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Pattern traps: flying a traffic pattern is one of the most basic of skills, yet too many still manage to screw it up. How to keep your head while all about you are losing theirs.

Everyone remembers their first solo flight. Mine was memorable for two reasons. First, the Cessna 150 I was flying had a habit of allowing its right-side window to pop open, seemingly at will. Of course, the airplane "willed" the window open shortly after I became airborne on my third touch and go. Reaching across the 150's "cabin" to pull it closed wasn't a crisis, but it wasn't something I wanted to be doing right then, either.

The other memorable part of my first solo was fitting the 150 into the traffic flow. The non-towered airport had three runways, laid out in the WWII training-field triangle still so common throughout the southeast U.S. I was using Runway 21; a Baron was inbound for Runway 15 and someone else was a factor, perhaps on Runway 27. All of these aircraft were much faster than mine and, by definition, were being flown by more-experienced pilots. Still, all of us managed to fly proper patterns to our respective runways--I was the last to land, unsurprisingly--and no sheet metal got bent. And, yes, I still have the shirttail the local hangar rats clipped that day.

I tell this tale not to reminisce but to illustrate that flying a traffic pattern and fitting into the flow at the local non-towered airport isn't rocket science. If an eight-hour primary student on his first solo can do it, so can everyone else. But too many of us either forget how to safely and courteously fly a pattern or adopt an attitude, thinking their airplane is the most important one and that they have to be on the ground first. It doesn't have to be that way.


I'm not going waste time describing or debating the FAA-recommended rectangular traffic pattern--sorry. If you're not familiar with traffic pattern basics, now's a good time-before you go out to the airport for your next flight, please--to sit down with some training materials or the Aeronautical Information Manual and refresh yourself. However, let me highlight some of the stuff pilots need to do to prepare for operations at a non-towered airport.

Perhaps the easiest mistake pilots make--and seemingly one of the most common--is a failure to plan for the pattern. Basic information like field elevation, pattern altitude, CTAF and which way to turn in the pattern is necessary to do this correctly. If you don't know where this stuff can be found, or you don't know what to do with it, make plans right now to huddle with an instructor and revisit your preflight planning skills. With resources like the Internet, airborne databases and the FAA's Airport/Facility Directory, there's simply no excuse for not having this basic information in hand--and plugged into your communications radio--well before approaching the airport.

Once we know these basics, it's time to get set up for the pattern. Plug the CTAF into the radio you plan to use and, presuming you're not talking to ATC or someone else, make it active. But before you do anything else, listen.

Patiently listening to what's going on at the airport you're approaching is the best way to get a mental picture of the traffic level, its flow, the runway in use and where you'll probably fit into the pattern. For example, if there are three trainers plodding along and you're flying a faster airplane, you'll need to get slow well before leveling off at pattern altitude. Depending on how clean a bird you're flying, that could take some time and miles. Planning is your friend.

Of course, if listening for a few minutes while approaching your destination doesn't result in any useful information, it's time to make a radio call. Please don't transmit the overly hopeful "any traffic advise" nonsense: Just because no one answers doesn't mean no one's there. Instead, call the facility's Unicom. If there's still no answer, transmit in the blind to the airport's traffic your position and intentions. Usually, if there's someone in the area, and they're listening, they'll answer. Of course, you're on the correct frequency and the volume is turned up, right? And, if you don't know what to say in such a blind call, you probably shouldn't be there in the first place. Do some research.


Planning is also your friend once you know which runway is in use and, based on the pattern's direction, where you'll need to enter it. For our purposes, let's presume you'll be doing the standard, FAA-recommended 45-degree entry to the downwind leg.

By this time, you want to be at--or very near--pattern altitude and relatively close to the airport. You should be able to see it (this is, after all, primarily a VFR operation) and have a clear mental picture of your position relative to the pattern and how to gracefully enter it. With luck, you'll also be able to pick out some of the traffic in the pattern.

Pay very close attention to what's around you--scan left and right, as well as below and in front of you, for other traffic. Especially if it's a busy pattern, also scan the active runway's departure area for closed-pattern traffic turning crosswind or someone entering the pattern from an extended downwind. This can't be emphasized enough: Since a traffic pattern is, also by definition, where you'll find a high concentration of other aircraft, scanning for traffic is an imperative. Further, failure to scan and locate potential traffic conflicts is a leading cause of poor patterns, botched approaches and bad landings, not to mention mid-air collisions.

But once you're established on the downwind, your task doesn't get any easier. In addition to flying and configuring the airplane while gauging your progress toward the runway, you've got to keep your head "on a swivel," looking for other traffic: Just because you've made the correct, safe pattern entry doesn't men the next guy or gal will. Keep looking in the directions from which it's likely conflicting traffic will appear, but look in the other directions, too. Don't forget to announce your pattern entry on the CTAF.

Finally, a word about wide patterns versus narrow ones. Nothing's more frustrating to the locals than the transient in the Bonanza who comes smoking in from the big city and then flies a downwind over the next county. Even the student in the Skyhawk can see the problems with a too-wide pattern. She also can turn well inside the Bo driver and be in the lounge sipping coffee by the time he lands. The problem only gets worse with faster, heavier airplanes.

While there's no fixed pattern width--or lateral distance from the runway at which the downwind should be flown--the rule of thumb I use is to fly the downwind no further from the runway than I want to glide in the case of engine failure. From the standard 1000-foot pattern altitude, that means I'm fairly close. If you're flying a 747, that might be too close. But you're not in a 747, or you wouldn't be trying to land at Cow Pie International. Slow down, close up the pattern and mix with the traffic. It's the right thing to do.


The closer we get to the runway, the greater the risk of a mid-air collision. Think about it: Traffic patterns funnel aircraft to the runway and, as you get closer to a landing, the funnel gets smaller. As the funnel narrows, there is less room to maneuver and whatever is being put through it gets jammed closer and closer together.

At the end of the downwind leg, get ready to turn base. "Abeam the numbers" is the time-honored spot at which we earnestly begin configuring the airplane for landing. Depending on what you're flying, this means dropping gear, pulling off power, adding carb heat, extending a notch or more of flaps and re-trimming to establish an initial glide speed. It also means being absolutely clear on our sequence in the pattern, what traffic is in front of us and what is behind us.

If, as often happens, someone announces a position in the pattern ahead of us, we had best visually acquire them before we either begin the descent from pattern altitude or turn base. The area between the numbers and the turn to base is a good spot for this exercise.

When to turn onto the base leg? There are probably as many suggestions as there are instructors, but the one thing you never want to do is decide the point at which to turn base on a geographic landmark. That's because, well, that landmark won't be there at any other airport. Duh. Best to use some other metric, such as time, altitude, angle of the runway relative to the airframe or--our preferred method--judgment.

Once we complete the turn to base, it's again time to configure the airplane, consider our progress and look for traffic. As the sidebars below and on the previous page illustrate, looking for traffic on the straight-in approach is always a good bet, especially when the weather makes an instrument approach a reasonable procedure for someone letting down from altitude. There you'll find the turboprops and jets inbound from the runway's instrument approach. Since they may have gotten a late frequency change from ATC, they may not have been able to make a call on the CTAF. They can also be on the wrong frequency or just plain ignoring you.

Once we've determined the final approach path is clear, it's time to turn final, the gauging of which is all about airmanship. Here, we've got to run a complicated equation involving the wind at our altitude, our position relative to the runway, our speed and altitude, and the touchdown point for which we're aiming. We've got to make the turn early enough that we don't over-bank, perhaps getting into a classic stall/spin on final, and we want to roll out with the nose pointed at the runway. It's not rocket science, but it does take some practice and judgment, along with the ability to fly the airplane while thinking about and doing something else.

Once established on final, we complete the pre-landing checklist, double-check that the gear is down and the power controls are configured for a go-around and land. You don't need me to tell you how to do that.


Even though the FAA-approved traffic pattern has several components, once they are broken down and analyzed, it's easy to see the logic. The basic traffic pattern works well as long as no one acts as if they're alone. When someone does act like their airplane is the only one for miles, tempers flare, go-around practice becomes commonplace and accidents can happen. The key to safe pattern work is, literally, getting with the flow.

Put another way, when someone decides to roll their own pattern, it's a recipe for problems. Abbreviated downwinds, 180-degree and base-leg entries, flying a right-hand pattern when everyone else is on the other side of the runway and straight-ins are examples of these recipes.

The only "approved" maneuver of this bunch is the straight-in, which begs the question: Why fly the straight-in? The answer varies, but can involve the airport's instrument approach, the aircraft being flown or an emergency. By far, a full pattern is preferred, not just out of courtesy but because it gives us plenty of opportunity to configure the airplane--along with several visual cues.

But none of these tips will really matter if we don't pay attention to what's going on around us. Look for traffic and especially look where the traffic typically will be. That way, you can avoid a Bonanza sandwich. Or worse.

RELATED ARTICLE: The FAA-recommended traffic pattern.

If you need a review on traffic patterns, here's a good place to start. However, note this FAA diagram omits description of straight-in approaches or extended downwind entries. Neither of these two operations are proscribed. See the sidebar on the opposite page.

RELATED ARTICLE: The straight-in approach.

Many a hangar-flying session eventually gets around to discussing various pilots' antics in the local traffic pattern. Unfortunately, hangar-flying sessions--while a necessary "rite of passage" for pilots--also can be a poor source of knowledge as the number of opinions present often outweigh the information available. Such as it is with the straight-in approach to a non-towered airport.

For example, by looking at the FAA-approved airport traffic diagram in the sidebar on the opposite page, one could easily conclude that straight-in approaches are prohibited. 'Tain't so.

In fact, the diagram on the opposite page is an accurate reproduction of a diagram presenting FAA's recommendations. But it's not the only one. Advisory Circular AC 90-66A, "Recommended Standard Traffic Patterns And Practices For Aeronautical Operations At Airports Without Operating Control Towers," dated August 26, 1993, includes a similar diagram clearly depicting the straight-in approach to a non-towered airport's runway. This is true regardless of whether the airport has a single runway, intersecting runways or parallel runways.

Then there's FAR 91.126(b)(1), which states, "all turns [must be] to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right...."

Some point to this FAR as "evidence" that straight-ins are prohibited by FAR. But that's not what it says. Since a straight-in approach, by definition, does not involve turns, this FAR does not prohibit it. However, if a go-around is necessary, the pilot executing the go-around from the straight-in will have to turn to join the traffic pattern. That's when the FAR applies.

RELATED ARTICLE: VFR patterns, IFR pilots.

The greatest number of traffic pattern conflicts at a non-towered airport usually arise when there's a mix of IFR and VFR operations. Each type has its own set of rules and special considerations and, too often, they don't play well with each other. If you're flying IFR into a non-towered airport, keep these tips in mind.


While still talking to ATC, it's a good idea to punch up your destination's CTAF on the other radio and at least monitor it for traffic. Even though you're on the gauges a few miles out, there could be a low-viz party going on outside controlled airspace.


Especially if you're planning a straight-in, be alert for opposite-direction traffic departing the same piece of pavement. Both the straight-in approach and the straight-out departure are recommended. Though not at the same time.


If your approach will have you circling to land, you could well find yourself number three for the active runway. Once you break out and acquire the runway, you've transitioned from IFR procedures to VFR. All the pattern rules suddenly apply, and you'll probably be at a lower altitude than normal.


If there's anybody in the VFR pattern at your destination, they likely don't know anything about the approach you're shooting. Giving a position report by referencing the "Gopher intersection on the GPS-Charlie approach" only helps the folks using that approach plate figure out where you are. Instead, Give your position report in miles and direction from the airport. That way, everyone's on the same page. Don't forget also to state your intentions, like "circling south to land on Runway 27." Everyone will know where to look for you.
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Title Annotation:AIRMANSHIP
Author:Burnside, Joseph E.
Publication:Aviation Safety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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