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I'm supposed to turn base when I see my touchdown point is 45° off my shoulder. But I'm a newbie and final has a lot for me to handle all at once. I'm sure as I improve it will become easier, but what would be the harm if I extended the downwind by a short distance to give myself a little more time to think and adjust during final?

(I will ask my CFI this question also, but I thought I'm probably not the only person wondering it.)

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  • $\begingroup$ Funny story: The same day as I asked this question, we had a radio problem that caused us not to realize we weren't hearing traffic, (we had been hearing it until we entered the pattern) and saw another plane unexpectedly on final while we were on base. My CFI had me do a 360º from base. It was a hairy landing, with gusty crosswinds and being aware of wingtip vortices, too. $\endgroup$
    – kojiro
    Dec 13, 2021 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ what type of airplane are you training in? $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:51
  • $\begingroup$ All the planes I train in are Cessna 172s from the 1970s. The one I usually try to reserve is a 172R. $\endgroup$
    – kojiro
    Dec 13, 2021 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent, that is a great airplane to train in. Good luck! $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Dec 13, 2021 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ I see a lot of these sort of questions from students - why this, why that etc. And I remember getting frustrated during my training too. The thing is, before you know it you'll be past this point - you'll feel like you've got way more time, and you won't have to then relearn the pattern. Reality is, you're learning as you mean to go on - which is exactly how it should be done, and once it clicks you're sorted $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Dec 15, 2021 at 12:59

6 Answers 6

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... final has a lot for me to handle all at once

You don't need to extend your downwind, you need to prepare to land earlier in the pattern.

To be honest, flying a longer downwind is not a great idea. If a single engine plane loses its engine, you will not make it back to the runway.

Circular or box patterns are there to keep you within gliding distance as you prepare to land. Never$^1$ leave this safe glide zone with a single engine.

Now, landing is done in stages. The better you do on the previous stages, the easier final approach will be. Your goal in training is to roll out onto final at the correct glide angle at the correct airspeed.

So, prepare to land on the downwind. For a Cessna 172, as follows:

  1. Enter downwind at 100 knots, proper distance from runway (halfway up.
    the spar, whatever

  2. Passing the end of the runway, reduce throttle, hold altitude, slow to 70 knots. This is the first step experience will help you. If landing into the wind, slow to 70 a little earlier. Flaps 10.

  3. Turn base, trim to 65 knots, radio call base, judge high or low. Notice you have taken out "fast or slow". Energy is Velocity squared. Be consistent with your airspeed here.

  4. If anything, err on the high side, that's what flaps are for, but don't be too fast.

  5. While on base, make altitude adjustments with flaps and throttle as needed, and hold track against the wind.

  6. Roll out to final, and what is there to do? Radio call final and drive on down to your roundout over the runway, then land.

Practice and repetition of key steps will make it easier. If you don't have it together on final, going around is a good option.

$^1$ Air traffic control or situations such as avoiding traffic are exceptions

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    $\begingroup$ "Never leave this safe glide zone with a single engine." Did you mean to say never choose to leave this safe glide zone? ATC frequently forces you to extend your downwind to accomodate traffic. $\endgroup$
    – Kirk Woll
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ @KirkWoll edited in footnote, thanks $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2021 at 18:55
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In my opinion, you should certainly ask your CFI to ensure that artficially extending the downwind is something he/she would like you to do.

That being said, the correct profile for traffic patterns (downwind, base, and final) is important to learn (like your CFI is teaching) a step at a time because it involves determining when to reduce power, by how much; when to begin extending flaps; and when to start your turn to base and turn to final.

This type of training will result in you being able to fly a stabilized descent and approach without frequent power and/or pitch adjustments (up and down), thereby helping you develop the proper sight-picture in your mind for a normal traffic pattern approach and landing (in the proper touchdown zone).

Of course, you will need to learn to adjust your downwind (and length of final) as your training continues because you will often be required to do that depending on other traffic and ATC instructions. But taking it step by step as your instructor is training you would likely provide for the best learning outcome.

You will find that your ability to handle turning base when your touchdown point is 45 degrees off your shoulder will get easier every day.

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The key to good landings is a consistent pattern—doing the same things in the same places every time.

If you fly the downwind and base correctly, with the correct speed, power and flaps, then you will roll out on final on the proper glide slope. If this isn’t happening, the correct answer is not to buy yourself more time on final to make major adjustments but rather to fix the problems you’re creating for yourself earlier in the pattern.

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  • $\begingroup$ Once your skill level gets high enough, having a precise pattern/circuit is much less critical. When I was bush flying I set up landings from 300 ft agl arriving at the lake under a cloud deck at cruise, circling around to get slowed down and put it on. As long as I'm roughly on speed and slope at a hundred feet, how I got there doesn't much matter. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Dec 13, 2021 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK Of course. But this was what I needed to hear when I was a newbie with the same problem. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Dec 13, 2021 at 3:52
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    $\begingroup$ Same same lol.. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Dec 13, 2021 at 5:06
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I don’t recommend doing so on a regular basis, but an extended downwind and a long final at a low-traffic non-towered airport can be beneficial for a student to learn configuration specific power settings, correct glideslope and airspeed management techniques on final, etc. this should not become the default technique for flying the pattern in, but if can be beneficial to fly it like that on rare occasions, especially when transitioning to a different airplane type for learning it’s behavior and quirks in the traffic pattern.

Outside of that, for a light airplane, it’s better to keep the pattern tight: downwind about 1/2-3/4 mile offset from the runway, then turn base with the threshold approx 45° off your left shoulder, fly base at 1.4 Vso, turn into final on airspeed, on centerline, on glidepath and stabilized as soon as possible, etc. This does several things.

  • You learn how to fly a tight pattern, helpful for airports in confined space or with noise abatement restrictions.

  • You keep the flow of traffic in the pattern as expedient as possible without compromising safety of flight and flying unstabilized approaches.

  • You do not interfere with other pilots in the pattern.

  • This develops good pattern habits which will translate to better landings and can be applied to multiple airports.

If you’re having struggles with landings, you’re not alone. Most people working on a private pilot’s license struggle with this to a certain degree. Landings are the most difficult thing you will be required to master as a pilot because there are so many variables involved and multiple skills and hand eye coordination must be performed simultaneously. Keep working on it. You’ll get the hang of it!

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    $\begingroup$ Robert DiGiovanni's answer also mentioned staying within gliding range of the runway, for single-engine planes. That sounds to me worth mentioning in the bullet list as a reason to normally do that. $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2021 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ Ah yes the old debate about using power on final or gliding on final. On the one hand it does teach students how to perform power off 180s in the event they need them, on the other hand it tends to make them deficient on short field landing techniques, and is virtually impossible when they start doing instrument training as well as flying larger, more powerful Aircraft. I’m in the use power on final camp. $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2021 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Pretty sure Robert meant as a safety back-up against the risk of losing your one engine, not that you should normally glide in. If you have the option of spending your time in the air within dead-stick range of a runway or not, in range is somewhat safer, right? $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2021 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterCordes Even in a normal pattern, you're in glide range most of the time on the downwind leg. Once you get out towards the end of the downwind (when you're about to turn base,) then you're probably out of glide range on most light singles in a normal pattern. It used to be common for pilots to be trained to fly tighter patterns for that reason, but engine reliability improved over the decades. The FAA recommendation is 1/2 to 1 mile out from the runway. They don't recommend flying tight, power-off finals, as it gives you less time to get set up and stabilized. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Dec 14, 2021 at 7:33
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab: Yeah, ok, so it does still belong on the list of reasons, probably near the bottom. (But not described as always staying in glide range, just more of the time.) That's all I was trying to clarify. Thanks for that and the additional details. $\endgroup$ Dec 14, 2021 at 7:47
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The short answer is because the plane behind you is NOT extending their downwind, and you will mess up the pattern when everyone else has to adjust to your deviation from established standards. Stick with it, you will get it!

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  • $\begingroup$ That just kicks the can down the road to "Why is this the established standard". And the answer is "because that is how far you can glide if need be". $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Dec 15, 2021 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @dotancohen, valid point if you are taking a “5Ys” approach to answering in the most complete way possible. But I see a trend towards sometimes over answering simple questions here, so often I strive for brevity in the interest of providing balance. (as prefaced by "the short answer is...") Thanks for the feedback though. $\endgroup$ Dec 15, 2021 at 16:42
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If your CFI has you doing 45-degree base turns as a new pilot, then he is instructing you incorrectly and you should find a new instructor.

Final approach in any aircraft is supposed to be done at a 3-degree glide slope and if you are turning base when you are 45-degrees from the numbers, then there is no way you will be able to do that (unless you were to make a very steep descent onto base which is improper). Your instructor should be having you do 3-degree finals, which requires you to be out about 2000-2500 feet out and having an altitude of about 100-120 feet when you turn onto final. You are required by FAR 91.87D(3) to follow visual indicators such as VASIs when you land, which means a 3-degree glideslope at most runways, so your CFI should be doing 3-degree landings exclusively when you are a beginner. If he is not doing that, you should get a different instructor.

I recommend that you work out the math so you confidently and completely understand the geometry of a landing. Here are the key constraints to be aware of:

  • Airspeed: 1.3 x Vso (FAA recommendation) minimum
  • Do not descend faster than 500 feet per minute
  • Maintain a 3-degree glide slope on final

(Note that the VASI at your airport will probably be set to a 3-degree glide slope unless your airport has unusual terrain.)

Work through the math to figure out where you should be to meet these basic requirements. If you do that, you will find that your instructor is teaching you to do steep descents on final which he should not be doing until you are more advanced. As a beginner you should always be doing 3-degree glide slopes.

Experienced pilots in small aircraft often do steep finals to land fast, but you should not be learning that until you are a lot more experienced and have soloed. It is both potentially dangerous and improper for a beginner to be doing steep finals.

As for the other pilots in the thread saying that you should be rushing your finals so as not to delay the other pilots in the pattern, ignore them. You should be learning the RIGHT way to fly and the jerkoffs in the Extras behind you will just have to wait.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Dec 17, 2021 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ All discussion notwithstanding, this reference still needs to be fixed as it does not exist -- "FAR 91.87D(3)" $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2021 at 16:11

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