Straight and Level Flying

Straight and Level Flying

You’ve reached about 800 ft. AGL and are about 1/2 mile from the airport. It’s time to turn to the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. Remember that it’s a coordinated turn. Also remember that your altitude indicator measures in feet above mean sea level (MSL) so add the airport altitude to the AGL-pattern altitude to determine what the altitude indicator should read as you traverse the airport pattern. Continue climbing until you reach pattern altitude, typically 1,000 ft. AGL.

Straight-and-level flying simply means cutting back on the engine speed to what’s called the cruise speed. It is the airspeed at which all four forces (lift, weight, thrust, drag) are equal and your plane flies straight ahead with wings level. Much of your flying and certainly the easiest flying you’ll do is straight and level.

The straight part means flying so that the aircraft is flying in a straight line forward. Make sure you are maintaining a constant course on the magnetic compass or heading indicator.

Instruments during straight and level flight

The level part means keeping the wings equidistance above (high-wing aircraft) or below (low-wing aircraft) the horizon. Your plane’s attitude indicator (if your plane has one) will help, but it’s better to simply look out the side windows and make appropriate control adjustments:

  • If the left wing is low, apply light right aileron and coordinated right rudder pressure.
  • If the right wing is low, apply light left aileron and coordinated left rudder pressure.

One of the skills you must develop for the FAA practice test, as well as for your own flying, is holding a heading during straight-and-level flight. First, make sure your heading indicator is adjusted to match the heading on the magnetic compass. In fact, you shouldn’t even attempt to set the heading indicator until you’re in straight-and-level flight and the compass (bouncing around in a liquid) has settled down for an accurate reading. If you don’t have a heading indicator, you maintain your heading by using the magnetic compass.

A magnetic compass can wobble around a bit but remember, magnetic compasses have been successfully used to guide airplanes from shortly after the Wright Brothers first flew. The best way to hold a heading with a mag compass is to pick a distant object on the ground and fly toward it. Check the mag compass often and if a correction in your heading is needed, adjust to a new target object on the ground.Knowledge Test

For the practical test you will need to maintain a heading within 10 degrees (plus or minus) of the assigned heading. That is, if the assigned heading is 180 degrees you’d better not drift beyond a heading of 170 or 190 degrees. In addition, you’ll need to maintain an altitude within 100 feet of the assigned altitude. If the assigned altitude is 3,500 ft. MSL, you must stay in the range of 3,400 to 3,600 ft. MSL. In fact, your instructor won’t let you take the practice test until you have proven you can do this consistently.

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One more point about the downwind leg of the traffic pattern: If you’re flying in to another airport, standard operating procedure is to join the downwind leg at a 45-degree angle at about the midpoint of the downwind leg. At 45 degrees you can see and be seen by other aircraft more easily. If you’re flying into a controlled airport you must ask permission to land from air traffic control (ATC). If you’re flying into an uncontrolled airport, you must announce your intention to pilots in the area this way: “Evergreen traffic, Piper two-7 niner-sierra entering downwind for full-stop landing runway one-five Evergreen.”

"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide