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Specifically for a piston general aviation aircraft, is there a recommended distance from the runway to fly the downwind leg? Does this change based on the speed of the aircraft?

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    $\begingroup$ I usually fly my down wind in the 172 about 1/2 mile from the runway. Really depends on TPA and speed, usually you can figure out based on your base to final turn. If you are turning too hard, increase the distance. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Feb 25 '16 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Why is “dragging it in” considered bad in small aircraft, but fine in larger aircraft? and this one even has an answer which answers your question: What is a two- or three-mile base exactly?. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Feb 26 '16 at 1:16
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think most people really think in terms of distance from the runway. At least I don't: I just fly where it "looks right", which is something you pick up in training from an instructor who's telling you to fly the downwind where it "looks right". $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 26 '16 at 20:33
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Most instructors say that (in a low wing plane) you should see the runway on the tip of the wing or between the tip and 1/4 in the wing. AOPA has a nice over view of non towered airports here. This FAA brief states it should be flown 1/2 to 1 mile out (page 7-4 of FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, FAA-H-8083-3B).

This leg should be approximately 1/2 to 1 mile out from the landing runway, and at the specified traffic pattern altitude.

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There are multiple considerations, among them:

  • Other aircraft in the pattern (that may be slower or faster than you): you want to maintain your position, not getting too close to planes ahead of you, nor slowing down planes behind you.
  • The descent rate of your aircraft: I was taught to descend 25% from TPA on downwind, 25% on base, and 50% on final. (typically from a 1,000 ft TPA, that is 250ft / 250ft / 500ft)
  • The turning rate of your aircraft: You want to make rectangular shaped patterns. If you are too close, your patterns will be more oval shaped. If you are too far, you will have a very long base leg.
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"Within gliding distance" is one common rule that many instructors teach. It would be embarrassing to have an engine failure in the pattern and not make it to the runway :-) More seriously, you tend to make a lot of configuration changes in the pattern so the risk of something going wrong is higher, therefore within gliding range is usually a good place to be.

That doesn't mean being in a position to glide the remaining downwind, base and final legs to land neatly on the numbers: it means gliding to somewhere on the runway you can safely land (or even to a taxiway if need be). (The FAA's commercial pilot test standards require the applicant to glide to a landing from the downwind leg starting at 1000 AGL.)

Of course, there are lots of variables and you may have to fly a wider (or tighter) pattern at certain times or at certain airports for any number of reasons: traffic, ATC instructions, noise abatement etc.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't quite follow this. On a normal circuit, I can land on the runway threshold only if I lose the engine shortly after turning base (i.e. where I'd close the throttle anyway). If the engine fails any time on downwind, if I want to land on the runway in the correct direction, I'm going to be touching down some distance along it - possibly too far along to make a safe roll-out. Being able to glide to the runway doesn't seem to be a huge advantage in that case. $\endgroup$ – Dan Hulme Feb 26 '16 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ @DanHulme I updated this based on chat comments $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Feb 26 '16 at 15:42

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