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The Last Mile: Surviving The Pattern

The largest number of mid-air collisions take place in a traffic pattern.The largest number of mid-air collisions take place in a traffic pattern. Just a few months ago, long-time U.S. Aerobatic Team member John Lillberg was killed, along with several others, when his Extra 300 was struck by a Lear that was departing the pattern at an uncontrolled (non-tower) field. So, let's set the record straight. What really is the best way to get into and an uncontrolled airport's traffic pattern?

The Basics
Traffic patterns are designed to create a flow of traffic that eventually leads to the active runway. Pilots watch the airplane ahead and use judgement to create enough spacing so that overtaking conflicts are few. The big problem is how to get into a uniform flow in the first place, since the regulations give us only vague guidelines and leave the rest up to us.

The Best Method
Make a 45-degree entry to the downwind leg. This entry should intersect the downwind leg at about the runway's mid point. Enter at that airport's traffic pattern altitude. At traffic pattern altitude other airplanes on the downwind leg will appear right on the horizon and therefore will be easy to see.

Caution #1: Don't ever enter on the downwind and then descend to traffic pattern altitude. This is a sure way to descend into someone -- especially if you are in a low wing airplane.

Real World Considerations
Should you fly over the airport higher than traffic pattern altitude in order to position yourself for the downwind on the other side? That depends on the particular airport. The uncontrolled airport I fly from has an ILS approach just overhead. An overflight to position into the downwind there can be hazardous. Also, what if there are no aircraft on-frequency and you don’t know the wind conditions on the ground?

Caution #2: If no one is on-frequency, that does not mean that no one is in the pattern or approaching the field. Radio communications are *not* required at a non-tower field and there could also be ultralight or glider traffic nearby.

Real World Solutions
With overlying airspace or approaches to contend with the best way is to circle around well clear of the pattern until the 45-degree entry can be made. If there are no other aircraft on frequency and you need to know what the wind is doing on the ground, a pass over the pattern by at least 500 feet followed by a descent and a 45-degree entry would be appropriate.

Common Sense: If you must approach a pattern without first establishing radio contact with traffic at the field, turn on all your lights, trim the aircraft for pattern speed and get your eyes outside of the cockpit -- and ALWAYS self-announce your intentions on the appropriate frequency. Yes, even if you think no one is listening.

The Bottom Line
Be safe and courteous. A straight-in approach can be safe and legal, but it is often best to forgo the straight-in and enter the pattern. If you are in the pattern, listen for inbound instrument approach calls, and look both ways on the base leg. Self-announce your every move. An airplane that has flown a complete pattern has right-of-way over anyone who intends to 'break' the pattern with a straight-in, but that technicality won’t hold your wing on after it’s been sliced off by another plane. Use good judgement. You don't want to be dead right!

And if you remember nothing else, remember this: 80% of the traffic pattern mid-air collisions happen on final approach.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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