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Teaching pattern alt and descents ...

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How's your marmott?
Feb 21, 2002
In the last year or so I've noticed that I'm not really thinking about set procedures/numbers when landing VFR and am working by feel (with a close eye on the ASI, of course). So for teaching others I wanna 'relearn' and establish my own methods, as far as they are compliant with applicable guidelines and common sense.

When I started flying in 1995 I was taught pattern altitude equals field elevation + 1000', turns initiated at field elevation + 700', and 500 fpm descents for landing were commenced when abeam the numbers on downwind. However, the CFI that I finished my PPL with taught pattern altitude equals FE + 800', turns were FE + 500', and descents commenced at the turn to base (along with the second notch of flaps). I've noticed recently durng a checkout that many CFIs teach this, as well.

So, realizing that the AIM isn't law, per se, merely suggestions for good operating practices ... what do/did you guys teach and why? Are these new pattern procedures becoming a a bit of a trend?


Why not look up the published pattern altitude for the field in use, rather than guess? Teach students to do the same. Check your airport facility directory; this should be part of the preflight planning when taking a student to a different airfield than the one where you normally train, such as cross country training.

Rather than trying to reinvent yourself, try analyzing what YOU do in the pattern right now. Chances are that your flying isn't wrong, so rather than make yourself over in the image of a fromer instructor, why not teach a student to fly the way you know how to do it? You don't need to relearn, you only need to learn to explain what you already know.

One of my biggest frustrations is hearing a pilot opine, "But, that's the way I was taught!" I am always tempted to ask, "Yes, but what have you learned?"

How someone was taught isn't really relevant; I'm much more interested in learning about their experiences, and what that experience has taught them. Perhaps the former instructor was wrong, perhaps not. But what about you? Do you know how to fly an airplane in the pattern, and land it? Does it work for you? There are many ways to do it; you can fly incrementally with airspeeds and flap settings. You can use one airspeed and one flap setting. You can turn at fixed geographical positions, use various speeds, configurations, descent angles, trim inputs, whatever. There is more than one answer to the question.

The only answer that counts is weather or not what you do works, and weather or not you can explain it. If it works, you're mostly there. Now put it on paper. Be able to explain what you do, and you're all the way there.

The only thing that remains is to be able to spot errors a student might make, and offer meaningful corrections in a way the student will understand. Trust yourself, not your former instructor. Good luck!!
I use whatever pattern altitude is listed for the airport, and if nothing is noted - I use 1000' agl. I don't like the idea of using the VSI or setting specific altitudes you should be at for different legs - I use one power setting once I'm abeam the numbers, and hit specific airspeeds for base and final. If I stick to the power setting, nail the airspeeds, and of course assuming I turn base at the right point, I'll be right on target every time without ever worrying about my altimeter.

I haven't found an instructor that teaches otherwise yet....
For the descents part of your question, search for a thread titled "landings suck, ouch!" or something like that. It was several months ago.
Pattern Altitudes

I should probably qualify this somewhat because I haven't flown or instructed since 1993, and maybe the AIM has changed. However, seeing that you learned how to fly after I was out and was taught a 1000-foot TPA, I suspect it has not changed.

I agree with your first paragraph. I learned how to fly twenty years ago and was taught a 1000-foot TPA. I continued to teach that procedure, absent published TPAs in the A/FD which would control.

I agree with the second notch of flaps on base, but that is technique more than anything. I never taught much about referring to the VSI in the pattern. I taught students to set power, pitch by visual reference and configuration, set and hold airspeed, i.e. 1.4 Vso on base and 1.3 Vso on final, or school or POH recommendations. I know that some airline schools teach a specific profile for a visual pattern.

Of course, the AIM isn't regulatory or law, but I always believed that if the FAA publishes it, the FAA was suggesting very strongly that the AIM is how it wants you to do business. Moreover, the PTS and other quasi-regulatory FAA pubs reference the AIM. Therefore, if the AIM said how to do something, it was good enough for me.

Hope that helps.
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Definitely teach your students to use the A/FD. Around our parts we have numerous TPA's. 1000 and 800 are common but there are exceptions and you should be warily looking out for them. Flew into one airport where TPA was 750 for "light and/or single engine aircraft" and 1250 for "heavy and/or multi-engine aircraft"!

The world of landing an airplane looks different starting from these extremes. Get your students used to thinking.

As to teaching, I'm a strict numbers guy on teaching just like one of the other posters before. For a C-172, my students know the 1-2-3 of downwind, base and final.

Downwnd = 85kts. 2000RPM 10deg.flaps(one notch)
Base = 75kts. 1600RPM 20deg.flaps(two notches)
Final = 65kts. 1200RPM 30deg.flaps (full flaps)

They can learn to throttle jockey later on their own. With me its smooth, stable and repeatable performance. They have to learn to visualize the keys points of when to turn base and when to turn final (for xwinds) but everything else stays as a repeatable set of numbers until they are comfortable "trying" other things.

I don't bug them with "target" altitudes, because they will spend more time trying to make the airplane be "precisely" at xxx feet to make the base turn when they should be more concerned with the performance of the airplane and where they are in the pattern. The only thing I help reinforce is the feeling of "too low" or "too high" using the relationship between the nose of the airplane and the target spot.

But above all, you need to learn from your students and teach them what they need to "fix" problems. You have three control surfaces, a set of drag/lift devices, and a powerplant. That's a lot of things to juggle for the new pilot. Be patient but learn.

I have always lived by the rule of threes - I find that if the student does the same bad thing three times and I have told him/her the same thing three times to correct the problem then what I'm saying is not making sense. It is MY responsibility to find a NEW way to teach the same skill. So even in the above "hardline" stance on the numbers, if the student isn't getting it, we'll change to a different style. I've been known to pull out all my IFR coverups and completely removed every dial on the instrument panel asking the student to land "by feel".

Help your students anyway that you can.
Thanks, Tarp. That's the reason I came up with this "nonstandard" procedure to prevent either staying too high for too long, or descending too rapidly and approaching the runway at treetop level.

I used the VSI as sort of an early indicator that the student could use to monitor his rate of descent after his power reduction and initial flap setting (in the Skyhawk, 110 knots or less, just above the white arc). By adjusting pitch to maintain roughly a 400 fpm rate, he will in a 172, acheive the flap range as he rolls out on base, allowing him to deploy the second notch of flaps. He'll also learn to recognize the altitude he should have for that position in the pattern.

After becoming familiar with the process, the student begins to acquire the Big Picture, and adjust pitch and power as necessary without any reliance on the VSI.

Sort of like "training wheels" for the initial descent.
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The pattern altitude should also take into account the aircraft and the type of operation

If I am out shooting touch and goes in a Cub I will use 400-500' for a pattern altitude. No sense in climbing to 1000' in an airplane that takes all day to get around the pattern.

In a 172 and most general aviation airplanes 1000' works well. In most jets 1500' works and in fast moving military jets 2000' might be a better choice. The distance from the runway while in the pattern should also complement your pattern altitude. In the Cub I may stay inside the airport boundary while in an F-16 you may want to use more room.

My general observation is that most CFIs and student pilots stray too far from the airport in the pattern. If an engine quits (and its happened before) they wouldnt make the airport. I can generally fly a tighter pattern in a Westwind than I have seen most 172s fly while shooting touch and gos.

In any case the traffic pattern altitude per the AFD may be governing unless the local controller authorizes a different altitude. Nothing is more frustrating to a controller than to have 5 172s in the pattern ranging from 800 to 1500' especially if he is combining inbound jet traffic and transitioning traffic
There is nothing wrong with a student relying on a VSI as long as they also learn the big picture and look outside as well

The VSI will become very important later on in their career when they start flying IFR in jets where at 150 knots your VSI may read +4000 FPM or -6000 FPM (ouch)

Remember that for a 3 degree glideslope you can figure your rate of descent by dividing your groundspeed by 2. In a 172 if you are doing 70 knots on final or during the approach your rate of descent should be about 350 FPM.

This is a good way for a student to initially learn the proper power setting for a stabilized approach and learn the pitch-power relationship to make glideslope corrections

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