It’s a corollary to one of the most popular mantras instructors have been preaching for years: A good landing is nearly always the result of a good approach.
In a similar sense, a good approach is directly related to having flown a proper pattern. If you enter the circuit properly, fly in appropriate sequence to other traffic and maintain the proper speed, chances are you’ll be primed for a smooth touchdown. To that end, we offer another of our “Top 20” stories.
1 Pattern entries can fall into two categories: those for uncontrolled airports and procedures for controlled approaches. Uncontrolled airports often publish recommended methods for entering the pattern, and you should obviously follow those whenever possible. If there’s no published entry route and no apparent sensitive areas that you can see, enter on a 45-degree angle to the downwind with speed no more than 40% above stall. Twins may need to use 50% above Vmc to maintain a comfortable margin.
2 When entering any pattern, controlled or not, always do so with strobes and landing light(s) on, day or night. Even if the weather is CAVU, lights help make your airplane more visible to other traffic. If you fly with one of the new generation of Xenon landing lights, such as the LoPresti Boom Beam, you’ll greatly enhance your chances of being spotted by other traffic, and that makes everyone’s job easier.
3 At controlled airports, the pattern may be locked in stone unless the controller deems it otherwise. Twins may be required to fly a higher pattern and sometimes even directed to a different runway. Controllers will most often keep traffic flowing smoothly, partially because they’re familiar with landmarks you may not know and can expedite your landing. Controllers definitely aren’t the enemy. If you examine the airport chart in advance, fly the published legs and follow the controllers’ advice, they’ll very likely keep you out of trouble. Remember, however, that controllers do make mistakes, so double-check any direction you’re given.
4 If you’re flying a retractable, extend the gear on the 45 and attend to the prelanding checklist. In other words, perform the full GUMP check: turn on the fuel pump, assure that the fuel selector is on the proper tank (but don’t switch at the last minute unless the tank in use is low), turn on the aforementioned lights, double-check your altimeter, adjust the mixture for the elevation and advance the prop for a possible go-around. Throwing the wheels to the wind will help you decelerate to pattern speed. Plan to be at pattern altitude when you make the turn onto the downwind. If you must deviate in altitude, do so on the high side. Better to be slightly high than low when you’re close to the ground, but remember, other pilots won’t be expecting traffic above them. They’ll anticipate that everyone will be at the same level.
5 There are other methods of joining the pattern at uncontrolled airports. Former military pilots sometimes like to remember the good ole days and enter the circuit from a 360-overhead approach, flying down initial at 1,000 feet or so and breaking around to the downwind. If you’re flying a simulated IFR procedure or if your entry course is right down the active runway, you could even try a straight-in. (The feds strongly discourage straight-ins at uncontrolled fields because it interrupts the normal flow of traffic.)
6 A direct base entry is also possible if you know there’s no one else in the circuit, and you’re fairly certain you won’t disrupt the logical flow. Irregular pattern entries generally aren’t a good idea because you won’t be flying the same route as everyone else. If you’re approaching the airport from a downwind position and the controller agrees, you might ask for a downwind entry that will place you directly into the pattern without the need for a 45-degree leg. Again, at an uncontrolled airport, it’s best to stick to the conventional 45 to the downwind. That’s what everyone else will be expecting.
7 Plan to turn off the 45 and onto the downwind before reaching a point abeam the end of the active runway. If possible, on a relatively short runway, add half the runway length, and use that position as the turn point to the downwind. This will allow you plenty of time and distance to look for traffic and set up for the coming approach.
8 Speed in the pattern is more important than you might imagine. Just as with most IFR procedures, slower is nearly always better (to a point). Too much speed means you may have problems holding your relative position with respect to other traffic, and the faster you fly, the tighter you’ll need to make your turns on base and final, certainly something you should avoid as you approach the ground. Most instructors suggest flying the downwind and base at whatever speed works with other traffic, and use 1.3 Vso for final. If the runway is short and you’re comfortable with the airplane, reduce to 1.2 Vso. On a Bonanza, Mooney or Saratoga, 1.2 Vso equals about 73 knots, 1.3 Vso is good for 80 knots.
9 When you do turn onto downwind, do so fairly wide, so you’ll have a reasonable gap between you and the final approach course. If you wait too long and turn in too tight, you’ll only make pattern management more difficult when its time to turn from base to final. You’ll be in so close, you’ll need to hurry the turn from base to final with a steeper bank angle to avoid overshooting; never a good idea at low altitude.
10 If your speed will necessitate overtaking and passing an airplane ahead, do so on the outside where you can keep him in sight. Adjust altitude as necessary, and don’t turn back in on the downwind or descend back to pattern altitude after you think you’ve passed him by. Stay wide until the controller calls for base or until you know he’s on final.
11 Having a controller monitor traffic isn’t a guarantee of separation from other aircraft. In fact, you may be better off in an uncontrolled environment where everyone knows they must check for traffic in all six directions: above, below, left, right, forward and aft. Pilots at controlled airports sometimes tend to breathe a sigh of relief when they enter the pattern, assuming the controller will protect them from evil. Not so. The man (or woman) on the ground may have as many as 10 airplanes to monitor in the pattern and obviously can’t watch all of them at once. The best policy is to assume there’s no one watching you, so you’ll need to keep clear of other traffic.
12 High-wing airplanes have a slight advantage on downwind, as the pilot has a better view of the airport and other traffic, especially if he’s at or even slightly above traffic pattern altitude. The greatest risk of traffic conflict will be from the right (in a left pattern)—pilots joining the circuit farther downwind.
13 Since we’re considering visibility, this may be a good time to define the use of flaps. Most pilots believe the primary benefit of flaps is to lower the stall speed. That’s certainly true, but a second important advantage is that on most airplanes, flaps lower the nose and provide a better view of the traffic ahead. Some instructors suggest a third flaps on downwind, another third on base and the last third on final.
14 Standard rule for the base turn is to wait until the runway is 45 degrees behind your left shoulder (in a left pattern) before banking. Whatever point you choose, DON’T begin descent on the downwind leg while you’re still pointed away from the airport. I’m aware that some instructors recommend reducing power and starting descent when passing abeam the threshold, well before turning base. That means, by definition, they’ll be well below pattern altitude when they turn base. Sorry, but that makes no sense at all. Giving away any altitude in the wrong direction is a bad idea. What if you have to extend downwind and you’ve already descended 200 feet? A normal descent profile won’t work in that instance.
15 If you spaced yourself wide enough on the downwind, you won’t need to make the base turn much steeper than 20 degrees. Bank angle becomes more critical as you approach the ground. Low-wing enthusiasts come into their own here, as they should be able to maintain a decent view of the airport in the turn. High-wing fans won’t have that privilege.
Similarly, square turns are the preferred technique in the pattern, again because that’s what everyone else will expect. If you’re properly positioned from the runway on downwind, you should be able to make your base turn with a reasonably low bank angle, maintain wings level during the base descent for 20 to 30 seconds, then make another square turn onto final. If you should see that you’re slightly high and you’re not operating at a parallel runway airport, go ahead and overshoot final slightly to give yourself more time to lose altitude.
16 Judging distance in the pattern isn’t difficult if you use the runway length as your guide. If you’re flying into a typical 3,000- to 4,000-foot general aviation runway with an approach speed of 70 knots, you’re covering about 122 feet per second. More than coincidentally, you’ll cover about 3,600 feet in 30 seconds. That means if you set up for a base that’s about that far wide of the airport, you should be in good position for the final turn.
17 If you’ve done everything right up to this point, the landing should be anticlimactic—it says here. Final approach is the worst possible time to have a traffic conflict, but if you’ve been careful throughout the pattern, that’s unlikely.
18 This brings us to the (nearly) forgotten legs—initial and crosswind. If you need to go around or if you’re practicing touch-and-goes, remember that you’ll need to be consistent on these segments, as well. Unless there’s a good reason to lift off, clean up and immediately turn crosswind, the usual practice is to climb straight ahead to 700 feet AGL at Vy before turning. Unless you’re flying a Learjet, that should space you well past the end of the runway, so there’s less likelihood of a conflict with traffic turning onto the downwind from the 45. Again, make sure all lights are on and keep a close watch on the airspace adjacent to the 45-degree approach path.
19 If you have the power and climb capability to make it to pattern altitude before you must turn from crosswind to initial, so much the better. Low-powered trainers may not be able to climb that quickly, which means they may still be nose-up fighting for that last 100 to 200 feet before joining the parade back to the runway. If you’re in that group, be careful to watch the upper right quadrant as you roll out and level at pattern altitude. That’s your threat zone.
20 Finally, keep in mind that a midair requires at least two airplanes. Accordingly, wear your silk scarf and keep your head on a swivel. If everyone in the pattern looks out for themselves, there’s very little chance of conflict. Before making any turn, check both inside the turn and outside the airspace you’re about to occupy. In keeping with the cardinal rule 2,000 words back, if every pilot maintains the proper altitude and performs the same checks, he can practically be guaranteed his landings will improve dramatically.