially in some particular aircraft. I concur.
Most tailwheel instructors, when they can, will take their students too nice, big, wide, dry, grass runways to try the first landings and build up some skill. The grass is, to use a not very technical but descriptive term, “less grabby”. A pilot will find that tires feel like they grab a little more on pavement than they do on grass. When someone is trying to learn to avoid lateral drift and avoid a ground loop, this extra bit of “slide” that is allowed on grass instead of the more “grabby” pavement that tends to dislodge the lateral motion of the tail more can be just enough extra wiggle room in the learning process. In some cases, we might even seek out a nice big wide grass runway that doesn’t have lights or cones on the sides to give us even more margin for error in the learning process.
This is something to consider when working to learn or refresh skills in something like a tailwheel aircraft. A grass runway might be the place to do it.
Don’t forget to get some training, do a little practice, and brush up on those grass runway skills before you do make the grass runway choice. Think about performance considerations and do some homework to determine runway conditions and local considerations if you will use grass runways.
Once you have those skills sharp, don’t disregard grass runways in your flight operations. In some instances, they might be your best option. And if nothing else, many times they are just darn fun!
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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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