It’s a nice day out and it’s time to get out and fly a Cessna 172 around the pattern. Here’s how to fly a plane.
This complete guide on how to fly a plane includes weather briefing, pre-flight and ground operations information as well as a tutorial on flight in the traffic pattern. We’ll take a look at my best practices for these procedures and show you how to fly a plane on a sunny day.
I grew up at the local municipal airport. My dad was a flight instructor there, and I’ve always loved planes. I logged thousands of hours on flight simulators so by the time I was legal to fly, it was only natural that I started on my Private Pilot’s license. I soloed at 3 hours total time and I’ve never looked back. Now forgive me if I go on here. We’re talking about planes after all.
While everything you do in flying plays an important role in the safety and enjoyment of this great activity, the pre-flight routine sets the stage for all of it. I’ve been lauded for my strenuous pre-flight routine, detecting even the smallest issues with the airplane, and I’m proud of it. I make every stride to be sure my plane is safe. This process starts well before we even set foot on the airport tarmac and we’ll explore the pre-flight procedures that I believe are vital for starting your flight off on the right foot.
Weather briefings are the single most important portion of your preflight routine. I check and double check the weather before jumping in the car to head down to the airport. There are a couple of sources I’ll use for initial weather reporting.
iPhone or Android?
The first is the standard weather app on my phone. A general overview on the day’s weather in my airport’s area and destination help determine whether we’re even flying. While I’m here, I’ll take note of a few bits of information including: temperature, wind direction, chance of rain, and visibility.
Temperature is one that my pilot friends sometimes laugh at me for given we fly in Southern California and at sea level, but I like to know how hot it is for the sake of turbulence. I often fly with less than eager passengers and hot days in the early afternoon tend to be bumpiest.
Wind direction is important for flight planning. We take off and land into the wind and we adjust our planned speeds according to what the winds are doing, so it’s important to know this information. If it’s really windy, I most likely won’t fly. I don’t fly high performance aircraft and the prospect of fighting winds aloft isn’t appealing.
Chance of rain is important for a few reasons. With rain comes clouds, and I’m not inclined to fly in IFR weather all the time. Rain also makes things slick, especially in the first couple of hours of rain. Runways, taxiways, the ramp all become a little more difficult to navigate. When I first started flying, I’d hit the brakes and occasionally slide around. It’s not the worst thing, just something to be mindful of.
Visibility is huge for me. Flying in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas where smog is a definite issue complicates this. I like seeing where I’m going and part of the fun of flying is the sight seeing itself. At the risk of sounding spoiled, anything less than 5 miles, I might not be having as much fun and I might cancel the flight. I’ve noticed smog can intensify at a moment’s notice and 5 miles is too close to the VFR minimums for my taste.
The weather app is no replacement for certified information. It’s helpful to determine preliminary conditions and I use it as such. We’ll look at certifiable and official information sources next.
My second and preferred source for preflight weather information is the airport’s weather service. The Automated Weather Observation Service (AWOS) provides up to date weather information that’s geared for us pilots. AWOS is so good that if there’s an airport near a destination I’m driving to - not flying - I’ll sometimes call to get a scope on the local conditions.
AWOS provides key weather observation information including: Barometric pressure, altimeter setting, density altitude, wind speed, wind gusts, temperature, dew point, visibility and any variability in this measurement, sky condition, cloud ceiling height, liquid precipitation accumulation, precipitation type, thunderstorm detection, freezing rain and runway surface conditions.
It’s a lot.
But the great thing is that you’ll know what you’re working with before take off. This provides the granular information we need to determine go, no-go conditions.
While this information is specific to our needs, there’s an important addition to the weather observation we gathered through our weather app and that’s the altimeter setting. We use this measurement to determine what we set our altimeter to and it’s based on barometric pressure.
I can’t stress the importance of this measurement. I’ve flown with pilots who set their altimeters to airfield elevation with no regard for local barometric pressure and it scares me. This should be a last resort and it’s not a best practice. Inclement weather will complicate a flight where the altimeter isn’t on the correct setting, so make sure you note this measurement!
Sky condition and cloud ceiling height are important measurements in the AWOS report as well. This will determine whether you’re IFR or VFR and help set the stage for the type of flying you’ll be doing.
On clear days with great visibility, I’ll stretch my legs out and might do a little sight seeing while I’m on my way somewhere. Overcast days? I might not be able to leave my local area without encountering IFR conditions.
I mentioned another weather observation service and that’s the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS). ASOS reports provide more depth as this station is sophisticated when compared to the AWOS. It serves as a primary observing network within the United States and offers weather information on an hourly basis but may issue information at special intervals as conditions change.
ASOS will provide information on the intensity of precipitation, more specific visibility conditions including haze and fog, and can track pressure changes, shifts in wind conditions and total accumulated precipitation.
I don’t fly IFR conditions often, but ASOS is nice to have in these situations. When the weather is awful, I like to know as much as possible so I can plan for it and determine whether tomorrow is a better day to go flying.
Enough about weather, let’s get to the airport.
The pre-flight inspection is fun for me. I’m thorough and I’ll double check everything. I think we sometimes underestimate how much goes on before we even get into the air. But here’s a walk through of my pre-flight routine.
Typical pre-flight inspection includes:
- Right Wing
- Left Wing
My standard procedure is to check the general condition of the plane during the walk around. I’ll look at all the surfaces, make sure no ice has accumulated, listen for rocks, debris and check every gap and opening for potential wildlife (You’d be surprised at the number of cats found within wings, or mice found in engine nacelles).
We’ll check the control surfaces on our walk around so the control wheel lock needs to come off. Master switch is flipped on for a quick fuel quantity check and to lower the flaps, then turned off. Check the baggage door and make sure it closes.
The tie-down is my first stop here. I have this weird(?) habit of checking the travel of the nose wheel strut by pulling the tail up and down, but it’s not an official procedure by any means.
The rudder is next, and we’ll check to make sure the travel is free and clear in both directions. I’ve encountered stuck rudders on rentals right after they’ve been flown and I’m still amazed that no one felt or noticed the aircraft yawing. These were quick fixes as one of the rudder springs needed replacing.
The elevator is next. Check for free and clear travel in both directions. I also look at the elevator trim tab while moving this surface up and down, there should be slight variation in the angle of the tab as you move the elevator up and down. This could depend on the plane though, for reference we’re preflighting a Cessna 172.
We’ll walk over now and take a look at the trailing edge of the right wing. I walk along the flaps and give them a quick shake, there should be less than a quarter inch of play in them. We’ll check the ailerons next and make sure they move free and clear. I also check the wing tips to make sure they’re intact and the light bulbs aren’t broken.
Remove the tie-down, check the right wheel pressure and it’s now time to strain the fuel. I got in the habit of doing this before every flight, you never know what settles into your fuel, especially after a few weeks of not flying the plane. We’re looking for any impurities, sediment and the proper fuel grade. Avgas has a slight blue hue to it, any other color and this bird will not be flying today.
We’re flying a Cessna today so I’ll hop up on the wing strut and physically check the fuel level. Make sure the cap is secure and you’re good to go.
We’ll open the small hatch on the side of the engine compartment to inspect the engine and check oil levels. We don’t fly with any less than 4 quarts of oil. If we’re flying further than 150 miles, I say fill her up to 6 quarts and leave no doubt that there will be enough oil.
There’s a fuel strain drain knob here as well. Pull it to check for the same impurities, sediment or water we looked for earlier. Cessna’s use a gravity fed fuel system, so it’s important to check the fuel closer to the engine as well.
We’ll check the propeller, spinner next. Make sure there are no nicks and that it’s still attached to the plane. The landing lights need to be clean and in good condition. The propeller wash keeps these clean, but I’ve seen planes sit outside for months and need a nice wipe to clean up the lights.
The air filter is next. Check to make sure there is no debris and that it’s clean.
I mentioned the nose strut earlier. Make sure there is movement and check to make sure it isn’t leaking. If you see red liquid, chances are your strut’s leaking and I’d advise a no-go. Any other color and it’s a definite no-go. Have your A&P check everything out and make sure it’s not an engine oil leak.
There’s a little port on the left hand side of the fuselage that needs to be free and clear. It’s the static source opening and serves as static pressure for flight instruments.
Same drill as the right wing. Check control surfaces, wing tip, remove tie down, wheel pressure and strain your fuel. You’ll also want to check the pitot tube and remove its cover. This is another vital piece of equipment for your pitot static system and serves as a source for airspeed instruments.
There’s also a little hole in the leading edge that needs to be checked. This is your stall warning indicator and for obvious reasons should be free and clear.
We’re done! The plane has been inspected and we’re good to go.
Before We Get Moving
Let’s start her up. Fasten your seatbelts, select both on your fuel selector. The avionics need to be powered off so we don’t damage the equipment with the surge from the engine starter.
There are two knobs, just below the center of the instrument panel in our Cessna 172. Black is throttle, red is mixture.
To start the engine you’ll push the red knob all the way in. This is known as a rich mixture and maximizes the amount of fuel in the fuel/air ratio.
Master switch on and prime the engine. I’ve settled on three strokes in the warm Southern California climate, but it may take more, might take less.
Open your window, hand on the key, push the black throttle in just a bit, yell “Clear Prop!” and turn the key to start.
The starter will whine and the propeller will turn. Let the key go once it’s started and check your oil pressure.
It’ll be loud now and the plane will come alive around you.
I lean my mixture a little for ground operations, especially on the older continental 172’s I’ve flown. This helps keep the engine smooth.
Throw your headset on so you don’t get a headache. It gets loud in here.
With your bird idling, it’s time to get going. Radio procedures are straightforward and I think the world would be a better place if everyone took a page from our book on communication.
The high level structure of dialogue works like this. You make a request, the tower or ground controller acknowledges and gives you permission to proceed or not, and you confirm their response before proceeding.
I can think of several situations where confirming the information I received has saved me.
The structure for a request and response is also straightforward:
- Who you’re reaching out to.
- Where you are.
- Who you are.
- Your request and any pertinent information.
Ground control or tower will respond in the same format. Letting everyone on the frequency know they’re speaking to you, who they are and a response to your request.
It’s already important that you have weather information, but the controller will like to know that you have the latest information so include it. We use the NATO phonetic alphabet for all communication and weather reports are assigned a letter from this alphabet.
We’ll need to tune to the weather briefing frequency and check for advisories and the general conditions of our flight. Once we obtain the information we can make our call to ground control.
An example of a radio call for us as we sit idling in our Cessna, ready to taxi, would be:
“Brown ground, Cessna 992 tango zulu is on the ramp, request taxi to the active runway, with information delta.”
Who you’re talking to, who you are (Tail number as the identifier), where you’re at, your request and the weather briefing you have (Identified by the NATO phonetic alphabet letter assigned to it).
Ground control will respond:
“Cessna 992 tango zulu, Brown ground, taxi to the active runway, via Alpha, Charlie, contact tower when ready.”
Their response: Who they’re talking to, who they are, instructions confirming your request.
“Taxi to the active via alpha charlie, contact tower when ready, 92 tango zulu.”
We often cut off the first portion of our tail ID as it’s unique and saves a little time in communication moving forward.
Quick note on tail numbers. We drop the prefix November as it’s specific to the US and chances are you’re flying an aircraft registered in the states. We also drop the Kilo prefix on our airports as it’s specific to the US. SFO and LAX are examples of this - They’re official registrations are KSFO and KLAX.
Another quick note that the number nine is pronounced “niner” in airplane talk. The reason for this is to avoid confusion between the similar sounding five. Technically five is pronounced “fife” as well, but I haven’t heard it pronounced this way in a while.
Back to flying. We just got the go ahead to start rolling!
We’re idling, our mixture is leaned out a bit.
Planes have a unique way of maneuvering on the ground and it might not feel natural at first. No gas pedal here.
The first thing to note is that directional control is provided through your rudder pedals and directional braking. On our tricycle gear equipped aircraft we have a brake on each of the main landing gear and our pedals hook up to the nose wheel to provide directional control.
If you want to turn right you’ll need to press the right pedal, if you want to turn on a tighter radius, depress the toe portion of the pedal and the right brake will start braking. Same rules apply in the opposite direction. Should you want to stop altogether. Throttle needs to be idle, and you simply press on both toes of your rudder pedals at the same time and the plane will brake to a stop.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can get going.
It always takes a little more throttle to get the plane moving than it does to keep it moving, so give it a good quarter to half throttle to get rolling. The airplane will start forward and once it does you can roll off the throttle a little bit until you get to your desired speed.
The controller gave us clearance to get to the runway via the alpha and charlie taxiway so we’ll need to look for alpha. Each taxiway that isn’t a runway hold short area is marked with a yellow sign denoting the direction of travel and the letter assigned to it. In the case of our fictional flight today, it’s straight ahead and we can make a right onto taxiway alpha. At this point we’ll be looking for taxiway charlie to intersect the runway.
You might have noticed that the ride so far isn’t anything like a car. You feel every bump on the ramp and taxiway and there’s a little extra surface area hanging around so you might feel the wind pushing on the plane. This is par for the course and normal operation in an airplane.
I grew up flying at bumpier airports so I will pull back on the control yoke for up elevator and to keep the propeller a little higher off the ground. Last thing we want is a prop strike.
As we taxi, you hear other aircraft request their clearances, and you should see us cruising by bravo taxiway. This taxiway intersects our active runway at the halfway point so we’ll need to keep going.
There’s charlie. Let’s push on the left pedal to make the turn and bring the throttle back to idle. We’ll need to do a quick run up to make sure everything is good to go.
There’s usually an area to do this off beside the taxiway.
Engine run up involves a magneto and carb heat check to make sure they’re operable. These are done by pushing in the red knob for full rich mixture and pushing the black knob in to advance the throttle to 1700 rpm. You’ll then move the ignition switch between both and R. Both and L. and back to both. There should be a drop in RPM on each magneto but not more than 125 RPM. Absence of a drop in rpm is a no-go situation.
We’ll also check carb heat. Pull the carb heat knob to turn it on and look for a drop in RPM. No drop in RPM is a no-go situation as well. Icing conditions can happen at any time and you need to be able to heat the carb up.
Make sure all your instruments are in the green and you have suction.
Assuming we’re at sea level or below 3,000 feet, leave your mixture full rich and pull back on the throttle.
Time to call up the tower!
With the engine idling, we’ll need to call up the tower and request clearance to take off.
“Brown tower, Cessna 992 tango zulu is ready for take off at charlie, runway 27, touch and go.”
“Cessna 992 tango zulu, cleared for takeoff, touch and go approved.”
We let them know who we are, where we’re at and our intended direction of travel. In this case it’s to remain in the traffic pattern for practice.
“Cleared for takeoff, runway 27, 92 tango zulu.”
Give it a little throttle to get started, check your right hand side in case there are any aircraft on short final and roll out onto the runway.
You’ll make a soft left here to line up the nose wheel with the centerline. Idle the engine, stop the plane real quick and make sure you’re ready. We’re about to do some flying.
Make one last scan of my instruments here and then it’s full throttle.
Release the brakes and you’re off. You’ll feel acceleration and the engine is loud. You’ll notice the airplane will start yawing to the left. This is P factor and needs to be compensated with right rudder so give your right pedal pressure and hold it so the plane stays lined up with the centerline.
You might notice the airplane starts to feel different. As the wings start to generate lift, she’ll start to come alive in your hands. The surfaces become more sensitive to input and it starts feeling like an airplane.
I’ll forever remember my first time soloing. My old 172 with one less person in it and less than full fuel felt like a sports car and the feeling of pure freedom was instantly addicting. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.
We’re rolling now and we’re looking for 65 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS) on our airspeed indicator. This is the speed at which we can rotate the aircraft and start our climb from the runway.
65 KIAS and some back pressure on the yoke is all it should take. The nosewheel will come off followed by the main gears and we’re officially off the ground.
Shoot for 70 - 80 KIAS on climb out, keep your wings level and enjoy the view. Our 172 will settle at around 550 to 600 feet per minute of climb but each model varies. I make a note to check instruments at this point. Make sure my altimeter is set and showing altitude, check my vertical speed indicator for 550 to 600 FPM, check oil pressure again. All systems go.
Pattern altitude is 1,000 feet above runway elevation so level out at 1,500 feet - Brown Municipal airport here in San Diego has a runway elevation of around 550 feet - and pull the throttle back a bit. We’ll want around 2,200 RPM for our pattern work. You’ll need to trim the elevator for cruise flight.
The Third Dimension
Let’s take a second to explore the dimensions of flying and how they compare to driving a car.
In a car you have forward, backward movement and left, right travel. Your elevation is determined by the ground you’re driving on so you don’t have direct control over this dimension of travel.
In a plane you have forward, roll right, left, yaw right, left and pitch up and down. This sounds like a whole lot more, and it is, but it translates into just one additional dimension of travel. Up and down.
But Mike. We can roll a plane.
Yes we can, but we usually do it to start a turn. So it's still the right or left direction of travel. Granted, it’s more involved and technical to make that right hand turn but it’s still the same concept of changing the direction of travel.
Making a turn
Once we’re straight and level at 1,500 feet it’s time to make a right hand turn to follow the traffic pattern. The traffic pattern is a rectangle that extends just beyond the runway we took off on and finishes the opposite end of the runway. The runway fills in one long side of the pattern.
To make a right hand turn you’ll roll the aircraft using the right pressure on the yoke until the artificial horizon lines up with the second white line - this is the standard 30 degree mark we use for turns. You’ll need a little back pressure on the elevator to start the actual turn. Keep the the AI lined up with the 30 degree mark and add a little right rudder.
Check your compass for your desired direction of travel and once you’re within 10 degrees of it start rolling back to level and easing on the back pressure and rudder pressure.
You’ve now completed a turn!
The pattern is the shape of a rectangle so be ready to make another right hand turn as we’re on one of the short ends of the shape.
Check for traffic and make your right hand turn.
We’re now downwind and should still be at 1,500 feet above ground level (AGL), flying parallel to the runway in the opposite direction we took off from.
This is a nice time to take a quick look around and take in the local area. You have about half a minute before you’ll need to start getting ready for final approach and landing.
Tower will usually call you up by the time you’re perpendicular to the touchdown point on the runway and let you know whether you’re cleared for landing or not.
You just found out you need to get home because your significant other just texted you to remind you dinner's almost ready.
No texting and flying.
But we need to request a full stop landing from the tower.
“Brown tower, Cessna 992 tango zulu, request full stop.”
“Cessna 92 tango zulu, cleared for full stop, runway 27.”
My instructor drilled it in my head that throttle is for altitude control and elevator pitch is for control of the airspeed and it’s true. Pull back to 1,800 on the throttle to start your descent. You’ll need to add 10 degrees of flaps too so once the airspeed is in the white, add your flaps!
You should now start descending from 1,500 feet.
Add carb heat, check your seat belts, and get ready for a right turn.
Make your right turn keeping an eye on your compass. Square it off and complete the short leg of the rectangle. Add flaps to 20 degrees and make one more right turn as you near the runway.
You’re now on final!
Your airspeed should be at around 70 KIAS at this point and you should be facing the runway’s approach end and lined up with the runway.
Final approach is much more nuanced than takeoff and climb out. We could write a whole article on sight picture and what you should be looking for as your approach the runway but just keep in mind that we’re descending at a similar rate we started with and that throttle is key to adjusting altitude as we near the runway.
At about half a mile out I add my last notch of flaps for a total of 30 degrees.
Once you cross the runway threshold, you no longer need throttle as you’ve “made the runway” so bring it back to idle and continue your descent.
Now the fun part, flare and touchdown.
The perfect flare starts at 10 feet above the asphalt, which isn’t always easy to judge.
I got into the habit of looking at how the runway fills the horizon above the instrument panel to determine the point at which I should flare. The moment it very rapidly grows in the windscreen on either side of the panel is the moment I begin my flare.
You’ll need to pull back on the elevator to slow your rate of descent at this point and the airplane will settle on the runway. You should be doing about 60 - 65 KIAS during your flare.
You should always touchdown main wheels first. The nosewheel doesn’t have the same strength as the main gear and they should absorb the impact. Once the main wheels are down, let the nose down and start applying brakes.
We’re back on solid ground!
Tower will call you up and ask you to exit when able.
Do it and contact ground to request your way back to parking. Dinner’s waiting!
This is the most basic way to fly a plane on a sunny day.
About THE AUTHOR
My father is a licensed flight instructor so I spent the majority of my childhood at the local municipal airport. My first memories are of climbing into the front seat of our Cessna 210M, so it was only natural that I complete my private pilot’s license as soon as it was legal. 924 hours later, and I look for any excuse to get out and stretch my wings.Read more about Michael Zalik