AOPA Air Safety Foundation Executive Director Bruce Landsberg likes tight traffic patterns.
It's my pleasure to live under the traffic pattern of a general aviation airport. Only a pilot could say that. Some of the neighbors perceive just noise, but for those of us enthralled by aviation it's even better than hearing Margaritaville at a Jimmy Buffett concert. If you're not a Parrothead, my apologies. Invariably and almost subconsciously I grade the arrivals to various runways. There is great satisfaction in the well-flown pattern, but many times I have to wonder what the pilots are thinking or if they take any real interest in the precision of their flying.
Several things offend my sensitivities and I probably should just go inside and read, but better pilots are always working at being better. The holier-than-thou crowd would likely demand that these pilots just rip up their certificates, but I believe these souls can be saved.
Keep it tight. There are so many good reasons to stay close to the airport. The tree-infested airport that once served as my home base offered no good off-airport landing site. My instructor periodically observed that it would be a darn shame to land in the trees when a runway was within gliding distance. Not being a student of physics at the time but looking at the diameter of the trunks and the height of the trees, I could see merit in his argument. In a Piper-Cub-versus-tree match-up, the decision would likely go to the tree.
In those days the typical approach was power off with a spot landing every time. It's different now, especially in heavier aircraft, and I acknowledge that engines are very reliable. For bigger aircraft, chop and drop is not conducive to engine longevity, but if you're high and close enough it's nice to know that a hiccup won't put you in the rough.
Some pilots are not swayed by safety, so how about economics? Cost is always an issue for those of us who'd like to fly more, and landings are pure gold — being the greatest thrill to some. If you assume seven landings per hour by flying a wide pattern, wouldn't it be neat to get one or two more landings by shortening up the circuit (also assuming that there aren't three "fly-it-wides" ahead of you)? If the hourly aircraft cost is $100, or even $60, each landing is worth $14.29 or $8.57, respectively. That's more than a Happy Meal.
For pilots wearing headsets, noise in the cockpit is tolerable; in fact, it's a lot better than silence — see my previous comment regarding trees. But to many neighbors, airplane noise is a huge irritation. It is for me only because I would much rather be airborne making it than on the ground wishing I was aloft. Yes, the airport was there first and the bozos who allowed residential zoning too close to the airport and the bozos who bought houses thinking that airplanes would never fly over their house are naive. The sad reality is that there are many more NIMBY (not in my back yard) thinkers than pilots and it's best not to stir up the locals if possible. It keeps AOPA's airport department and Airport Support Network volunteers very busy. The closer the pattern is to the runway, the smaller the noise footprint. It's worth noting that most singles throttled back to "pattern" power are nearly silent compared with "Mr. Drop the Flaps (and/or Gear)" who is then forced to apply massive amount of power to maintain altitude until it really is time to descend.
OK, so perhaps safety, economics, or airport protection does not impress some pilots. Perhaps image and reputation make a difference. The "Master of the Skies" flying a wide pattern in a light aircraft may imagine himself in a Lear or a Boeing. To the pro it's the mark of an amateur to fly a wider pattern than the aircraft needs. Tight patterns and the energy management that goes with them are a joy to behold, both on the ground and in the air. It also leads to consistently better landings, if that's any consideration.
Instructors set the bar on how patterns are flown, and pilots fly how they are taught. Surprisingly, a fouled-up pattern isn't just the domain of newbies flying basic trainers. Some of the high and the mighty flying some pretty fancy equipment haven't mastered basic energy management either. They've never been shown how or have gotten sloppy.
Wind, weight, power, and drag all play a role in getting to the runway with élan. The game is to progressively reduce power all the way to the runway and add drag appropriately. If power was needed at any point it wasn't as elegant as it might have been. The more power needed, the more points are deducted. Remember the rectangular pattern — that old ground reference maneuver introduced in primary training? That's what the pattern should look like, and let's start without wind. Reduce power initially to a "pattern" power setting. This should happen before roaring into the downwind at 20 knots above gear and flap speed. In most aircraft it will be somewhere around 1,500 to 1,700 rpm or 15 to 17 inches of manifold pressure. It will vary with weight and if the aircraft is fully loaded you'll need a bit more. The speed will begin to drop off nicely as you maintain pattern altitude and slide into downwind. Downwind would be about one-half mile laterally from the runway — giving you just enough time to roll wings level, clear the final approach, and roll onto final.
Do not push in the prop control here if the airplane is so equipped. That just winds up the rpm because the prop is still in the governing range. You'll hear it, especially on the ground, because the engine will growl and whine as the prop tips go subsonic. Wait until on final, at greatly reduced power, before pushing up the prop. Done right, there should be no change in rpm.
The landing gear should come down normally on downwind adjacent the landing point, and so far we've made no power change, just increased drag. Fixed gear? Reduce the power to bleed the speed. Approach flaps may be lowered when the speed is below the extension limit, and it's time to give up some altitude. When the point of desired landing is 45 degrees behind the wing tip — no farther — turn base. Another small power reduction, a few inches (or a few hundred rpm in an aircraft with a fixed-pitch prop), is needed and additional flap.
Very important: Before turning final, look to the outside or up the final approach course because we're entering the worst area for midair collisions. You don't want to be run down by the straight in or the guy who is logging cross-country time while in the pattern. On final, when the runway is made, go to landing flaps and gradually reduce power to carry just a little and then squeeze off the last little bit before touchdown. On most singles a power-off landing usually works better. If the aircraft floats more than a runway stripe or two you carried too much speed/power. Next time around use 100 fewer rpm and several knots less airspeed, and you'll be amazed at what just the right combination does.
If there's wind or another aircraft in front of you that's flying wide, don't give up altitude too soon, and be gentle with flaps. When following, match the speed of the lead aircraft or slow down even more. That means a bigger speed reduction sooner. Grade yourself to see if it doesn't make for a quieter, tighter pattern. Flying with another pilot? See who can make the quietest, tightest approach, within the bounds of safety, of course. You'll be much sharper and the neighbors will be happier.