|By Russ Still
May 01, 2020
There are three ground reference maneuvers for Private Pilots. During training, every instructor covers two of them: S-turns and Turns Around a Point. But the third maneuver, the Rectangular Course, sometimes gets lost during the journey to the checkride. This is probably due to the fact that the traffic pattern, itself, is a rectangular course. Many instructors consider it such and some DPEs even consider that a trip around the pattern checks the box as well. But not always.
DPE Jason Blair once told me that he frequently asks for a rectangular course during a checkride, specificially to see if the candidate understands the differences between it and a conventional circuit around the runway. He mentioned that the tension was palpable once the left seat pilot realized he was being asked to do something that he had not explicitely trained for.
Unlike a traffic pattern, the rectangular course (as defined in the Airman Certification Standards) takes place completely at a fixed altitude. A traffic pattern is actually more complex because it includes climbs, descents, and a variety of aircraft configurations. The rectangular course has none of those. You enter the maneuver at your target altitude (600-1000 feet AGL) and stay there during the entire demonstration. No changes in altitude, no changes in power settings. Below we have an exploratory view of the rectangular course. It is fully clickable. Take a few minutes and have some fun with it. It will also make it clear how this maneuver differs from a flight around the traffic pattern.
As with all Private Pilot ground reference manuevers, this one is entered on the downwind at a target altitude between 600 and 1000 feet AGL. The ACS requires that you maintain that altitude ±100 feet and your airspeed must remain constant, ± 10 knots.
This manuever is an easy demonstration of how wind affects your airplane's movement relative to the ground below it. Your airspeed should remain constant. But on the downwind leg you go faster, in terms of groundspeed. On the upwind leg, your groundspeed is slower. You will spend less time on the downwind and more time on the upwind. And on the base and crosswind legs it is imperative that you crab into the wind. Otherwise your ground track will be skewed as the airplane is blown off course. It is a great exercise even if your examiner doesn't ask for it. But if he or she does, don't be surprised.
For a more thorough look at the Rectangular Course, view the lesson in Section 3. Click here to go straight to the lesson.