The Basics of Stabilized Approaches


By Steven Daun, National Chief Pilot

If you ask a room full of pilots to define a stabilized approach, like other things, you will hear a variety of responses. Most come close to the proper definition, but many still miss the mark. This is evident by the number of flight-into-terrain accidents that occur during daytime VFR.

The following is taken directly from the American Flyers Private Pilot Training Manual.

A stabilized approach is an approach in which the attitude, airspeed, and rate of descent are held constant or where small corrections can be made to fix any deviation. On the final leg, if a large correction is needed to maintain the aim point, a go-around must be accomplished.

There is a misconception that a stabilized approach is just maintaining a constant airspeed and attitude. This is far from reality. A stabilized approach is maintaining a correctly flown set of performance criteria in three dimensions. Another factor is a properly trimmed airplane. At any time during the approach, the pilot should be able to release the controls and the airplane should not change attitude. A properly trimmed airplane is imperative for a stabilized approach.

This includes:

  • A constant angle descent flight path to AIM point
  • Maintain runway centerline alignment
  • Always coordinate power and attitude adjustments

For a standard traffic pattern, the descent for landing begins at the abeam point. For consistent landings, it is important to begin this phase of the approach at the same distance from the aim point (1/2 to 1 mile), airspeed (80 KIAS), altitude (1000′ AGL), and configuration (flaps up, gear down). The goal will be to touch down on the main landing gear at stall speed and pitch attitude on the horizon with no engine power. To judge the accuracy of your flight path, you must select a fixed spot on the runway. This reference will help you gauge vertical distance in relation to the runway and is referred to as an aim point. Normally, the aim point will be the runway numbers.

To accomplish this when making a standard pattern:

  • Airspeed decreases from 80 KIAS at the abeam position to 60/65 KIAS on final
  • Flaps:

◦ 10° abeam landing point

◦ To 20° on base

◦ Increased to FULL on final—all landings will be made with full flaps

  • Power to 1500 rpm abeam landing point, flaps to 10° and pitch attitude on the horizon. Adjust attitude and power as needed to keep 500–600 fpm descent with airspeed continually slowing to 60/65 KIAS on final.
  • Airspeed will be decreased gradually from:

◦ 80 KIAS abeam landing point

◦ 70 KIAS on base

◦ 60/65 KIAS on final

  • Airspeed should be decreasing from abeam position to the turn on final. The airspeed should be constant within 1/2 mile of the touchdown point. Lowering flaps to increase drag will decrease airspeed, plan flap extension accordingly. 
  • Power to idle and slowly increase pitch to the horizon at flare point and hold on the horizon until touchdown. Keep the nosewheel clear of the runway until full back elevator cannot maintain that attitude.

The key to any good landing is a good approach. During an approach, you will be configuring the airplane for landing while flying into a position where a normal landing can be made. This may be following a traffic pattern, flying a shortened pattern, or making a straight-in approach. No matter how you get the airplane into position, there will be many things that must happen for every approach and every landing. This includes getting the airplane into the proper position at the right airspeed, and in the right configuration. The proper position is a point in space over the runway threshold at the proper airspeed and flap setting. The proper position is a point in space over the runway threshold, 10 to 20 feet above runway elevation. The proper airspeed is that which is recommended by the manufacturer. The proper configuration is power just above idle and flaps fully extended.

In addition to teaching stabilized approaches, American Flyers also requires its instructors and students to use a 200’ stabilized approach callout on all flights. At 200’, the student identifies whether or not the approach is stable. If it isn’t and can be corrected with minor adjustments, then they will do so. However, if it is not stabilized and the correction required is not minor, a go-around must be initiated.