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When you're learning to fly, you make a lot of trips around the traffic pattern. And your instructor taught you the speeds to fly each leg. But have you ever thought about where those speeds came from?
Let's take a look at what the FAA recommends, what a few of the manufacturers recommend, and how they compare.
While the FAA has recommended speeds for the traffic pattern, they are clear that their recommendation always comes second to the manufacturer's recommended airspeeds. So if your manufacturer recommends a speed, you should stick to that.
The FAA doesn't recommend a speed on the downwind leg, so does that means you can fly as fast as you want? Well, not exactly.
If you're flying a Cessna 172, many people fly downwind at 90 knots (even though there isn't an official Cessna recommended downwind speed that we're aware of). Some people like flying a little slower, and they start the pattern at 80 knots.
If you're flying a Cirrus SR22T (G5), the recommended speed for downwind is 100 knots.
Your base leg is where the FAA starts recommending speeds. According to the Airplane Flying Handbook, when you turn on to your base leg, you should transition to a speed of 1.4 x Vso (again, only if your manufacturer doesn't recommend a speed).
For example, if your landing configuration stall speed (Vso) was 50 knots, 1.4 x Vso would be 70 knots. So 70 knots is the speed you'd fly your base.
In a 172S, Vso is 40 knots. So according to the FAA, an appropriate base leg speed in a 172S would be 56 knots (1.4 X 40). However, not too many people fly base at that speed in a 172. In fact, many that we know fly base at 80 knots, which is 24 knots faster than what the FAA says. Even if you fly a 80KIAS/70KIAS/60KIAS pattern, which some, you're still 14 knots faster that the FAA's number. That's quite a bit.
And the Cirrus SR22T? 90 knots is the manufacturer recommended base leg speed. If you took the FAA's advice instead, based on a Vso of 64 knots, you'd have 90 knots (1.4 X 64). So in that case, they two speeds are right on par.
On final, the FAA recommends that you fly 1.3 x Vso if the manufacturer doesn't have a speed.
So back to the 172S, the best final approach speed according to the FAA would be 52 knots (1.3 X 40). But if you're flying a 90/80/70 pattern, or even an 80/70/60 pattern, you're still well above that speed.
The 172S POH recommends 61 knots for a final approach speed for a short field landing, which is 9 knots faster than 1.3 X Vso.
As for the Cirrus SR22T, they recommend 80-85 knots on final, and 79 knots crossing the threshold. If you do the FAA's math for final, they would say 83 knots (1.3 X 64). So again, the FAA's numbers and Cirrus' recommended numbers are pretty much spot on.
We can't say for certain, because we don't actually know. But, there are a few advantages to flying a faster pattern.
First off, it doesn't take as much time. If you fly your base a 56 knots, and your final at 52 knots, you do feel a bit like a "Sunday Driver" in the traffic pattern. And your speeds definitely won't match up very well to other traffic at the airport.
But there's probably a better reason. When you fly a little faster, you're not as far on the back side of the power curve. When you're on the back side of the power curve, you're generating a lot of induced drag, and it takes a lot of power to maintain your flight path. And if you have to go-around, it takes more time to transition from the back side to the front side of the curve. Check out this sample power curve for a single-engine piston aircraft.
On top of that, flying faster gives you a little more padding on your stall speed. It can be easy to get distracted in the pattern, especially when you're learning to fly, and a little extra padding on your speed can help you from getting close to a stall.
As for the Cirrus speeds, they're pretty much spot on with the FAA. Does that mean they're slow? Not at all. On base, you still have a 40% padding on stall speed, and on final, 30%.
And if you flew faster pattern speeds, it would be harder to sync up with other traffic in the pattern.
So there you have it. Most manufactures have recommended pattern speeds, at least for final approach. And if they don't, the FAA has speeds that can safely get back down to Earth on your next flight. All you have to do is manage the speeds, and grease your landing.
Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.