Beach Operations

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The Cowboys Guide to Beach Operations

Flying onto remote beaches can open for you a world of fascinating opportunity and breathtaking beauty, taking you to places few others have access to and affording you unique sporting and recreational opportunities. But like all other aspects of aviation endeavour, there are things you need to know first, for your own safety and to prevent inadvertent damage or potential hull-loss and its attendant risks. In all cases, a comprehensive briefing on Beach Operations and checkout by an appropriately qualified instructor is recommended before you go, as is a briefing on the specific beach you intend to operate, by someone with recent experience on that beach. There were a few things you’ll need to consider before and during the flight. In no particular order:

  • Is your aircraft insured for the intended operation?
  • Are you insurable in command of the operation?
  • Is a beach landing allowed by the aircraft owner/operator?
  • What are the tide-times for your intended beach? How is this time established? Is it referenced to a published tide-time in a known location? You are particularly interested in establishing the low-tide time for your beach, as all operations will take place around this reference.
  • 2 hours either side of low-tide will probably be your ‘window of opportunity’ for beach operations, perhaps less if it is a particularly windy day pushing the wave-surge higher up the beach, or on a particularly steep beach.
  • All operations will be conducted below the mean high-water mark, on sand washed and compacted by the tide.
  • All turns on the beach are made towards the water, always. This keeps you on the washed/compacted sand throughout the turn. Make the widest radius turns possible within the area available to you.
  • Conduct a thorough low-level inspection of the beach before committing to the approach/landing. Look for obstructions, humps in the sand, soft-spots (wet), debris and people on or adjacent to your selected landing area[1].
  • Beach landings are often in remote areas; people that may be there can get quite excited to see an aircraft and could rush down to get that impressive photo- right in front of you. Be aware of it, be prepared to go missed if necessary.
  • Your inspection needs to be particularly thorough if you are the 1st to operate onto a beach after a storm or particularly heavy wx. The character of the beach may have changed dramatically.
  • A full short-field approach technique onto the beach is recommended -lower touchdown speed, shorter landing roll. Hold the nose-wheel off as long as possible. Do not use brakes unless absolutely necessary -try to prevent sand/grit abrading pads and discs.
  • Likewise on departure, a full short-field technique should be used, with the nose-wheel off at the earliest opportunity.
  • Always have some sort of flight-following on beach-ops, either through company ops or the nearest ATS facility, with an expected ‘call again’ time -usually 20-30 minutes after your landing call. That way if you miss your ‘call again’ time, someone will be acting to find out why. It might be something as minor as a flat battery that has delayed you, but with only whatever is left of a 4-hour beach ‘window’ things need to be moving along to rectify the situation before the aircraft gets wet!
  • Many beach landings are x-wind, either an on- or off-shore breeze. Nothing here that any normally competent pilot can’t handle.
  • Due to the ‘forgiving’ nature of your landing surface, touchdowns tend to be smooth and gentle!
  • Before you shut-down, look to see if your wheels are sinking into the sand. If there is any sign of ‘settling’ give it the jandal smartly, get yourself out of there onto a better area.
  • If your intention is to stay on the beach longer than your ‘window’, make sure there is somewhere appropriate above the high-water line to park, with firm sand access and tie-down your aircraft. Make sure control locks are installed and vents/windows/cowl-flaps are closed. Install cowl plugs and pitot covers if available.
  • Take a folding shovel or similar with you. You may need it if you become bogged!
  • Take some plywood (or similar) to go under mains and nose/tail-wheel when parked.
  • On returning to your base, give your aircraft a thorough fresh-water wash, with particular attention to the landing gear and brakes, belly, under-wing surfaces,particularly in low-wing aircraft, flap and aileron slots and hinge attachments[2].
  • With regard over-size (tundra) tyres, on some beaches they may be essential. That’s why you need a thorough briefing on your intended landing area before you go. On many beaches however, particularly those used on a more or less regular basis for aircraft movements, they are neither necessary nor desirable.

If you are looking at making your 1st ever beach landing, it is more likely you will be going to a beach that’s a known quantity with an experienced instructor. Relax, enjoy the experience! Don’t make it any more complicated/expensive than it needs be! There are lots of beaches that are safely accessible without any need of ‘special’ equipment. You will visit some remarkable places. Have a heap of fun!


  1. Some people advocate dropping objects from the aircraft in-flight as a method of checking how firm the landing surface may be. Dropping bricks (or anything else!) from the aircraft is against the law, and even from say 50-100 feet a brick is a pretty small target to be basing your judgement of the surface on. If you have to, just drag your mains lightly on your landing area with power up; if it feels too soft, then full-power, off and have another go another day.
  2. If you operate in a cold climate, particularly on a cold, clear, frosty day, the water can freeze as soon as it touches your airframe! Best not done if you need to use it again soon!