Flying a visual pattern in a jet can seem more art than science to anyone who grew up flying light aircraft and did very little primary training in fast movers. But even for those of us from the military, if we don't practice them often flying an "ideal" visual pattern can quickly become not only an art, but a lost art.
If you apply precise flying techniques to each visual approach you will find that after a while, they do indeed become routine. In that vein, allow me to offer a model of an ideal pattern followed by variations. While every airplane is different, I will use an airplane that flies the base turn at 160 KTAS as an example. I will follow all of that with the math in case you would like to tailor these techniques for something different.
Everything here is from the references shown below, with a few comments in an alternate color.
Photos: On approach to Teterboro, from Eddie's Notes.
Figure: The ideal traffic pattern, from Eddie's notes.
Of course "ideal" is in the eye of the beholder, but given my aircraft's preference for 160 knots starting the base turn and my personal preferences to fly a symmetrical pattern and to roll out precisely on final at 600' AGL and 2 nautical miles, an ideal pattern:
The 1,500' AGL starting point seems to be an international standard for jet aircraft, the 25° of bank is an industry norm for transport category aircraft, and the 2 nm extended final is what is needed to provide a 3° stabilized approach.
But what about those other numbers — 1.6 nm and 900 fpm? They are just mathematical magic, as shown below.
It is important to have the aircraft in trim, on altitude, and flying parallel to the runway when on downwind. This will give you the opportunity to establish a level flight power setting and to judge any crosswind drift. But how do you judge drift? The standard method of flying parallel to the runway and looking for the ground track in front of you moving left or right may work in a Cessna 150 but it is not the thing to do in a jet. You shouldn't fixate your gaze for too long at our speeds, especially when you should be busy scanning for traffic. Three better choices:
We had a similar set up in our Air Force Boeing 747s and if the other pilot messed this up we would say "kill the drift." Getting into the habit of flying with your desired course under the drift indicator would always kill the drift. I really miss that green donut.
The downwind displacement from the runway depends on the aircraft's turn radius. The turn radius of an airplane flying less than 170 knots is generally the speed, in miles per minute, divided by three. (For example, at 120 KTAS you are flying 2 nm/minute and your turn radius is 2/3 nm.) For our example aircraft flying at 160 KTAS, the turn radius is 0.8 nm so the desired downwind displacement is 1.6 nm. How do we know this? See The Math, below. Of course you may need to adjust for winds. How? See: The Light Wind (15 knots or less) Pattern, below.
We often speak of the point to begin the base turn as described by a 45° line from our touchdown point. This military method of defining the "perch" does not work in a modern environment where we want to have a stabilized final approach no later than 500' AGL. As a technique, we use a 2 nm final approach. The 45° line would work for an airplane with a 2 nm downwind displacement. For our example aircraft, we will have to fly about a half mile beyond the 45° line.
Photo: Base turn at Bedford, from Eddie's collection.
We should have a precise bank angle in mind, usually 25° but no less than half-standard rate and no more than 30°. Reasons to adjust are given below, starting with The Light Wind Pattern.
We should also have a target descent rate in mind, usually around 900 fpm. How do we know this? See The Math, below. If you have reliable autothrottles setting the target VVI and adjusting as needed is a good place to start. Without autothrottles you need to get back to basics with the Control and Performance Technique. Pull a known quantity of power and wait to see what happens. This can be in terms of EPR, RPM, fuel flow, or even knob-widths of throttle. But give the power reduction a chance to take hold before making follow up adjustments. (Chasing the power fore and aft will only make the other variables worse.)
Figure: Lateral landing maneuver envelope, from Eddie's notes.
There is more art than science when it comes to rolling out precisely on extended centerline. There are many techniques to consider:
More about each of these techniques: Landing / The Slot - Horizontal.
Figure: The ideal traffic pattern with "light winds," from Eddie's notes.
We hardly ever find ourselves in ideal conditions and even if we have the pattern to ourselves, we still have to deal with winds. If the winds are 15 knots or less, we can use an old Air Force holding pattern technique to make it all work out.
The technique allows us to roll out on course if we adjust our bank angle by the drift angle prior to the turn. Since our target bank is 25° and we cannot exceed 30° under most circumstances, we will use 5° drift as our limiting correction. When flying at 160 KTAS it takes 15 knots of crosswind to generate 5° of drift so that is the limit of this technique. To adjust:
Figure: The ideal traffic pattern with "undershooting winds," from Eddie's notes.
If the undershooting winds exceed 15 knots, shallowing our bank angle could extend the pattern outside of protected airspace before the turn is half complete. This will require extra finesse:
Figure: The ideal traffic pattern with "overshooting winds," from Eddie's notes.
If the overshooting winds exceed 15 knots, you cannot steepen your base turn bank angle enough to compensate. You will have to widen your pattern:
Figure: G450 Guidance Panel, from Eddie's aircraft.
There is an on-again/off-again debate about using automation during the approach and landing phase that pits those who think our stick and rudder skills have eroded to the point of endangering safety and those who think we don't spend enough time with our heads out of the cockpit scanning for traffic. I tend to use the automation, especially in a visual traffic pattern where the little airplanes are everywhere. (I don't believe in the Big Sky Theory.) While every pattern is different, here is an example scenario for an "ideal" pattern:
I do not advocate flying the visual pattern with a slide rule or calculator dictating every control input, but knowing where the numbers come from gives you a starting position. I've done the numbers for 160 KTAS at 25° of bank and at half-standard rate of turn. That gives me an idea of what will be needed if the situation is somewhere in between.
Figure: The traffic pattern "exactly," from Eddie's notes.
[ATCM 51-3, pg. 178] The horizontal component of lift will equal the centrifugal force of steady, turning flight. This fact allows development of the following relationships of turning performance:
r = turn radius, ft
V = velocity, knots (TAS)
θ = bank angle, degrees
More about this: Turn Performance.
ROT = rate of turn, degrees per second
V = velocity, knots (TAS)
θ = bank angle, degrees
Portions of this page can be found in the book Flight Lessons 2: Advanced Flight, Chapter 8.
Air Training Command Manual 51-3, Aerodynamics for Pilots, 15 November 1963
Gulfstream G450 Aircraft Operating Manual, Revision 35, April 30, 2013.
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