Pattern Work

US Navy F-18 Landing Typical Profile

I’m near certain that umpteen zillion posts have written about this subject.  Nevertheless, here I go with my addition to the pile.

How do you teach students to land safely, who didn’t know how to fly a mere 10 hours ago?

The answer, to me, is 100% about feel, energy management (à la glider teaching), looking, sensing and adjusting as necessary.  A trap that I, and many of my colleagues, have fallen into is thinking that landing is something a student will embrace if they are given firm numbers, power settings, checkpoints etc.  Any type of recipe that emphasizes standardization exclusively does two big disservices to the student:

  1. They all approach the aircraft differently / uniquely. (i.e. It is hard to standardize something they learn by feel.  More on that in this great book.  Not a plug, Just a *really* good book on emotions, psychology, etc. in teaching.)
  2. They all have different levels of fear or anxiety about hitting the ground or stalling too high once it is time to flare / touchdown. Observe their face, expression, and grip on controls, etc. as they touch down.  A great lesson I got on this was in a Phenom 300 where a corporate pilot was nervous going below 1.2 Vso in the flare (and used up more runway than needed.)  His boss (a Marine F-18 pilot) demonstrated a landing to him and made soothing cooing sounds as he let the airspeed get well below 1.2 Vso some height above the runway in the flare.  Odds are the nervous pilot he was trying to help had carried his 1.2 Vso phobia since his early training.

After recently soloing a student in what appeared to be record time and also working with students who have more trepidation in the process, I have learned a critical thing about myself, and how I transmit information to the would be “landing party.”

Keep It Simple

Students listen, respond and connect to broad principles and rules that they can feel, make sense to them and that you pantomime around the briefing room like drunken storks.  That’s it.  Give them some simple images, and then sit back and observe some touch and goes after you demonstrate one every so often whilst repeating principles: “Pitch for airspeed, power for altitude, but hey… let’s just hold off on the flaps instead of adding power?”

The culmination of which I can say looks something like this:

Power reduction: Why not brush up on engine failures while we are doing this?  Talk about gliders, the space shuttle, etc.  Oh… and real live engine failures.  They are all *the same thing* at the end of the day.  Flying things that must come to rest safely with no power.  When you get abeam the numbers on downwind, do a BIG power reduction.  I call this “big and final-ish power reduction.”  This power reduction is associated with “now… Susan… you are in a glider, put this baby on the numbers.  You don’t have to put the power at idle, but put it somewhere just above idle.”

Management: Once you’ve done this, have them trim the crap out of it so that it stays nose high and bleeds off airspeed without them having to do a bicep curl.  In the flap white arc? Feels appropriate timing-wise? Put in some flaps.  By some I mean – whatever amount you feel appropriate given the size of your pattern, etc.  Generally this is the first notch, detent or first 10 degrees.  Congratulations… the aircraft is now going slower and going down… that’s all there is to do between here and touch down except adding more drag (flaps) and pitching for airspeed.

When should I turn? Base? Final?  The next bit is the classic “when do I turn base?”  The answer? Look over your shoulder at the touch down zone and use your Jedi powers to see how it feels.  Do you feel high? Extend a bit.  Do you feel low? Giddy up and get onto that base (or final if you are on base).  Whilst you are doing all this, keep in mind we’d like to be fully configured (all the flaps are in) on final, so be sure that you are at least thinking about the 2nd and or 3rd / 4th flap settings and when you might use them.  Low? Hold off on the flaps a bit longer.  High? Get them in and maybe kill whatever is left of the power.  If you are on profile (the glide slope, real or imagined), it will feel natural when that second, and third notch comes in as you increasingly slow the aircraft whilst descending.

The profile picture.  Herein lies the biggest stress of students new to flying.  In a piston single that is typically a trainer (Super Cub, Cessna 172 / 152, Piper PA-28) it should be a sight picture that is pretty nose down.  You should be flying slowly (say 60 kts or mph depending on your aircraft) and yet also be facing nose down to the next point of your landing adventure.  Don’t do a thing.  Keep that picture and fly down to the touchdown zone.  Yes it might feel strange.  But you are draggy now and you need to pitch down to maintain whatever airspeed you’ve committed to holding until the touchdown zone.  Just do that.  Fly a constant airspeed, in a nose down attitude, to the touchdown zone.

The roundout / flare and the rest of it:  Once you get down to about 6 feet above the ground, delicately or firmly (as the airplane needs / demands) ensure that you are flattening the profile (lifting the nose) as you sit rock steady at about 6 feet off the runway and simply hold the nose off as you double check that you’ve killed any and all power that might be left or you forgot about.  This stage is where most learning occurs since a sensitive elevator or overly big correction can cause all types of ballooning, bouncing and / or embarrassment of many types.  Let them do it.  Don’t let them hurt the aircraft, but the best thing here is a silent instructor who allows the student to bounce, chirp, drift, and over or under react a bit.

A big compulsion I had for writing this post is that I have an odd grouping of 3100 hours total flight time.  Most of it is “off airport” or bush flying as people call it.  And of that flying, most of the legs were between 5 min. and 30 min.  I’ve done a lot of landings.  I’m not any better at them than anyone else, but I’ve just done a lot of them.  So many that I long ago stopped fixating on things like the airspeed indicator or trying to remember any particular altitude / configuration points.  I have a general idea of where things should start and where they should end.  I do look at the airspeed indicator, but only to confirm whether my comfort is warranted or should be challenged.

The fortunate thing about all this up and down-ness is that a Super Cub, Cessna 172, Phenom 300 or King Air 350 all have the same basic qualities in that their energy needs.  They need to be managed and no one airplane is harder to master than the other.  They are just different, take practice and like to be handled with just as much art as science.

Adam likes to write about things he thinks he knows about even though he may not know that much about them.  In the case of take offs and landings, however, he is a quasi expert due to his poor career decision making and flying in high risk environments where the aircraft simply had to give every possible ounce of its performance to make the day not finish in a heap of twisted aluminum.  You can email him nice things at

One thought on “Pattern Work”

  1. Some important feedback I got from reddit on this post: This article assumes the student can hold a constant speed in a descent and other basic must have’s. It also assumes that they have a rough framework (as in our Navy drawing at top of article) so that they can hit “x” speed when, say, abeam the numbers or on final. They also have a framework for when “typically” you might put in flaps or add drag of other kinds. (Spoiler in a glider.)

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