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Is there guidance from the FAA or AGA on the distance of the runway from the downwind leg of a landing pattern for a glider?

For powered aircraft, the FAA recommends in its flying handbook (FAA-H-8083-3B) that the downwind leg be flown from 2500 to 5000 feet out from the runway, a pretty wide variance.

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I was taught (by various publications and compenent CFIs) that angles are a better thing to focus on than distances. For example, this publication suggests:

You should turn from your crosswind leg (or from your 45 entry) onto your downwind leg when the runway centerline, or an extension of it, is 25-30° below the horizon. Using angles automatically compensates for variations in altitude.

For me, this makes sense for several reasons:

  1. Judging angles is much easier than judging distances.
  2. The AGL pattern altitude might differ depending on the airport/field you are landing at.
  3. If you are landing out, you should ALWAYS fly a normal pattern if possible. This may force you to fly an abbreviated pattern closer to the ground.

Obvously, adjustments to this will need to be made for a crosswind.

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  • $\begingroup$ What is meant by the term "landing out?" $\endgroup$ – Terry Oct 6 '18 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Terry In gliders, "landing out" refers to landing somewhere that isn't an airport, due to not having enough altitude to reach an airport. Wikipedia says it's a routine occurrence in cross-country soaring. $\endgroup$ – Timber Swett Oct 8 '18 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ 1. Not true. We humans are very, very bad at estimating vertical angles. Ask any random person about the angle of a road or mountain slope, and you'll typically get a guess exaggerated up to an order of magnitude. That said, as pilots, we can train ourselves and learn cues to get the angle right, such as the classic 'fly such that the runway crossed the wing strut about here' (on a Cessna). $\endgroup$ – Zeus Oct 8 '18 at 3:02
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According to the FAA's Glider Flying Handbook (chapter 7):

The distance for a normal pattern from downwind leg to the landing area should be approximately one quarter to one half of a mile. Of course, this depends on current conditions and the type of glider. This varies at different locations.

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You may wish to start with the safe envelope parameters of your glider for turning in a landing pattern, in other words, speed and bank angle. A glider turning a half circle at 50 knots (V 1.2 stall) will be much closer to the runway on downwind than a glider turning at 150 knots (V 1.2 stall). From the diameter of your safe 1/2 circle glide (and altitude loss), you determine your safe minimum distance from runway on downwind. Of course, you can come in a little higher (and a little farther away) and "square it off" into a downwind, 1/4 turn, base leg, 1/4 turn, and final.

But the safe turn is the key. Too slow or too tight could lead to a bad situation near the ground. Not a good time to stall. Hopefully your airport is "glider friendly" and a suitable landing pattern can be worked out.

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