Perfect the Pattern

The traffic pattern around an airport keeps the flight paths of airplanes in the vicinity predictable. By following the same track, it is easier for pilots to see other airplanes approaching to land. But the safety and efficiency of the traffic flow is dependent on the pilots in the pattern. It can become quite frustrating to do pattern work around an airport with pilots who extend their downwind legs on each circuit, delaying each lap unnecessarily and increasing the risk for others as they’re forced to fly further from the runway than necessary. Therefore, you should learn to fly and stick to flying a perfect pattern.

A good pattern begins as you approach the airport. Make sure you descend to the pattern altitude before you enter the downwind at a 45-degree angle. This keeps you at the same altitude as others in the pattern and makes it easier for them to see you. If you’re flying a full pattern, try to track as close to the runway heading as possible after you take off unless noise abatement procedures prohibit a straight out departure. If there is a crosswind, crab into it to maintain a straight track.

You should keep the downwind leg close enough to the runway that you can easily make a no power landing. If you’re in a high-wing, such as a Cessna, use the strut as a reference. Reference the runway about half way up the strut while you’re flying parallel to it. If you’re in a low wing, keep the runway near your wingtip. To maintain that distance from the runway, make adjustments for crosswinds by crabbing into the wind.

Power and flap settings will vary depending on the airplane you’re in, but you should begin your descent when you’re abeam the approach end of the runway, provided there is nobody else landing before you. Make the base turn when the runway is at a 45-degree angle as you look behind you. You shouldn’t fly beyond the 45-degree point unless you have to extend the downwind leg to avoid other traffic in the pattern. If you’re practicing no power approaches, you will need to turn toward the runway almost immediately after you reduce the power or you won’t make it. If there is another airplane landing ahead of you, you can start your downwind to base turn once that airplane passes your wingtip on final to maintain adequate separation.

Be careful not to overshoot the base to final turn, but don’t be tempted to increase the bank angle to catch the final leg since you’re already low and slow. It’s better to start the base to final turn early and maintain a shallow bank angle. And always add power instead of pulling back on the yoke if you get low to avoid an inadvertent stall. The amount of time you spend on base will vary greatly from day to day based on the wind conditions. On a windy day, you may not have time to level the wings.

Once you’re on final, all you have to do is keep the airplane aligned with the centerline. With a crosswind, you can do this either by crabbing or side-slipping. After you touch down on the centerline and get off the runway at the first safe taxiway, you’ve completed the perfect pattern and made pilots around you happy too.

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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