How to fly a (visual) pattern

A pattern can be flown in different ways. First of all, you will be cleared to fly a left or right hand pattern. This is straightforward: if you are cleared to make a left hand pattern all your turns will be to the left and if you are cleared to fly a right hand pattern all your turns will be to the right. To inform the tower that you want to remain in the pattern you will communicate when you request take off: “callsign XXX ready for take off runway XX, remaining in the pattern”

What does a pattern look like?
This is an example of a left hand pattern

Mostly you will be flying patterns without an approach controller so you will be in touch with the tower controller at all times. He has the possibility to control your pattern by the following instructions:

  • Extend upwind

  • Turn left / right downwind

  • Extend downwind

  • I’ll call your base

  • Turn left /right base

  • Maintain best forward speed

  • Maintain slowest practical speed

  • Maintain present speed

  • Speed at your discretion

All of these instructions are meant to maintain a safe separation from the other traffic. Without these instructions, you as a pilot are expected to maintain your own separation.

Spacing / sequencing instructions:
Extend upwind: This means that you should maintain the departure runway heading until ATC calls you to turn.

Turn left / right downwind: After you take off you will need to get to the downwind leg. This is done by making a 180 degrees turn to the left or to the right depending on which side the tower cleared you to fly your pattern.

Extend downwind: When instructed to extend downwind you have to extend the downwind leg and pay attention to traffic around you. The controller is giving you the responsibility to maintain a safe distance from other traffic and you are free to turn base when you think it is ready. This does not mean you can turn when you get this instruction as there is a reason why you should extend your downwind.

I’ll call your base: Tower informs you to extend the downwind leg but he will tell you when to turn base, in other words at this point ATC will take care of your separation with any other traffic.

Turn left / right base: This call can come at any time. It can come after the controller told you “I’ll call your base” but he can also just tell you to turn base at any point while you are on downwind. After you receive this call you don’t have to wait for another call while on base to turn final. This is up to the PIC.

Make a 360 left / right: From your present position make a 360 degree turn to the left or the right. Don’t make this turn with a bank angle of 90 degrees. A minimum of 1 minute for this turn should be fine, in real life turning an airplane is done by the autopilot with a speed of 3 degrees per second. This means making a 360 will take 360 / 3 = 120 seconds = 2 minutes

Speed instructions by tower:
Maintain best forward speed: When getting this instruction it can be a bit tricky. It all depends on your configuration and your position what your “best forward speed” is. When you fly on a downwind leg and you are flying in clean configuration it is much higher than when you are on final at 1000 feet AAL, in landing configuration with your landing gear down. ATC should NOT give you this instruction 5NM or less from landing. Most important to realize when getting this instruction is that ATC wants you to increase the speed; to what speed is totally up to you as PIC, Pilot In Command.

Maintain slowest practical speed: This call is also a bit tricky-it is the same as the “maintain best forward speed” as it all depends on your configuration. The more flaps you have the slower you can fly. Most important to realize when getting this instruction is that ATC wants you to reduce the speed; to what speed is totally up to you as PIC.

Maintain present speed: This is the most logical one, maintain your current speed.

Speed at your discretion: You can disregard any previous ATC speed instructions and fly the speed you like.

Other instructions by tower:

Descent to pattern altitude: This means you should descend to 1500feet AAL, Above Aerodrome Level. You will read more about this later.

Cleared to land: You are cleared to land ONLY, this instruction can come with a number, IE: You are cleared to land, #2”. Maintain your own separation and happy landing!

Cleared for the option, after the option make left / right pattern: You are cleared to do what you want, make a full stop landing, a touch and go, a fly by or something else. After the option you join the pattern again to the left or the right.

Always keep a lookout for traffic in the pattern, as being PIC are responsible for the separation most of the time. The tower controller will send you a sequence number and you are expected to follow this order. It is very easy to see on the map where you are and you can count the airplanes in front of you. For example, if you are #3 that means there are 2 airplanes in front of you. It is made easier when the tower tells you “number 3, traffic to follow is on right downwind”. Now you know the exact location of the traffic to follow so you can look on the map and keep the traffic in sight at all times.

When you are cleared to land / for the option and you are #1 then you have to decide yourself when to turn base and / or final.

The second option you have to fly a pattern is under control with approach. This is easier as ATC will give you radar vectors for your downwind / base legs and altitudes so you don’t have to worry about separation from other traffic.

Some tips on flying a pattern:

  • Do not fly your downwind leg at 250 knots, use a maximum speed of around 180-200 knots.
  • While turning base reduce your speed to around 160-180 knots. The slower you fly your baseturn the more time you have to establish yourself on final.
  • Do not turn downwind with a steep turn, you will need some space from the runway to establish yourself later and to make it easier for yourself while turning base / final.
  • Do not overshoot the runway centerline, especially not while flying a pattern on an airport with parallel runways.

Flying a pattern with a JET:
Normally a visual pattern is flown at 1500ft AAL, Above Aerodrome Level. The base turn should start 45 seconds after passing abeam the downwind threshold ( + / - 1 second /kt of head/tailwind). This means that if you have a 5 knots headwind you will need to extend your downwind leg by 5 seconds so you will fly it for 50 seconds. If you have a 10 knots tailwind you will need to reduce it by 10 seconds so you will get a downwind leg of 35 seconds.

Initially the rate of descent should be around 400 ft/min, this should be increased to 700ft/min when established on the correct descent path. For a reference you can use the ILS glide slope or the GPS glide path indicator.

Here a detailed example of a pattern for the 737NG.

Any questions, as always don’t hesitate to ask. Good luck and I hope this information was helpful.

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Very nice tutorial!


If you have requested to depart straight-out, how long do you have to hold that heading until you can turn? Also, if you are going for a touch and go, how many degrees of flaps do you use, and how much do you retract on the runway?

Thanks, Henrik.


Great questions:

  • I don’t think there is really any rule for “straight out departure” but you can always turn within 15degrees left or right of the centerline as this is not called a turn when you depart. If you want to turn more just wait until you pass the pattern altitude which is mostly 1500 feet.
  • The flaps question really depends on the aircraft you fly. For the 737NG it is shown in the bottom, you land with flaps 30 and you take off again with flaps 15. This can be used for any jet I think.

Thank you!


Best tutorial on this I’ve seen. Thank you…


@azeeuwnl As requested a while ago :)


Awesome tutorial; answered a few of my own questions, especially where jet altitudes are concerned. Thanks!


Excellent tutorial, thanks!


How long did it take you to wright this

Around 30 min i would say.


I always get thrown off by upwind & downwind. Are this fixed directions or are they actually related to runway wind direction?


Easy to remember:

  • Upwind: runway heading
  • Downwind: parallel to the runway, or 180 degrees difference with your landing runway. So for runway 27 your downwind will be heading 090. Which is the opposite of runway 27.

Brilliant ! Even I understand that !


Wow. Amazing, thank you for your time!!


Much appreciated for this…needs to be posted on all IF groups…


Great, thanks for useful tips


Good tutorial, nicely done! Thx


No surprise, another brilliant tutorial!!


@Aernout, On Unicom, when do you send a report that you’re on final? Is there a standard distance from touchdown? Is it the same in a pattern vs coming straight in?

Thank you, I see people reporting all over the place in IF!