Pilots familiar with the area they’re flying in can instantly recognize landmarks through the windshield and know their position. This technique is called ‘pilotage.’ These landmarks include mountains, rivers, valleys, canyons, and notable artificial landmarks like statues and monuments.
The magnetic bearing of the runway will be known in advance or given by the ATC, which is used to position the plane so it doesn’t touch down to the right or left of the actual runway.
Each pilot has their own FMS for configuring the aircraft’s avionics.
Long before landing, pilots usually begin their descent based on a descent rate of 1,000 feet for every 3 miles. Airliners flying around 35,000ft will take around 115-120 miles to fully descend. It is this distance back from the destination that pilots will initiate the descent once authorized by air traffic control.
As an aircraft descends, passengers, yourself included, may have noticed air pressure building up in their ears which can become quite painful until the passage between the ears and nose has cleared. To help reduce this pain pilots are trained to gradually descend. Rapid descents can cause great pain to the passengers, hence why the descents must start a long way back from the airport.
Usually, in radar-controlled airspace, air traffic control (ATC) will give the pilot’s descent instructions or the pilots may request descent when approaching their calculated TOD point. ATC will then gradually issue step-down instructions to the pilots through intermediate altitudes until they are cleared down to their final approach altitude.
However, most controllers and pilots nowadays prefer a Continuous Descent Final Approach (CDFA) over a step-down approach as it is more efficient and saves fuel. In a CDFA, this descent profile looks like a straight line from the cruise portion down to the final approach portion.
Sources: pilotteacher. com and executiveflyers. com