You might not think of it this way, but for the vast majority of us who are based at non-towered or so-called ‘uncontrolled’ airports, every time we take off, land, or practice flying in the traffic pattern, it can seem about as care-free as being in a combat zone. If you’ve ever been number three on downwind, or flown an older training aircraft into the sun while in the pattern at a busy airport (and then realized just how hopelessly crazed the windshield was), or had your own personal NMAC thrill as someone breezed blithely by not 100 feet away, then you know what I mean. I’ve experienced all three, and then some. Perhaps less dramatically, if you have ever silently fumed as some business jet called a five-mile final, or even if the most vivid trauma you’ve ever suffered was seeing what happened to the low-wing and the high-wing airplane that became as one while on short final near Tampa about five years ago, you’ve already had your initiation to the fracas. It’s no wonder why most midair collisions occur within ten miles of places like these. About the only positive thing I can say about this is, well, at least no one is shooting at you.
So how can we achieve the highest possible level of safety when flying in the traffic pattern at an uncontrolled airport? Since we can’t have positive ATC control everywhere we fly (and we wouldn’t all necessarily want that) the only solution calls for everyone involved to follow predictable, standardized procedures, continually look for and avoid all other aircraft, and-this is perhaps the most subjective aspect-be deferential and conservative when it comes to agreeing who can be where, and when. Even traffic pattern operations in controlled airspace still require all pilots not to abdicate responsibility from actively scanning for other traffic. Unlike the precise procedural and predictable world of IFR flying, we have many options when flying VFR, but that freedom comes at a price: some degree of uncertainty as to who can be where, and when. Unfortunately, ambiguity is seldom a useful attribute in aviation. Also with regard to pattern procedures, we operate under the mixed influence of rules and recommended procedures.
When it comes to operating within an airport traffic pattern, we need to be in predictable places at predictable times, and we must broadcast our positions in a concise and reasonably standardized way, on a common radio frequency. For me, this begins somewhere between five and ten miles before I ever enter the pattern at an uncontrolled airport. I don’t mention which runway I’m going to use at that point; just my general direction from the airport, my distance, at what altitude I am currently flying, and naturally my intentions to land there (and of course repeating the airport’s name at the very end of my transmission). I’ve usually already dialed in the AWOS, if there is one, and listened to it using the ‘BOTH’ position on the selector panel while I’m still on some other (usually ATC) frequency. I’ve confirmed the direction of traffic from either the A/FD, current sectional, or even monitoring the UNICOM. (I’d wait to hear more than one aircraft confirm whether it’s left or right traffic, but almost always I’ve already researched that sort of information before I took off, especially if it’s somewhere I’ve seldom flown, or never visited at all.) If your landing for whatever reason were more impromptu or possibly under some duress, due to a sudden request on the part of your passengers, a mechanical problem, or whatever, you also have segmented circles and wind socks to show the pattern and the wind directions, as well as simply calling up and requesting an airport advisory.
Once you arrive in the vicinity of the airport traffic area of course, that’s where things can get really interesting. As it turns out, the ‘predictable, standardized procedures’ aren’t really unambiguous and specific enough to account for all possible scenarios. If they were, they would probably occupy several dozen pages in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), instead of the few short paragraphs that they actually do. There are often situations where our scripts cross over into the realm of improvisation…
For example, as you are no doubt aware, the recommended procedure for entry into the traffic pattern at an uncontrolled airport is to intercept the downwind leg at a 45-degree angle. (For those of you who are mathematically inclined, this already implies that you may not enter the downwind head-on, and then do a hairpin turn of 135 degrees to head in nearly the opposite direction.) So you usually will already know about where you must fly in order to position yourself for such an entry, depending upon the direction of flight for that particular pattern, to get onto the downwind leg. For entry into the 45 degree leg of the right-hand pattern for runway 32 at my home airport for example, I know that I must over-fly a certain reference point which happens to be about five miles to the North (and which also happens to be another small airport and so involves over-flying the vicinity of another traffic pattern). Generally, it’s considered inadvisable to swoop down into the pattern from directly above, and the generally accepted procedure is to be at pattern altitude at least two miles outside the pattern, in order to more easily identify other aircraft in the pattern. If you remain higher up, it’s extremely difficult to pick out aircraft in front of a background of ground clutter, and very easy to do so when the only background is the sky.
That isn’t the only way to get your foot in the door, however. I’ll go over some other possible (and entirely permissible and widely accepted) ways to enter traffic patterns at non-towered fields. I’ll say this first, though; it may sound a bit harsh, but the only way you can be absolutely sure your chances of running into anybody will be absolutely zero are if you have on-board radar, a dedicated observer on the ground to alert you of all traffic in your vicinity, or some other resource in addition to your own eyes. No matter what you do, theoretically there is always going to be some small element of risk whenever two aircraft are flying in the same county, let alone near the same airport. There are some tricks that you can use to stack the odds in your favor, some of which might seem under-handed, and some of which won’t. Let’s cover the more commonly accepted ones, first, depending on just where you plan on showing up. With any of these methods, their value will be dependent upon the degree to which your presence (meaning distance from other aircraft in the pattern, and your projected path) will not be perceived as a threat. The key is proper spacing, of course. Just as people of different nationalities have distinctly different ideas as to what constitutes personal space, different pilots will have their own preferences for what they consider to be comfortable separation distances.
One popular pattern entry method begins with the crosswind leg. Let’s say your direction of arrival into the vicinity is such that this is the leg of the pattern with which you would first be most closely aligned. (After all, you won’t always be arriving on the ‘active pattern’ side of your destination airport.) Some pilots prefer the so-called ‘mid-field’ crosswind, but I sure don’t! I’m very nervous about doing a military break and then T-boning traffic on the downwind leg that might already be at that altitude. (Remember, you might not see all the aircraft around you, and not all airplanes have radios, so just because you don’t hear anyone, it doesn’t mean no one is there.) It would be less of a hazard to enter a crosswind leg over the departure end of the runway, because departing traffic would usually still be below pattern altitude there. (Of course, that isn’t necessarily true for someone doing a go-around…) Then you would presumably scan like mad for any unannounced traffic turning downwind outside of you. The best of these however in my opinion would be to enter a crosswind leg from the opposite side of the traffic pattern, at a normal pattern altitude, and at a slightly greater distance from the runway than the normal crosswind leg. You still have to worry about potentially colliding with someone you hadn’t heard from who is slowly climbing up to pattern altitude on a crosswind, after an extended upwind leg, of course. (The Aeronautical Information Manual suggests that aircraft climb to within 300 feet of pattern altitude, before turning crosswind, and that this be done at least 1/2 mile from the runway.) Implicit in this, and any other pattern entry, are concise and frequent announcements of your present position, over the common traffic advisory frequency. But if you’re reading between the lines here, you can probably tell that I’m not too comfortable with any of these crosswind entries, although they do have advantages…
Now let us suppose a leeward approach scenario: when you get to the traffic pattern, you’re reasonably aligned with the upwind leg. However, you don’t feel comfortable with the overtly antisocial implications of five-mile finals, but after over-flying the traffic pattern by at least 500 feet, you’d just as soon not fly a VFR version of a procedure turn, descending and making steep turns right in the midst of the beehive, down into the ground clutter in such a high-density traffic area, as well as having to fly a few miles away from the airport, before you can turn around and fly back. (On the other hand if it’s 11 PM, or you know for a fact that the traffic pattern is deserted, there’s certainly no reason not to just fly in and land.) In this case, you might want to pull off an upwind pattern entry by approaching the airport and flying alongside the runway at pattern altitude, but just a bit outside the pattern, on the ‘non-pattern’ side, and turning crosswind at a normal location (or as suggested previously, somewhat beyond it) then resuming a normal pattern from there. Naturally, you should announce your position each step of the way on the CTAF.
If your destination again happens to be such that the runway lies perfectly aligned right in front of you, but this time your arrival is downwind, you could just begin a long downwind leg, but of course you have double the collision avoidance workload: once while crossing past the crosswind leg, and again when you have to watch out for traffic at the 45-degree mid-field downwind entry point. With this kind of an entry, I’d begin my position announcements starting at least three miles ‘upwind’ on such a prematurely long downwind. (Whatever you do though, don’t call it an ‘extended’ downwind; that term is reserved for the unfortunate case where even slow flight isn’t enough to space out a busy pattern and pilots find themselves delaying their turn to base somewhere into the next county.) The easiest and least ambiguous method of reporting this or any other ‘abnormal’ type of pattern entry is by providing distances and relative magnetic directions: ‘At Smallville, 61 Juliet, three miles to the North for a right downwind entry to 34, Smallville.’
Then there is the ever-tempting entry onto an extended base leg. Again, if it’s a ghost town out there, knock yourself out. Entering the pattern on a corner this way, there’s only one point where you’re the potential transgressor, and that’s on the downwind-to-base leg corner. Be especially wary of NORDO traffic and of course, again as always, make frequent position announcements as I suggested earlier.
As I mentioned, straight-in landings are no problem, as long as sequencing and spacing isn’t an issue. Just remember that the final approach leg is considered as being the most sacrosanct. CFR Title 14 Part 91.113(g) regarding right-of-way rules begins with the following: ‘Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach.’ If you start your final approach leg two miles out, but there is already another aircraft on a base leg, a mile from the runway, but at a lower altitude, remember the conclusion of Part 91.113(g): ‘When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way, but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft.’ Of course, if you’re two miles out, but the other aircraft is a mile closer and 300 feet lower than you are, just who is cutting in front of whom? It isn’t just who called out their presence first, who is lower, or who is flying a faster aircraft. (At some uncontrolled airports there may be a popular precision or non-precision approach for which aircraft commonly adopt what might be viewed as very long finals, and for which pilots invest significant time and money to maintain instrument proficiency. Surely, that deserves deference, as well.) Unless your aircraft is equipped with a means to detect all aircraft in your vicinity and project their future positions onto a visual display, you’d be better off letting discretion be the better part of valor.
Now for some of those sotto voce tips that I said I’d mention; you can take them or leave them. I’m sure that many of you have come up with a few additional ideas of your own.
- I can maintain altitude just as well as anyone, but if I’m flying a high-wing airplane in the pattern, I’ll fly the pattern about 50 feet high. I figure all those other compulsive law-abiders out there might just miss me, if someone winds up being where he or she isn’t supposed to. And, if I’m in a low-wing airplane, for probably obvious reasons, I’ll fly the pattern about 50 feet low.
- I always announce each leg of the pattern (including upwind), and again especially as I’m turning from one leg to another (while I’m banking, when I stand out better, for anyone else to see where I am).
- I never say ‘full-stop’. That’s because, even though I usually want to, I never know if I’ll get to do one, so I won’t risk making a liar out of myself, should I have to go around. And for the same reason, I won’t announce my landing in advance as a go-around, either (until I’ve actually started one).
- If I’m the last one in the pattern, rather than just extending my downwind I’ll initiate slow-flight, to improve my chances of reaching the runway in an emergency.Here are some additional things to keep in mind:
- Try to keep your downwind leg within a half-mile of the runway. Aside from being in a better position to react to an engine failure, this also decreases the chances of another aircraft flying inside your pattern, and creating a conflict.
- Maintain pattern altitude until abeam the runway’s approach end, then turn base when the runway appears to be about 30 to 45 degrees aft of the wing.
- Try to stay within gliding distance of the runway by completing your turn to final about a quarter mile from the runway end (This tip in fact is from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s good booklet, Nontowered Airports.)Of all the thousands of uncontrolled airports of every shape and type, there are obviously many different considerations involved, and it might actually prove detrimental to invoke one sacrosanct set of pattern procedures. For the time being, until the microprocessor trickle-down provides us all with perfect situational awareness everywhere we go, I’m afraid that our only recourse is constant vigilance, as well as the mostly unwritten kinds of rules: those of courtesy and respect.