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Patterns, Part II Last month I described an incident that occurred in the pattern of my local airport, where a fast-flying aircraft on a long straight-in final almost gobbled up a slow and stately Champ as it was turning from base to final. I didn’t describe the pilot of the fast airplane as a turkey, but I did allude to how hawks and eagles and some other birds of prey will join in midair for the propagation of their species. However, when airplanes do the same thing, the only thing that is spread is pieces and parts all over the ground. And the statistics appear to show that when airplanes do that, they are usually either in, or near, the traffic pattern of an airport. It would certainly behoove us, therefore, to be extremely vigilant in our scan for other traffic whenever flying in, or near, the traffic pattern. And it would also help the sustaining of the species Homo pilotiens if we all flew the traffic patterns of our airports adhering to the proper procedures for doing so. These procedures standardize not only how we fly the pattern, but also how we should operate on the ground. They give guidance on how we should enter and depart the pattern, the altitudes we should use, and the distance we should maintain from the runway. They determine who has the right of way in the traffic pattern, and advise how we should use our radios. Some of these procedures are reg-

ulatory. For example FAR 91.111 (a) states: “No person may operate an aircraft so close to another aircraft as to create a collision hazard.” And

If you are at pattern altitude, you should be able to see all the other aircraft that might be in the pattern. FAR 91.113 (g) says: “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 . . .. When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-ofway, 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.” The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), while not regulatory in nature, has a great deal of useful

information that goes a long way in standardizing the procedures we should use in the pattern. I certainly don’t have the space to reproduce the important parts here, but I would strongly suggest that you review Chapter Four, in particular 4-1-9, 4-2-2, and most of section 3, which deals with airport operations. It might be possible that the last time you reviewed the AIM was quite some time ago, so a little refreshing couldn’t hurt. I have spent quite literally several thousand hours flying in traffic patterns, and I have a few suggestions that I would like to offer, based on my observations. At the top of the list I would like to repeat something I mentioned in the last article. That is, the most important piece of collision avoidance equipment we have is our eyes. It is absolutely the last defense, when all else has failed, in providing separation between us and other aircraft. Next is that you fly the pattern with precision. Pattern altitudes, particularly at nontowered airports, can vary anywhere from 600 feet AGL up to 1,500 feet AGL. Know what the correct pattern altitude is for the airport at which you are flying. If you’re not sure, look it up (after all, the regs say that you will obtain all available information prior to a flight). The Airport Facility Directory (AFD) would be a good place to find that information. And then be sure to fly that alticontinued on page 28



THE VINTAGE INSTRUCTOR tude with precision. It is much easier to spot another aircraft flying at the same altitude as you are than it is to see one that is 200 or 300 feet above or below you. And the precision that I refer to applies not only to your altitude, but also to the distances you fly from the runway. On departure you can start your turn to the crosswind leg when you are within 300 feet of pattern altitude. That should have most aircraft about 1/2 mile beyond the departure end of the runway. (However, please be sure that doing so would not violate local noise restriction policies.) I personally like to fly the pattern at no more than 1/2 mile. That way, if I have an engine failure, I will always be within gliding distance of the runway. Thus, I recommend you turn downwind so that you will end up offset 1/2 mile from and parallel to the runway. Now make sure you make the proper wind corrections, so that you maintain 1/2 mile and do not drift in, or away, from the runway. If you have maintained your 1/2 mile offset from the runway, you should make your turn to base (traffic permitting) when your chosen landing point on the runway is behind you at a 45-degree angle. Plane geometry (I hope you can figure out the kind of plane I’m referring to) will now have you 1/2 mile from your landing spot. Again, be sure to maintain this distance with the proper

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crosswind corrections, if needed. While we are speaking about the winds, don’t forget that they also affect how steep or shallow your bank will need to be to maintain those precise distances. A tail wind component will dictate a steeper bank, and a head wind a shallower bank. Being aware of where the wind is blowing from will also give you a heads-up on when to start your turns. If you know that the wind is from your right as you fly a left-hand downwind, you should have no excuse to blow through the final approach course in your turn from base to final. How we enter the pattern is a subject that gets a great deal of debate. Some pilots like to fly an overhead approach, going outbound from the downwind on a 45-degree angle, then doing a descending right-hand 180degree (assuming left-hand traffic) turn to enter the downwind leg on a 45-degree angle at the midfield point. I personally find that using that entry procedure often leaves me blind to what is going on in the pattern while I am flying outbound and while I am in the descending 180 as well. I don’t know how many times I have had to take evasive action to avoid being hit, while flying the downwind leg, by someone who has chosen to enter the pattern in that fashion. My recommendation is to be at pattern altitude prior to your arrival at the pattern. Plan your arrival so


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28 APRIL 2005

that you can enter the downwind on a 45-degree angle, if appropriate. If, however, you are approaching the airport in a manner that necessitates overflying the runway centerline, fly a crosswind anywhere from midfield (if the runway is 5,000 feet or more) to over the departure numbers or up to 1/2 mile upwind of the departure end of the runway. Do be aware of aircraft that may be going around or on a missed approach. If you are at pattern altitude, you should be able to see all the other aircraft that might be in the pattern. Be prepared to modify this crosswind entry, as necessary, to sequence yourself in regard to other aircraft so you maintain at least a minimum separation of 1/2 mile between aircraft. I have used this VFR arrival procedure for many, many years. And I have not once had to take evasive action to avoid another aircraft. At the start of this article I made reference to hawks and eagles. They can easily see mice on the ground from the altitudes at which we fly traffic patterns. Now some of you may call me a turkey for advocating entering the pattern as I have described, and I admit that I don’t have the keen vision of an eagle, but by using my eyes I have yet to have a close encounter in the pattern, nor have I cut anyone off or violated the FARs. I have put a lot of emphasis on the use of our eyes for collision avoidance. This is not to say that we can’t use our ears and voice as well. In the next article I would like to discuss the proper use of the radio as an effective aid in collision avoidance, particularly in regard to operational procedures in the traffic pattern and terminal area. After all, the more tools we have to use, the better equipped we are to manage the risks that we as pilots accept. I hope you will join me in that task. Doug Stewart is the 2004 National CFI of the Year, a Master Instructor, and a designated pilot examiner. He operates DSFI Inc. ( based at the Columbia County Airport (1B1).

2005 04 patterns part ii

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