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How To Fly A Flawless Traffic Pattern At A Non-Towered Airport

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Every great landing starts with a great approach. And the best way to do that? Fly a flawless traffic pattern.

1) Make your first radio call 10 miles out.

Or even earlier, if you want. But according to the AIM, you should start monitoring your airport's CTAF frequency and make your first call when you're 10 miles out.

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2) Overfly 500-1000 feet above traffic pattern altitude.

Why overfly? It gives you a chance to look for traffic, check out the wind sock, and make sure there aren't any obstructions on or near the runway. You also want to make a call over CTAF to let other pilots know where you are, and what you're doing.

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3) Enter the pattern at 45-degrees to the downwind leg.

When you've decided which runway you're going to land on, the next step is to position your plane to enter the downwind leg at a 45 degree angle. Why 45 degrees? It gives you a chance to see any other traffic in the pattern that you might not have picked up on before. Especially if they're not talking on the radios.

Also remember that not all patterns have left-hand turns. If a pattern has right turns, it'll be marked on the VFR sectional chart, as well as the digital chart supplement.

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4) Fly downwind.

Your downwind leg gives you chance to set up at your standard speed and power setting. You also add in crosswind correction so you don't drift toward or away from the runway. Your goal here is to be stabilized and fly parallel to the runway. And, you'll want to make your radio call on CTAF letting everyone know you're on downwind.

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5) Reduce your power and start descending abeam your aiming point.

When you're abeam your aiming point, it's time to reduce power, start descending, and (depending on your aircraft) add flaps. The power and descent rate depends on what you're flying, but as long as you fly a standard power/descent, you'll set yourself up for an awesome touchdown.

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6) Turn base.

When you're about 45 degrees from the approach end of the runway, it's time to turn base. Again, you'll want to adjust your crab angle so you have a perpendicular track across the ground (think rectangular course!). Depending on what you're flying, you'll most likely be slowing down and adding flaps here too. And, you'll want to make a radio call to let everyone know you're on base.

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7) Turn final.

If you have a quartering tailwind, you'll want to start your turn a little early. If you have a quartering headwind, you'll want to delay for a few seconds to make sure you roll out on final. And if you overshoot, don't over correct to get back on final. Just go-around and try again.

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8) Grease your landing.

Slow to your final approach speed, add your final approach flaps, pick your aiming point on the runway, and make your radio call. Then, fly it all the way in. As you reduce power and start your round out, transition your eyes down the runway for a smooth touchdown.

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Colin Cutler

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 colin@boldmethod.com.

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