All things equal, from a standard traffic pattern at a towered airport, is it safer to do a short approach when approved by tower, or a normal one? Assume a Cherokee, Cessna 172, or similar small trainer.

My gut is a short approach should be safer, because I stay closer to the airport in case something goes wrong and I can let up on the decent rate if I hit unexpected wind shifts. However, I descend at 1000fpm in a slip, instead of 500fpm with my nose pointing to the runway. The workload also tends to be higher because there is less time.

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    $\begingroup$ If your slipping 1000fpm to do a short approach, I do not want to be your passenger. $\endgroup$
    – fbynite
    Jan 11, 2014 at 2:23

2 Answers 2


The safest approach to a normal landing is a stabilized approach, so it's going to depend a lot on you, your aircraft, and the day's conditions. If you're operating in a confined area, then that changes things a lot, and I'm not going to address that.

It also depends on your definition of a normal pattern and approach. The FAA recommends you fly your downwind around ½ mile to 1 mile from the runway centerline, which should keep you fairly close to the airport anyway, and you should be turning base at least ¼ mile away from the runway threshold.

That said, a normal approach is going to be much safer. As you point out in your question, a short approach often requires extreme descent rates or slips (or both), and results in a much shorter final; neither of those situations improve safety. Approaching with a high descent rate just so that you can reduce it if necessary doesn't strike me as a particularly good choice for normal operations, either.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 - IMHO short approaches are fun (and they can be a nice opportunity to do an engine-out simulation all the way to a landing), but a normal (ideally stabilized) approach is inherently safer than "Sure, I'll chop my throttle, slip like crazy to drop the altitude, and challenge myself to make it a spot landing just to keep it interesting!" $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Jan 10, 2014 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that a normal, stabilized approach is the safest. However, if the conditions, pilot experience, and the airplane permits, short approaches can save a lot of time and fuel (cost) as well as expedite traffic for all concerned. The same can be said, although in a more limited manner, for unstabilized approaches. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jan 10, 2014 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ There's a happy medium between a 180 power off approach abeam the numbers, and flying a 1/2-1nm Faa-approved approach, and that is to be continuously in a position to land from the entire approach in the event of an engine failure. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Feb 19, 2015 at 18:14

Oh, this one is hard to answer, but let me have a try:

There will be no universal answer as it is very dependent on

  • How likely are certain emergency situations to happen
  • The Runway available
  • Terrain below (obstacles, landingsights outside the airport, populated area or not)
  • The aircrafts characteristics (ofcause we are talking only of SE)
  • You

and most probably even on some more.

Your chances to get to the 'safe' runway should you encounter an engine failure are much bigger and you will also be faster on ground in case of fire if you remain close to the field - both emergencies are very remote but allways to consider. I take them into account when planning to fly over Water or over congested areas according to FAR 91.119

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes: (a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface. [...] FAR 91.119

A traffic pattern is obviously a maneuver necessary for takeoff and landing. But you are not asking about legal facts but about safety, so let's go ahead.

We found out that a closer pattern will most probably give you the best chances if you have an engine failure or fire and there is no other safe spot to land then the runway. But that's not completely true because if you compare a 'normal' to a short approach ~70% of the pattern (~90% of the engines workload) will be exactly the same which even makes an engine failure or an fire on board more remote to happen during the phase of flight where you are closer tomthe runway as 'normal'.

@Egid mentioned a stabilised approach, which results in a lot of safety. He even called it the safest way to fly an approach - guess what my comment on this is, right, start reading at the top: it's dependent on blablabla ;) All right man, you're answer is basically correct and I practice it 90% of my landings but the runway available and obstacles sometimes make me think a different way. Assuming a short muddy grass strip : Stop talking about extra safety thanks to a short approach - suitable words were either funny or risky. Also a stabilised approach until 50ft would not be my first choice. If I would approach this runway with nothing else in my mind than maximum safety I would chose a little longer final than usual, stabilise the airplane early - final configuration, all checklists done, on spped on glide path on centerline - but after clearing the obstacles deviate from the approach path to do a short field landing optimally with the aircraft fully stalled at touchdown on threshold.

There are aircraft you either fly stabilised or better leave on ground. An example would be the Cirrus aircraft, but honestly I have not enough experience on them to really consider them to be not suitable for steep dives into final. Anyway these and other agile aircraft are much safer to operate the 'normal' way.

I'm also a huge point to consider. If I would sit there with the hands on the controls flying not further than a quarter mile from the runway afraid of my engine going off any second, I would rather visit the doctor but don't go flying. There are these days where you are concerned of anything, check everything 3 times and take some extra precautions wherever possible. But then I've checked everything but my self prior this flight. You won't perform well if you are afraid of what you are doing.

But I don't think that you are someone who's afraid but someone who wants to do his best to fly as safe as possible - a pilot who thinks that way he's supposed to do. But you're still a factor. Ask your self if you are familiar enough with the aircraft, the approach, the situation and feel comfortable to cut it short if you like to do so. Consider that there will be a higher workload (work / time) you will have to manage.

All in all you need to think of a lot off points and I myself come to the result that I would brief and fly the approach I feel most comfortable with - easy isn't it? ;)


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