Learning to fly the aircraft landing pattern is a crucial skill for all pilots, to ensure a safe, efficient and successful aviation career. Read on as I explain further..
Learning to fly the landing traffic pattern, altitude, and airspeeds is a core flying skill that pilots need to learn for a safe and efficient aviation career. It is used both for safe and efficient aircraft recovery and landing (either directed by air traffic control at controlled airports or used by pilots over a CTAF at non-towered aerodromes) and is frequently flown repeatedly for pilot training – a practice often called ‘Circuits’.
The landing pattern is flown by all aircraft, however, usually large turbine aircraft such as airliners will favor using a stabilized straight-in approach such as the Instrument Landing System1. If there is more than one aircraft in the airport traffic pattern, because of the standard traffic pattern altitudes and positioning, pilots and air traffic controllers will quickly be able to locate and deconflict, providing adequate spacing between aircraft to reduce the risk of mid air collisions.
Airport traffic pattern – ‘Circuits2‘
Put simply, the airport traffic pattern or circuit (for a fixed wing aircraft) is an oval or rectangle flight path around the runway where a standard traffic pattern altitude is used. The standard traffic pattern are right-hand traffic patterns, consisting of the following ‘legs’;
- Upwind leg – climbing flight path in the same direction of the runway (into the prevailing wind direction) after taking off, and reaching a safe height of 500′ AGL
- Crosswind leg – usually either a constant 20 degree angle of bank (adjusted for wind) climbing turn onto tightly spaced downwind (oval military technique) or an initial climbing turn (approx 15 degree angle of bank) through 90 degrees to establish downwind spacing flown for either a timing or altitude cue before commencing a further climbing (or level turn if you have reached downwind leg pattern altitude) through 90 degrees to turn onto downwind (civilian rectangle technique)
- Downwind leg – flight path parallel and reciprocal heading (opposite direction) to the runway. The aircraft pre landing checklist is completed on downwind which may include lowering the gear and selecting approach flap.
- Base leg – descending flight path to turn onto final approach leg, either a constant 20 degree angle of bank (adjusted for wind) descending turn (oval military technique) or a descending turn through 90 degrees to intercept final approach path followed by a further descending turn through 90 degrees to line up with the runway (rectangle civilian technique).
- Final approach leg – constant 3 degree descent on runway heading to the aimpoint. Once established on final approach, landing flap is selected.
Traffic pattern altitude
It is important to know the pattern altitude for your airport3 so you can easily cross reference to your altimeter in flight. To calculate the pattern altitude, simply add the airport field elevation to the standard pattern altitudes.
- Crosswind turn – Airport elevation + 500
- Half way through Crosswind turn – Airport Elevation + 750
- Downwind – Airport elevation + 1000
- Half way through Base turn – Airport Elevation +750
- Final approach gate (wings level on runway heading and aimpoint set) – Airport elevation + 500
Flight training exercise: Flying the aircraft landing pattern in the training area – upper air circuits
After all of the handling exercises are completed to a sufficient level of confidence – that being to the point where each element has become established in muscle, postural, and visual memory so it’s become instinctive – the next phase is to put it all together into a circuit pattern where all these skills are put to practical use. The best idea is to practice away from airfields first, and at altitude; say 2,000 or 3,000 feet AGL.
Beginners should practice in smooth air, but that wouldn’t be so critical if you’re already licensed and want to practice this by yourself.
Start the exercise at an altitude that’s high enough so after 1000’ of descent, you’re still at least 1000’ above terrain in the area. Initially, these patterns should be flown without using flap at all, and only introduce flap after the basic manoeuvres are mastered. What we’re aiming for is to build a perfect circuit pattern in our mind, and controlling the aircraft so it flies around the pattern smoothly, and accurately. For example, on base leg, the goal is to descend perpendicular to the imaginary runway at a constant descent angle. By focusing on flying along a track perpendicular to the runway at a descent angle that is projected to intercept the runway at the imagined touchdown point, you’ll be required to fly the aircraft to achieve that objective instead of flying by the numbers and hoping it works in those conditions.
If the approach is flown correctly, the aircraft should be turning onto final after about 500 feet of descent, and descent is continued while speed is gradually reduced while maintaining the same angle of descent to our hard deck “touchdown” at about 1,000’ AGL.
Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a constant descent angle while tracking around base and final, using flap as required to slow the aircraft to landing speed in the flare – not before.
Flying around base and final too slowly is an inefficient use of airspace, fuel, money and time, and it often forces following traffic to fly inefficiently too, so that’s why it’s best to get this training completed before entering an airport’s circuit pattern.
At this point, I should go into detail about HOW a constant angle descent is achieved even though it would be obvious if that’s the only thing you’re trying to achieve. To fly along a constant descent path, relax and broaden your focus enough to see the whole picture out the front so that you can observe two reference points at once.
One reference point is on the horizon, and the other is the runway threshold or aim point.
As you descend, continually compare the two reference points to see if they’re staying fixed in their positions relative to each other. If they do, the flight path is constant. If you just focus on maintaining a constant flight path, you’ll subconsciously work out how to maintain it, so it may just complicate the issue if you consciously follow the instructions above. Try to perceive the “bigger picture” of what you’re doing, rather than focusing too much on the detail, but that’s how it’s done in practical terms.
At the imagined touchdown point, the aircraft is flown straight and level at the slowest possible speed for a minute or two. This simulates the landing phase, and gives extended exposure to slow speed operation so confidence in aircraft handling at these speeds is enhanced.
At this point, you’d need to introduce the altimeter, but don’t emphasise the instrument indication as much as remembering how to fly straight and level4 as per the previous exercise using only sensory perceptions.
After the landing leg of the air circuit is completed, the simulated takeoff and upwind leg is next, applying takeoff power, retracting flap in stages, and establishing a best rate climb attitude. Don’t worry about after-takeoff checks just yet, there’ll be plenty of time to practice these in the circuits and landings phase practiced around a runway.
Retract flap completely at a comfortable height after “takeoff”, and turn onto crosswind leg after climbing 500’, either keeping the circuit square, or making it oval if your aircraft’s climb performance is quick enough to climb an additional 500’ during a shallow banked turn onto downwind.
Using reference points will make it easier to define your imaginary circuit, and prompt you to turn on each leg. Air circuits are a great way of practicing circuits without the stress of radio chatter, other traffic, and landings to worry about, and provide plenty of opportunity to overlearn skills before getting loaded up with the stress of traffic and radio calls.
Remember, this is a practical application of the old Aviate – Navigate – Communicate5 order of priorities, and you’ll learn how to fly more efficiently than flying by numbers.
In all these exercises, remember your eyes must be outside the majority of the time. This is imperative so you learn how to fly instinctively, rather than by chasing instrument needles and become reliant on them for confirmation that you’re doing the right thing.
To emphasize this point, it’s best to fly a few air circuits without looking inside at all and develop a feel for altitude. You will be surprised how accurate you can get with practice. If you’ve learned pitch control properly, you should KNOW the right attitude/power/noise indications for any desired performance, so reference to the ASI shouldn’t be required at all during this exercise.
It should also be emphasized that specific numbers shouldn’t be mentioned at this stage, like angle of bank, airspeed, rate of climb/descent, altitude, etc. Just focus on flying the aircraft first, and once that’s under control you can judiciously introduce elements of navigation and communication.
Hopefully this guide has helped you in learning to fly the aircraft landing pattern – something all pilots will need to learn throughout the course of their training.
Have you tried to master this skill yet?
Make sure you always seek advice from a trained flight instructor and never attempt any flying sequences without proper training and guidance first.
- ‘Instrument Landing System (ILS)’, Skybrary. Accessed online at https://www.skybrary.aero/articles/instrument-landing-system-ils on Feb 21, 2023.
- ‘Circuit introduction’, Aviation.govt.NZ. Accessed online at https://www.aviation.govt.nz/licensing-and-certification/pilots/flight-training/flight-instructor-guide/circuit-introduction/ on Feb 21, 2023.
- ‘Ask a CFI: What is the correct pattern altitude I should use when approaching an airport for landing?’, Beth Rehm, JB Aviation. Accessed online at https://www.flywithjb.com/ask-a-cfi/ on Feb 21, 2023.
- ‘Airplane Straight and Level Flight’, Flight Study. Accessed online at https://www.flight-study.com/2019/09/straight-and-level-flight.html on Feb 21, 2023.
- ‘Pilot Words To Live By: Aviate – Navigate – Communicate’, LevelFlight.ca. Accessed online at https://levelflight.ca/blog/pilot-words-to-live-by-aviate-navigate-communicate on Feb 21, 2023.