Dick’s Follies — Part 5: The Traffic Pattern

Our friend Dick has a friend named Dave. Dave flies a high performance biplane called a Christen Eagle. The plane is relatively fast in the air, and aerobatic, offering high performance and thrills to boot. It is an excellent airplane, but even excellent airplanes rely on the quality of their pilots.

A family of four had just entered the traffic pattern at a local airport. The pilot had correctly called out his position on Unicom, and had identified that he had entered a left downwind for Runway 18 at the airport. He had extended his landing gear, and was firmly settled down into his landing routine as he proceeded downwind towards the base leg.

Our pilot was surprised to hear the following transmission: “Lake Lawn traffic, Christen Eagle XXXXD, we are left downwind for runway 18.” He scanned the skies for the plane, but could not see it. He had already slowed down, and had extended his gear and flaps, so he called out to the pilot to get his position. “Aircraft landing Lake Lawn, state your position, we are currently left downwind for 18.” No reply came from the inbound aircraft.

Our pilot was the first one into the traffic pattern, and by the regulations, he had the right of way. However, he did not have sight of the traffic behind him, and was unable to contact the traffic to determine where it was. The plane behind him was flying in fairly fast, and was probably overtaking him. Would our pilot stay in the downwind leg, or break off and come back around?

Our pilot elected to go around, rather than risk a mid-air encounter with another plane. He added full power, declared his intentions, pulled up the landing gear, and started a climb back above pattern altitude… while looking over his shoulder for the traffic. Imagine his surprise when he saw the airplane go right under him… apparently, oblivious to his presence.

After regaining his composure, our pilot brought the plane back into the traffic pattern, and returned to the downwind leg for landing. By the time he reached the ground, Dick’s friend Dave was nowhere to be found. Our pilot went on to have a nice dinner and return home.

Again, our pilot had the right of way, since he was established in the airport traffic pattern first. He could have legally proceeded on in the face of uncertainty, but he factored in a few things and decided to go around. He took into account his Pattern Safety Checklist and found some disturbing answers…

  1. See and Avoid. I CAN’T SEE HIM. The inbound traffic was not visible.
  2. Communicate. I CAN’T REACH HIM. The inbound traffic either wasn’t listening to his radio, wasn’t paying attention, or didn’t care.
  3. Proceed to the Airport in Sequence. I DON’T KNOW WHERE HE IS. How can you see and avoid traffic or proceed in sequence with unseen and uncommunicative aircraft?

CLEARLY WRONG The pilot of the plane who cut off our pilot in the pattern was clearly in the wrong. He was not in communication with other aircraft in the traffic pattern. While transmissions on the Unicom frequency are not a requirement, good scanning skills to assure that the traffic pattern is clear ARE a requirement. Dave failed this test when he entered the pattern, and literally flew under another plane inbound for landing!

Plus, Dave did not prove that he was listening to the Unicom before he entered the traffic pattern… or when our pilot queried Dave’s intentions. Had he been, he would either have asked where the other plane was, or would have had it in sight and indicated as much by stating NUMBER TWO FOR LANDING. In either case, the pilot and plane ahead of him would have had the comfort of knowing that he knew they were out there.

The right thing to do in such situations is to cut your losses, add power, and take the plane around for another try. While this will cost you more fuel than it would to just stick to your course and land the plane, it is the safest way to conduct business. Beyond that, it will help you avoid close encounters of the worst kind!