Ground reference maneuvers – rectangular course

Rectangular Course














Today on Smart Flight Training we'll discuss the final Private level ground reference maneuver - The Rectangular Course.

Previously, we've discussed the other two Private Pilot level ground reference maneuvers - turns around a point and s-turns.

The Rectangular Course is meant to simulate the legs of a traffic pattern: crosswind, downwind, base, and final/upwind, as well as the entry into the pattern: a 45-degree leg to downwind.

As with the other ground reference maneuvers, this one can be broken down into a number of important points.

You'll need to find an appropriate location to do this maneuver, which often will be a field, but can be anything that gives you a good, visible rectangle to fly around.  Make sure you have a good option for a place to land in case it becomes necessary (this is actually part of the evaluation of your performance of the maneuvers on your checkride).

As with all flight training maneuvers (stalls, steep turns, slow flight, anything), before entering this maneuver, clear the area using clearing turns, then enter the downwind at a 45-degree angle (point 1 on the above image).

You will start this maneuver a certain distance from the field you have chosen (or the quarry, or the pattern of roads, really anything that creates a rectangle large enough to fly around that allows you to have a period of level flight between the turns).  The distance you should be is generally between 1/2 a mile and 1-mile, depending on the strength of the wind.  Your goal is to remain the same distance from all sides of the field, correcting for the wind's effect on the airplane's course over the ground.

Below are descriptions of each point in a good rectangular course:

Point 1) Entry to the maneuver - a 45-degree entry to the downwind

Point 2) Turn from downwind to crosswind - because your groundspeed is highest on downwind, you will start this turn with the steepest bank (not a "steep turn," just the steepest turn compared to all the other turns you will do during the maneuver).  You will then slowly reduce the bank to a medium bank.  Additionally, you will turn more than 90-degrees, because you need to set up a crab angle into the wind so your ground track parallels the edge of the field on the "base" leg.

Point 3) Base Leg - here you are maintaining the distance from the field by crabbing the aircraft into the wind.  Adjust the crab angle if you find that you are getting closer or further away from the edge of the field.

Point 4) Turn from base to "final / upwind" - start this turn at a medium bank, and reduce the bank to shallow to maintain your distance from the field.  You'll turn less than 90-degrees, because you are already crabbed into the wind.  You bank becomes shallower during this turn because your groundspeed is slowing to it's slowest speed of the maneuver during the upwind leg.

Point 5) Upwind Leg - this is the leg with the slowest groundspeed, as you are flying directly into the wind. There is also no need for a crab since your nose is pointed directly into the wind; however, small corrections can be made to maintain your distance from the field if your turn into this leg was not perfect.

Point 6) Turn from upwind to crosswind - Due to your slow groundspeed on upwind, this turn starts shallow and gradually increases to a medium bank as you reach a parallel ground course.  Don't forget about the wind!  The turn will be less than 90-degrees, because you need to crab into the wind.

Point 7) Crosswind Leg - Your nose will be pointed away from the field so your ground track remains parallel to the edge of the field.  Again, adjust your crab angle if you find that you are getting further away or closer to the edge of the field.

Point 8) Turn from crosswind to downwind - This turn starts at a medium bank and increases to a relatively steep bank as your groundspeed increases, again so that you maintain the correct distance from the field for the downwind leg.

Point 9) Downwind Leg - because the wind is now directly behind you, your groundspeed is the fastest it will be during this leg of the maneuver.  No crab angle is needed.

You will be expected to be able to perform this maneuver (and all ground reference maneuvers) making both left turns and right turns, so you'll practice both directions.

Also, keep in mind that these maneuvers are not about perfection, but about recognition and correction of deviation.  In other words, if you find that you need to change your crab angle or steepen or lessen your bank to maintain your distance from the field, do it!  Your examiner will prefer that you correct any issues as soon as possible rather then let them continue and hope s/he doesn't notice.  Trust me, s/he will!

The other criteria for this maneuver, just like the other ground reference maneuvers, is to maintain a constant airspeed and altitude as well.  Your altitude should be between 600 to 1000 feet above ground level (AGL), and should be held within 150 feet.  Airspeed should be appropriate for your aircraft (shoot for a safe airspeed at or below maneuvering speed (Va)), and be held within 10 knots indicated airspeed (IAS).

If it has not been obvious from the above discussion, this maneuver is getting you ready to fly airport traffic patterns safely and consistently.  Practice makes perfect, and this is a maneuver that you will want to get right, because the ability to correct for the wind and fly a good pattern will directly affect your landings - which is generally what you will work on immediately after learning these maneuvers!


Please comment and tell us about your experience learning to fly the rectangular course. Do you have any tips or tricks to make it simple and consistent? Do you have any horror stories about it?

Andrew Hartley is a certificated flight instructor in Columbus, Ohio. Follow Smart Flight Training on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+!

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Phraseology: Make Short Approach

So you're flying into a towered airport. You've been listening to other traffic and their clearances, and you hear that there is another aircraft on an 8-mile final, and you are abeam the numbers on downwind.

What are you thinking? Are you going to have to extend your downwind? Man, that will put you WAY out farther then you normally like for flying the pattern... Can the guy on final do a 360 to give you space? SOMETHING has to give, or you'll end up trying to share the same space at the same time - never a good thing.

Just then, you hear tower: "November two-one-six-five papa, cleared to land runway one-two, make short approach."


"Make short approach" simply means that tower wants you to cut your downwind short and turn early for your base leg (see our traffic patterns post for more information). Air traffic control generally assumes that you will cut your normal distance between the numbers and your base leg in half, but depending on your aircraft, the runway length, etc, you could "make short approach" immediately abeam the numbers or even further down the runway.

You might hear ATC ask you to "tighten your approach" instead of saying "make short approach." Also, a non-standard statement, but still one you might hear, is "direct to the numbers." ALternatively (or in addition to) any of the above phrases, ATC may also ask you to "keep your speed up," which is self-explanatory, and is another way for ATC to keep safe spacing between aircraft on approach.

The important things to keep in mind when you are asked by air traffic control to make short approach are:

  1. you will need to descend at a steeper angle than normal, meaning that your airspeed will be higher than you'd like if you are not prepared and planning ahead for that (get power out and flaps in earlier than normal to compensate).
  2. you may need more runway than you normally use
    • because of your higher airspeed from a steeper descent (see above)
    • because you may touch down further down the runway than normal
  3. there is traffic behind you, probably only within a few miles, so you'll want to clear the runway as soon as possible - don't loiter!

Above all, ALWAYS keep in mind that you are the pilot in command (PIC) - if you don't believe that you can do what ATC is asking you to do safely, don't do it! Tell them you are unable, and that you would rather do a 360, or a 270 to base, or extend your downwind. Never, ever put yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable or unsafe, even if ATC has requested it of you.

Think of the radio as an inflight, electronic suggestion box... but not the boss. That would be you. Act like it.

Start the below video at about 1:37 to really see the "approach" being shortened...

Have you ever been asked to make short approach? How did you handle it? Did you do it? Did you request an amended clearance from ATC? What do you think about short approaches in general?

Andrew C. Hartley is a Certificated Flight Instructor in Columbus, Ohio.

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Fundamentals: Airport Traffic Patterns

Highway Traffic ImageYou're in your car, getting ready to merge on to the freeway.  You accelerate, turn on your blinker, check your mirrors and blind spot, adjust your speed to fit in when someone makes a gap for you (if you're lucky), and merge.  Now on the freeway, you find yourself behind a slower-moving vehicle.  You merge left and pass on that side, and then back to the right lane when you are done.

Traffic patterns on the road are pretty predictable.  You might have one-way streets or two-way streets, probably speed limit signs and speed bumps, stop signs, stop lights, yield signs, construction barrels, lane markings, and on and on.  You know these rules because you studied them and have experience with them.

This is no different from the rules of flight, only there aren't lines painted in the sky (on the airport is a completely different story), nor are there speed limit signs or lights up there.

But there ARE rules to follow - and sometimes just "suggestions" (or what folks in the business world might call "best practices").

Let's discuss airport traffic patterns.  On the road, you know generally what to expect of other drivers - where they are apt to be, what speed they are probably going, and what they are most likely going to do next.  This is all good information to know, as you can base YOUR next move on what you know and expect others are doing.

The same thing applies in the air.

Did you know that most mid-air collisions occur in the vicinity of an airport?  It's true.  This is why it is critical to understand what is (or should be) happening around airports when you are arriving or departing from one.

Using the airport runway as a guide, there are six possible "legs" that planes might be flying around the runway.

"But wait!" you say, "How can there be six legs when a runway only has four sides?  Shouldn't there only be four legs around a runway?"  Correct you are; but part of a traffic pattern at an airport has to do with altitude (or at least how altitude is changing and what the pilot aims to do on that leg). Bear with me:

Chapter 4, section 3 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) discusses traffic patterns:

  • Upwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing.
  • Crosswind leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its takeoff end.
  • Downwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the opposite direction of landing.
  • Base leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its approach end and extending from the downwind leg to the intersection of the extended runway centerline.
  • Final approach. A flight path in the direction of landing along the extended runway centerline from the base leg to the runway.
  • Departure leg. The flight path which begins after takeoff and continues straight ahead along the extended runway centerline. The departure climb continues until reaching a point at least 1/2 mile beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet of the traffic pattern altitude.

Airport Traffic Pattern

In the image above, you can see a standard traffic pattern - which means the airplane is making left hand turns, and is landing (and taking off) from left to right as you see it here on the page.  The blue color lines mean the plane is at a constant altitude, green means the plane is climbing, and red means the plane is descending. The only exception to these color patterns would be if a plane went from upwind to crosswind (then all of the crosswind leg would be maintaining altitude), versus from departure to crosswind (in which case the aircraft would be climbing in crosswind).

You can see why upwind, downwind, and crosswind are named such, knowing that aircraft always take off and land into, or against, the wind (upwind).  I like to think that base leg is called "base" because it is really the foundation of your landing (the "base" of a house is its foundation - and if it isn't right, the whole house will never be right) - if the base leg isn't right, your whole landing will suffer for it.  Final approach is just that - final.  It's your last chance to get the approach together before you touch down.

If you use the same lines, but imagine the plane going the opposite direction, you can imagine a "right-hand" pattern.  This is technically "non-standard," but that does not mean that it happens less.  In fact, many airports use "right traffic" as their pattern (you might even see right traffic when taking off in one direction, and left traffic when taking off in the opposite direction) - so it pays to do your research before you go to a new airport!

Do you have anything to add to this discussion of airport traffic patterns? Take your turn in the comments!

Andrew Hartley is a Certificated Flight Instructor in Columbus, Ohio

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