172 landing approach

I’ve been thinking recently about my time as a flight instructor. While I’ve been flying for over 40 years, I’ve only been teaching for a handful of those, so I am still learning a tremendous amount in the early stages as a CFI. It’s been great. And if you’ll permit me a short commercial message here… if you’ve ever thought about becoming a flight instructor, I encourage you to dig in further and strongly consider it since you likely have a lot that you can pass along to the next generation of aviators—especially if you been flying for a long time. I believe that I’ve learned more in my teaching hours than in all the hours that came before during those 40 years of flying.

Because most of what I do is helping Civil Air Patrol pilots transition to our high wing Cessna airplanes, I tend to fly with a lot of different folks but in just a few airplane types. This has allowed me to observe aviators using a wide variety of techniques to fly “nearly the same” airplane, including in the traffic pattern. And because some folks I have recently flown with have struggled with landings I will share what I have done to help them overcome their landing issues. I must admit that nothing I share below is original to me. I have shamelessly taken techniques from the great ones and assembled them into a ritual that I routinely teach. As Air Facts Editor John Zimmerman told me, “Every pilot is interested in landing better…” so here goes!

172 landing approach

A good landing usually starts with a good approach.

The “good” bottom line is that I have found that when my students (or I!) fly the traffic pattern using a consistent technique our landings improve and become consistently good.

When the topic of getting better at landings come up, some people focus their effort on the last 10 feet (above the runway) to solve landing issues or just to try to get better overall. My experience indicates that while there’s nothing wrong with focus there (or anywhere else) to get better, landing issues are usually the result of a poorly flown pattern which usually leads to an unstable approach. This typically begins at one of two places: the crosswind to downwind turn, or the pattern entry. My focus here will be on the flying the pattern up to the point of the round-out.

For the folks having landing issues, it is in the traffic pattern that I see a non-structured methodology that I believe is hard for many to overcome. Specifically, the before landing checklist occurs at a different place each time, power/configuration changes and speed are not standardized, and neither are the location and angle of bank of pattern turns. Because of this “randomness,” the pilot tries to manage the process differently each time which results in the wrong things happening at the wrong time. I believe structure here helps pilots allocate more thinking time to managing the profile. The predictable “bad” bottom line in the lack of structure is frustration and a poor landing. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The other thing I routinely see is that folks are not thinking about the wind and its effect on their pattern. Unless the wind is perfectly calm, there is going to be some crab needed at different parts of the pattern to maintain the desired shape of a rectangle. The wind will also influence your pattern as to when you make your turns due to speeding you up or slowing you down on the various legs of the pattern. By the way, I suggest you refer to the FAA Advisory Circular 90-66B for details on flying at non-towered airports, which outlines the best way(s) to enter the traffic pattern.

What I advocate here is a ritual for flying the pattern. It assumes that you know your power, configuration, and flap settings for each leg of the pattern. If you don’t know this, get together with a CFI and work through that and write down them down so you can refer to them again. Don’t try to coach yourself here. And when you fly with the CFI, pick out some maneuvers that you can fly as part of the WINGS safety program and get credit toward your next flight review while you’re at it. More on the program here.

Here’s how I teach the pattern:

1. Perform the before landing checklist in one of two places: after completing the crosswind to downwind turn if already in the pattern; or before joining the downwind if joining the pattern.

2. On the downwind be at the power setting that will sustain level flight at pattern altitude at your normal downwind speed. In a Cessna 172 this is about 75 KIAS.

3. Fly the correct heading to parallel the runway. Your GPS track (on your navigator or iPad) is a perfect way to double check this. If you’re landing on runway 28 you should make a track across the ground in your downwind of about 100 degrees. Since the wind is likely to blow you away (or toward) the runway this helps you to maintain proper distance, which is part of a good approach.

4. Abeam the numbers, make your normal power reduction and first configuration change (flaps and, if equipped, gear down). Lower the nose slightly and the net result is approximately the same airspeed with about a 500 foot per minute descent.

5. Turn base at the 45-degree point. Add next notch of flaps. Maintain proper speed. In the 172 I suggest 70 KIAS with 20 degrees of flaps. As you complete your base and are about to turn final you should have descended about 500 feet: “halfway around – halfway down.” I will run the before landing checklist one more time during the base.

Pilot on final

Short final is not the place for aggressive banking to correct a late turn to final.

6. You should turn final at the appropriate time by anticipating based on how the wind has affected the rest of your pattern. This is where people can easily get behind because they turn to final late (faster base due to tailwind), overshoot the centerline, and start to maneuver aggressively to get back on the centerline. Bad move! Don’t try to re-intercept; level the wings, power up, and go around. Aggressive maneuvering that close to the ground is a perfect recipe for a stall/spin event—which could be deadly.

7. Last notch of flaps goes in here once wings are level after base to final turn. Target speed in the 172 here is 65 KIAS for a normal landing (not short field). Again, use the speed and configuration most appropriate to your airplane. I teach students to pick a spot on the windshield that lines up with the landing point and watch the trend of how that spot continues (or not) to remain lined up with the desired landing point. The key is to notice changes quickly (laterally or vertically) and correct with appropriate crosswind correction as well as power or pitch as appropriate. In general, I teach a correct pitch attitude for the airplane with backup checks on power and speed. Making small changes is far preferable to large ones, so it is important to notice and correct small variances vs. missing the trends and then attempting to make large changes in power or speed. Final is also the place where I perform one more before landing checklist.

8. From this point the goal is to fly the profile and make small corrections as needed to remain on it. I teach students to be “spring loaded” to go around. This could be because of another plane on the runway, crosswind correction that they are unable to manage, significant deviations in the profile, passenger getting sick, etc. Better to go around and make another attempt that force a bad situation.

9. The other thing I teach is for the student to hold the correct pitch attitude all the way to the round-out (which occurs 10 ft. or so above the runway). What I see a fair amount is students slowly allowing the nose to come up before reaching the round-out point. This results in a few things:

  1. The airplane gets very slow because no power has been added yet the airplane is no longer descending at the previous rate.
  2. A pretty hefty sink rate starts to occur as the airplane runs out of energy
  3. A perfect setup to drop the airplane onto the runway very hard, potentially causing damage.

It is very important not to level the pitch attitude until it’s time to round out and prepare the airplane for touchdown.

It’s been my experience that if the approach has been flown largely as described above, the setup for a good landing has been largely accomplished.

I would be very interested to hear your comments on what you have learned on this topic. I look forward to seeing them!

29 replies
  1. Enderson Rafael
    Enderson Rafael says:

    Hi, Marty! Ten years in the making here, most of my hours spent in the airlines, I totally feel like I would love to finally do the CFI (I did not do after commercial for lack of time/money) and like you, start passing to the new generations some on what we’ve learned. My latest book on safety is exactly about that, but I have no doubt doing it practically must be way more fun. Having said that, I did my Private on a Cessna 152 in a non-towered airport. The only thing I did not really get here was your speed at downwind (I recall 2300 rpm/90kts for the 152). I’ve flown the C172 for 50 hours or so, and was pretty much the same. But all the rest, that is it: a stabilized and standardized approach is key for a nice touchdown. I would add to that to fly leveled over the runway (a couple feet from the ground, obviously), slightly pulling your nose to keep it balanced while the energy dissipates, another good hint. And just like a instructor I had in my last sim on the heavy plastic said… “Go around is not a reactive maneuver”. Another version of your “spring loaded” concept.

    Reply
    • Marty Sacks
      Marty Sacks says:

      Thanks for your comment! To answer your question I think it’s less about the exact speed on downwind and more about consistency. I pick 75 KIAS because I frequently teach on shorter runways with obstacles at both ends and the slower speed is a better set up for a short field landing.

      Reply
  2. Cris Alexander
    Cris Alexander says:

    Great tips, Marty. A good landing starts with a stabilized approach, and consistency makes for stability. But there are times, especially at a busy controlled field, when the pattern is anything but standard. I’d love to hear some tips on making good landings following a directed straight in approach, a last minute sidestep to a parallel runway ,or “Make short approach.” Those are always challenging.

    Reply
    • Eric
      Eric says:

      I agree with Cris. The “perfect” pattern is always the goal; I have it memorized for my airplane. Like Cris said, though, my home airport is busy, near Class B airspace, with non-standard patterns, terrain, and a variety of different aircraft types/speeds. Flying a Turbo Saratoga requires gear up/down, monitoring engine/turbo temperatures (every power setting must be done slowly and smoothly), mixture/prop, electric fuel pump, and watching speeds. Fortunately, the airplane is very stable and easy to fly, but I rarely get two patterns that are the same. I usually get 10 mile straights-ins when approaching the airport and am usually asked to extend downwind with the tower calling my base or asked to do left/right 360’s for spacing. Point being, a “standard” pattern is a nice goal, but in reality, we must be able to make a lot of adjustments for landing. And don’t get me started how high we are usually kept when doing instrument approaches… ; )

      Reply
  3. Michael Blackburn
    Michael Blackburn says:

    Thanks for the interesting article – my initial training was very much in line with this (Cirrus SR20). in my current aircraft, a much lighter aircraft (Sling 4) i find it extremely difficult to nail airspeeds and power settings – it’s heavily affected by the gusty conditions that prevail at my home field – do you have any suggestions to cope with this?

    Reply
    • Marty Sacks
      Marty Sacks says:

      Michael,

      Try not to chase the speed with pitch and power settings. Fly the general pitch attitude and power setting and look for the average of excursions to be your normal final speed plus one half of the gust value. That might the best you can do. Also seek out others experienced in your type and hear their feedback.

      Reply
  4. neil cosentino
    neil cosentino says:

    Agree a good traffic results in a good landing but the secret of a very good landing is to get as close to the runway as possible the try your best to keep the aircraft from touching down. P.S. It all in smoothness and the amount of elevator authority….

    An S 4 Mantra for Students for all phases of Flight ( except a near miss ) – Slow Small and Smooth Slow Small and Smooth Slow Small and Smooth Slow Small and Smooth Slow Small and Smooth …

    Reply
  5. Daniel Fregin
    Daniel Fregin says:

    So what happens at night, or with X many varied craft ahead in the pattern, or with an engine not doing what you have been trained to expect it to do, or flaps or panel lights or, or, or….. Are they just doing what has been done before or learning how to think (and maybe even learn a little) on their own? Thus landing should just be a pleasant result of whatever came before, and whatever came before might be the result of none of the “what if” stuff happening. Some things that worked best for me (30 yrs CFI, 43 total): Land like a duck, eg., try not to stop the descent, just less as you get closer. The last inch is just luck because even with the sock limp there is just might be a little movement of some kind, so keep guessing and correcting.

    Reply
    • Marty Sacks
      Marty Sacks says:

      You’re making great points here. I think what I’m trying to do is suggest some basics that help folks who are struggling to get some level of consistent performance in very basic conditions. Certainly we want to train people past rote formulas.

      Reply
  6. Steve McClintock
    Steve McClintock says:

    In step 8 you wrote, “Better to go around and make another attempt that force a bad situation”, but I think you meant to use the word, “than” instead of, “that” (than force a bad situation).

    Reply
  7. Alan Murgatroyd
    Alan Murgatroyd says:

    During my time as an Ultra-Light instructor I practised the same procedures, I.e. do everything at the same point in the circuit, checks, power reduction, flaps, final speed to short finals, trim, turn to base, and likened it to “painting by numbers “, the only variable being wind effect. On short finals a final CUP check, i.e. Carb.heat, Undercarriage, Pitch, and yes, some Ultra-lights have those ! Was once seriously challenged by a student getting low and slow on finals, “You’re too low Fred.” “Your too slow Fred” “POWER UP Fred” at which point he pulled the throttle fully back ! Turned out he was a farmer and his tractor throttle moved backwards to increase power ! I nearly broke his wrist but successfully went around. All good fun but sadly no more, Anno Domini rules !!

    Reply
  8. Colin Brown
    Colin Brown says:

    Marty I have been flying 45 years, from 150’s to 421C’s. But with the 182 I have met my Waterloo. This nose heavy bird drops like a stone every time I fly a stable 70 kt full flap final. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • John A. Kolmos
      John A. Kolmos says:

      Colin, that’s a good airspeed. Keep the power in unlike a 172, and if you have the cowling at the horizon and hold there as you bleed off airspeed closing the throttle, you shouldn’t have a problem. The 182 that I fly often can be a little tricky nose-wise, they are known for that. Try landing with 20 degrees of flaps at that speed, you’ll have more control. Also, a good practice exercise is to fly the length of the runway 6 inches or so above the ground looking off the nose at end of the runway. That’s your target queue when landing this beast…

      Reply
      • Eric
        Eric says:

        Flying a 182 (or any fast/heavy single) is more like flying a twin than a 172. Keeping in a little power in the flare will make for a much smoother and consistent landing. The new skill/challenge now becomes how/when to slowly pull the power out in the flare and gently lower the nose…

        Reply
        • Scott Powell
          Scott Powell says:

          Good point. I actually find it easier to land the Seneca more smoothly than I could a 182 simply because my multi instructor always drilled us to keep a little power on until touchdown, and add a little power to slow the sink rate if needed…I’ll try that next time I’m back in the Skylane! And make sure you are trimmed correctly. It sure helps make it easier to gently keep the nose up while you bleed that last couple of know of airspeed!

          Reply
  9. Warren Webb Jr
    Warren Webb Jr says:

    I prefer to establish the very first initial descent so that it is universal. i.e. so it will work literally to any runway at any airport in any aircraft in all weather for the rest of your life. So I stay level to approximately the 45° point, turn to base, then lower the nose while looking at the runway. That way I can establish the descending line of flight exactly to the aiming point and clear of obstacles. If you are at a towered airport and have been instructed to report base, straight-in, or anything in-between, this also will always work. I have never even once (over 46 years experience) used the VSI for any landing descents. Ground speeds change which change rates of descents which means there’s no way a VSI can tell you the airplane is on the correct line of flight to the aiming point and safely passing obstacles. What can likely happen is an over or under-shoot which will make the approach unstable and require a correction that wouldn’t have been necessary if only visual reference had been used.

    Reply
  10. Marty Sacks
    Marty Sacks says:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that some conditions will certainly affect the desired rate of descent and we want folks thinking about the variability of this based on winds at various points in the pattern. As I mentioned above I am putting forth some suggestions for how to start to build some consistency when folks are struggling. It’s a bit of a crawl/walk/run.

    Reply
    • Warren Webb Jr
      Warren Webb Jr says:

      Agree consistency is the name of the game. But it can get tricky on what should be consistent. I’ve seen a number of CFI’s teach that when the descent is started, they reduce the power to the same amount every time, and pitch to the same airspeed every time (which is incorrect use of pitch and power). That’s consistent on pitch and power, but it will result in the maximum inconsistency on the line of flight and rate of descent because, like in an engine failure, it puts the airplane at the mercy of the wind. There’s actually only one thing that is consistent – the line of flight (once the descent is started). That should stay consistent. Everything else is variable.

      Reply
      • Martin Sacks
        Martin Sacks says:

        I agree. I do however think that suggested config is the place to start and a continual evaluation of the profile continues from there.

        Reply
        • Warren Webb Jr
          Warren Webb Jr says:

          I can understand that that seems simpler, but let’s say it’s one of those days when there’s a brisk tailwind on base. I’ve seen plenty where the power needed to immediately (initially) come back to idle and the flaps had to immediately go full to keep things under control.

          Reply
          • Marty Sacks
            Marty Sacks says:

            I don’t disagree. Maybe a clearer way to say this is that I teach the concept of starting with a power setting and pitch attitude which generally leads to a desired descent profile and airspeed. From then on it is a constant monitoring of that profile judging the position of the airplane with relationship the runway and adjust to get the desired effect. The initial power setting and pitch attitude are only a beginning point to give folks a place to start.

        • Warren Webb Jr
          Warren Webb Jr says:

          Reply to your June 20, 2022 6:34am comment – there was no Reply button.
          In the same airplane in the same weather conditions, it will be close to what’s needed of course. But with a increase in headwind, density altitude, weight, etc., it will result in way too much descent rate, a bad start to the approach. If in a different model, the pilot will be lost. The descent requires both pitch and power be decreased when the glideslope becomes red-over-white (or equivalent without glideslope). The objective with the pitch is to keep it red-over-white. If that is learned initially from the first approach in training, the pilot will actually know exactly what to do with the pitch on all approaches in the future, from Piper Cub to A380.

          Reply
  11. Jen
    Jen says:

    Thank you for your article, Marty. There seems to be a division between instructors, with some preferring to teach their students to keep the aiming point in the same position in the windscreen until the flare, using power to control airspeed. And then there are instructors that teach attitude to control airspeed and power to control rate of descent. Naturally, these are small inputs and adjustments that are outside of the recommended power settings due to factors affecting the approach, such as wind. My question is, which technique do you teach and why? Thank you :)

    Reply
    • Warren Webb Jr
      Warren Webb Jr says:

      Jen – that division goes back to the term ‘region of reversed command’. It means that from best glide speed to minimum flying speed, a higher power setting is required to maintain a slower speed, which happens because from best glide to minimum speed, overall drag increases (see chapter 11 pg 11 in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge). With every knot slower in this range, overall drag increases. However, this term ‘region of reversed command’ is frequently interpreted to mean that pitch and power ‘reverse’ rolls in this speed range. Not possible. The thrust and lift vectors are fixed in place – they are not adjustable as with a V22 Osprey. In a typical single engine general aviation aircraft, the maximum force of the thrust vector is approximately 25% of the weight, so there’s no way that power can control the altitude. On approaches, it may seem that power does control altitude. But that’s because the propeller slipstream gets involved, as long as the airplane is trimmed properly. When the power is increased, the propeller slipstream creates a stronger downward pressure on the tail surfaces, increases the angle of attack, and then you have some upward movement of the airplane (like when you do a go-around). It’s an illusion that power controlled altitude – the reality is the increased lift vector did. I had an interesting flight with someone in a Cherokee Six. He got low on final (red-over-red) and increased power. However the only change was an increase in speed of ten knots – we continued red-over-red. After the flight he was left scratching his head saying he didn’t understand why the increased power didn’t get us back up to the glideslope. That airplane has a heavy engine and a shorter leverage arm to the tail. Or maybe he wasn’t trimmed out. For whatever reason the pitch didn’t change and he didn’t correct the altitude – could have been extremely dangerous had there been an obstacle or a line of flight short of the runway.

      Reply
      • Jen
        Jen says:

        Thank you for your response, Warren Webb Jr. I read up on ‘region of reveresed command’ – thank you. I refer to your comment: “When the power is increased, the propeller slipstream creates a stronger downward pressure on the tail surfaces, increases the angle of attack, and then you have some upward movement of the airplane (like when you do a go-around).” It is also stated in the Airplane Flying Handbook that the increased propwash over the wing behind the propeller also provides an immediate boost in lift that also helps slow the descent rate (trivial; however, worth mentioning). It also states that power may be added to accelerate the airplane, to increase lift without increasing the AOA, and to slow the descent to an acceptable rate. As such, power application in this instance claims to increase airspeed AND reduce the rate of descent. Interesting stuff!

        Reply
  12. Marty Sacks
    Marty Sacks says:

    Wow Jen, great question! In my view that’s right up there with “which is the better airplane… high wing or low wing?”

    To be honest I’ve exclusively taught this as “pitch to control airspeed” but I am going to being doing a concentrated amount of primary instruction early this summer and intend to use the “aiming point for pitch attitude” method instead.

    Why the change you ask? Some of my more experienced CFI friends tell me the aiming point method is a bit more intuitive for a brand new student. I’ve watched early primary students struggle so I want to try it the other way to see if my results line up with the experience of my mentors.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Laird
      Jennifer Laird says:

      Yes Marty, it is a ripper of a question! And the reason why I asked it was because I got pulled up on my senior instructor renewal just recently, for telling the testing officer to use power to control airspeed on final approach. They argued that power should be used to control the rate of descent and pitch used to control airspeed. however, in my experience, if I were to teach the latter, the aiming point would not remain constant in the windscreen leading to an unstable approach and a possible messy landing. How do you find your student’s landings using the pitch to control airspeed method?

      I would love to hear how you get on with trying the aiming point method. We might convert you! ;)

      Reply

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