Everything I know about flying
I learned in the traffic pattern
Last time I was practicing touch and goes at Morristown, New Jersey, I concluded while flying the long, long, long downwind leg in a Cessna 172 that the game show I despise the most is Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, which proves that yeah, you pretty much aren’t. Hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, of “You may be a redneck if…” fame, the show pits a psychotically verbose contestant head-to-head against your average adorable fifth-grader with braces and an IQ of 190.
In one respect it’s like the Tonight Show’s “Jaywalking” segments, in which Leno strolls around outside and asks the silicone-enhanced, “When was the War of 1812?” (No, it wasn’t the year 1200 A.D.) In another respect it’s like All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a popular book of essays by Robert Fulghum whose whole thesis is that you pretty much know everything you need by the time you’re 5 or graduated from kindergarten, whichever comes first. In my case I was 7.
By the time I turned base, I figured out that all I know about flying I learned in the traffic pattern. See, most of flying comes down to two things: heading in the direction you want to go, and managing your speed. That’s like my first day of kindergarten, when Mrs. Lighter pointed out the bathroom and yelled at me not to run.
So you strap in, fire it up, adjust settings and instruments, turn on radios, and check the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS). You call ground control, get taxi instructions, and you read them back. You taxi and line up for takeoff; you get cleared for takeoff. You firewall it, steer it down the runway until the wings take hold, and shoot for VY, best rate of climb speed, unless you’re told to do otherwise. (That’s what all those noise abatement signs are about.)
And usually you're doing all this with a crosswind, just like in real life. Climbing in a crosswind means that you turn the airplane into the wind to compensate for any downwind drift. Yeah, they do all that in every airplane from a basic trainer to a Boeing 737.
Downwind, you hit pattern altitude and maintain it and your direction; you crab into the wind; you report your position to the tower; and you fight to hold the airplane on a steady course. Welcome to cross-country flying. Three or four patterns either leaves you bored or being tossed around and cursing the day you took up flying.
After turning base you set up the best glide rate and smoothly descend toward final. Now you’re practicing controlled descent. Overhead at Morristown, I see airliners flying into Newark Liberty Airport doing the same.
The tower clears you for landing, you answer, and configure the airplane for touchdown. You stay above best glide speed and set the flaps in inverse proportion to the headwind—more headwind, less flap—and pay close attention to airspeed, altitude, traffic, and distance to touchdown. Then you turn final, which is sacred, like the Sabbath, which means that while you monitor airspeed, altitude, and touchdown distance, you’re only allowed to make minor corrections.
Off in the distance, the Newark-bound jets are doing the same thing, one after the other. The first aims for the precision approach path indicator lights. Newark has a few more PAPIs than Morristown, but the message is the same: Fly so that you see two white lights and two red ones.
Beyond the threshold you touch down as smoothly as possible, main gear first, touching lightly and gently, and pulling the nosewheel with it, maybe letting off a slight tweak. OK, that’s just fantasizing. Sometimes it bounces a little or hits the pavement too fast, and that’s nothing but embarrassment—like kindergarten. You shove on the power and enjoy the playtime surge of the beast, which means every airplane up to and including the Concorde.
So once you have the traffic pattern down, the rest is all the same. Just like kindergarten, where you learn the most important stuff like sharing, standing in line, and washing your hands after going to the bathroom, the pattern is all there is to know about flying.