An Aviation Safety Staff Report
When it comes to landing airplanes, nobody does it better than the U.S. Navy. Every landing is filmed from a couple of angles, examined and dissected and given a grade in a culture so stingy of praise that a top-drawer performance merits this blas notation: OK. If those of us flying in the civilian world were similarly graded, the results might often be too discouraging to discuss.
And were not talking about touching wheels to pavement but the act of getting the airplane close enough to the airport to line up on the runway; the fine art of pattern flying. Given the number of Unicom arguments and pattern furballs we see and hear about in reader mail, this is a touchy subject for many pilots.
Were not sure why this should be so but how about a theory? A couple of theories, really. One is that even if youre sharp on pattern procedures, it takes two to tango and if the guy youre following isnt so sharp, youre caught in the backwash and everyone looks boobish.
Second, few of us really think about pattern procedures, much less practice them. Then, when were presented with the novel situation-four airplanes in the downwind or a 60-knot Cub on a three-mile final-we make hash of it and the games begin.
Based on reader mail and experience, theres a known list of pattern screw-ups and, although everyones hot buttons vary, well look at five common pattern sins in this article. We know youve seen them and weve all done them from time to time. But with forethought, all are avoidable.
The Tri-State Pattern
Weve beat this dead horse before but its now time to reduce it to the molecular level and reassemble it into cogent advice. Absurdly wide patterns with overlong final segments appear to be the number one complaint other pilots have about traffic patterns flown poorly. If you do this, you probably know who you are.
Were not sure why or how this wide-pattern trend got started. But we think it has to do with so many instructors being trained by flight academies to fly by the numbers, including the shape and size of the pattern. If a student learned to fly a pattern with a -mile final then, by God, thats what hes probably going to teach as a 270-hour, fully matriculated CFII. And so the tradition is carried on.
Well, stop it. Wide patterns are inefficient, discourteous and, occasionally, downright dangerous. Readers tell us so; fellow pilots tell us so and even students occasionally complain. We cant recall anyone arguing in favor of huge patterns, yet more pilots than not tend to favor them.
What is the ideal pattern size? For light aircraft other than medium twins, a pattern that results in a turn to final between and mile out strikes us as the ideal compromise between enough time to set up for the runway, the potential to fit as many airplanes as possible into the pattern and remaining visible from the airport surface. One-eighth mile isnt too short, if you ask us.
Why is being visible from the airport surface important? Efficiency and safety. If your base turn occurs a mile from the runway, youre a speck viewed from the ground. An aircraft waiting to depart may hear you on CTAF but lacking visual contact, he idles on the taxiway wasting time and gas waiting until you putt into view. Had you made the base turn -mile away, he could see you and then make a more confident judgment on whether to hold short or launch without delay. (Were assuming a non-towered airport, by the way.)
Furthermore, wide patterns beget wide patterns and on a busy day, whoever starts one with a -mile final will surely have following traffic telescoped out to twice that by the time the third or fourth airplane enters the fray. Thats because most pilots are taught to hold the turn from downwind to base until the traffic on final crosses abeam the left wing. (Assuming left traffic, here.) Good advice, but not when the interval between three airplanes on final is already a mile each.
What to do? First, tidy up your own pattern by not extending the final in the first place. Learn to comfortably fly a short final with a close-in downwind and a short base leg. Your speed control will improve-it will have to-and so will your landings.
When on the downwind and squinting into the sun for an airplane on an announced one-mile final, slow down. If you adhere to the no-base-turn-until-abeam method, the faster you fly, the longer your own final will be and the longer the final of the guy behind you will be. Many light aircraft can comfortably fly 70 knots in the downwind, with some power and flaps. Theres certainly no reason to be doing 110 knots. In this scenario, less is definitely more.
Another method is to abandon the base-turn-abeam method, slow down as much as possible, thus decreasing your turn radius, and then begin your base turn when the traffic on final is about 20-to-30 degrees ahead of your left wing. If you play the turn rate to keep the other airplane on a line of constant bearing-just in the lower left corner of your windshield-youll fly a pattern with minimum extension of the final length. If you maintain your slow speed, the traffic on final-unless unnervingly slow-will probably open up the interval when you turn in behind on final, giving you plenty of space to follow without crowding.
Yet another option is to turn inside an aircraft thats on a boorishly long final. But this really requires delicate negotiation on the CTAF frequency and a mutual agreement by both airplanes that its the right thing to do, not to mention the right airplanes. If the inside-turner is a Bonanza and the long final guy a Cessna 150, perfect. If its the other way around, forget it.
Sloppy Speed Control
If youve ever seen a pilot really crater one onto the runway-and who hasnt seen or done this?-the cause is often poor speed control and usually its too much speed. And if the final was flown too fast, the pattern probably was, too.
Some pilots use target power settings to achieve certain speed milestones stones in the pattern and thats a good method. Theres no one-size-fits all speed for pattern flying. If theres no one in the pattern, a Warrior could come steaming into the downwind at cruise speed and, if the pilots sharp on speed control, still cross the numbers at 60 knots without resorting to the Tri-State pattern. On the other hand, if the pattern already has three airplanes of varying speed, slower is probably better.
Heres the reasoning: if the airplane ahead is at or near your speed and your entry or initial turn yields an interval that looks good, a slower speed will maintain it or open the interval slightly. You can always speed up if a widening interval will cause traffic conflicts or inefficiency. But whens the last time that happened? More likely, you had to slow down because you were chewing up the guy ahead of you.
Second, if you want to modulate the finals length by turning sooner than you initially planned because the guy ahead is faster, that early turn will be a lot easier at 70 knots than at 90 knots. The turn radius will be less and so will the required bank angle, both of which work in concert to reduce the tendency to overshoot if you decide to hurry the turn to final.
Third, a slower final offers more options than a fast one. You can land short and make the first turnoff or sink into ground effect and add some power to float to the third turnoff. Or you can land and fast-taxi the length of the runway. Or do a stop and go. With a fast final, youll be spending some amount of time/distance bleeding off the speed and theres not much you can do about it until the wheels are on the runway and the wings are unloaded. The option of clearing the runway quickly offers the potential of better pattern efficiency, too, since you can get out of the way of the next airplane landing.
In the not-too-distant past, the FAA frowned on straight-in entries to traffic patterns. But the regulations and the AIM are actually in sync here. FAR 91.126 simply requires that all turns be made to the left, unless otherwise specified, and the AIM says straight-ins are acceptable, as long as they arent used to cut off another aircraft in the pattern.
But one mans cutoff is anothers right of way, hence this one sparks lots of CTAF nastiness. As with turning inside another airplane on a wide pattern, this one can be negotiated on the CTAF. The classic conflict is the straight-in approach that T-bones an airplane on base leg which, technically, has the right of way.
This one can be nipped in the bud if the straight-in asks the guy on downwind if hell extend to allow the straight-in, if necessary. Weve found that most pilots will happily do this. Problem solved. If the situation suggests that asking might cause more trouble than it saves, abandon the straight-in for a conventional 45-degree entry or merely fly an upwind leg, then a conventional pattern or, if the situation permits, an overhead approach. (See Aviation Safety, December 2003.) The essential skill for success here is courtesy.
The CTAF has, at once, nothing to do with flying the pattern and everything to do with flying the pattern. Because most Unicom frequencies are so congested, they can be utterly useless at certain times of the day. To get any utility at all out of them, shorten your radio calls to the minimum when warranted.
For example, on a busy Saturday afternoon, to save frequency time, you can probably dispense with informing the world that youre taxiing from the FBO to the runway. Everyone who needs to will see you and figure out what to do.
Similarly, bloated traffic calls can be abbreviated: Blair Muni traffic, Cherokee Nine Six Nine Five Golf departing Runway 36, Blair Muni traffic, can be shortened to, Blair, Cherokee departing 36, Blair. If the frequency is one continuous squall, no one will know if you skip the traffic call entirely and use the energy for what you should be doing anyway: looking for traffic with your eyeballs.
Screaming arguments on the CTAF never solve much; although polite negotiation almost always does. If someone cuts you off or otherwise offends your pattern sensibilities, sit on your mic finger and save it for the FBO lounge. Hash it out in private over a cold Coke, not a hot mic, in public.
This is not so much a mistake as a misunderstanding of rules and common sense. Some pilots believe-erroneously-that theres an FAR prohibiting two airplanes from landing on the runway at the same time or one landing while the runway is occupied by a second. Were it true, the controllers at Oshkosh during EAA AirVenture would be in deep doo-doo. The airplane on the runway doesnt necessarily own it. And, in any case, the pavement can and should be shared, when necessary.
Obviously, at any airport-non-towered or otherwise-two airplanes can share the same runway. At a towered airport, the required runway separation between two light aircraft is 3000 feet, according FAA Order 7110.65, the controllers manual. At an uncontrolled airport, you are free to apply more or less separation as you see fit. We wouldnt be inclined to apply much less.
When the pattern is congested, a long runway can provide some relief. You can safely double up on the runway and thus tighten the pattern interval by landing behind another airplane. Obviously, this isnt prudent on a 2500-foot runway but theres no reason it cant be considered on a longer runway, say one of 4000 or 5000 feet.
The scenario is following an airplane at what you consider to be an acceptable interval. But the airplane ahead dawdles, misses the turnoff and is still on the runway as you cross the numbers 2000 feet behind him. Should you go around or land? If your speed is right-that is, slow-you probably need less than 1000 feet to stop safely. If you can do it safely, theres no reason not to land. If it looks iffy, a go around is always good practice and its rarely a wrong call. Its a judgment call, pure and simple. A courtesy radio call wont hurt: Cherokee on 36 at Blair, Cessna landing behind you.
Which brings us full circle to the beginning. None of the five pattern sins weve discussed here are beyond the reasonable ability of any competent pilot to address. Some are skills issues, some are courtesy issues, some are both. But all of them are fixable, which is more than you can say about most things in aviation that are broken.
This report represents our ideas on addressing these five sins-wed like to hear yours, especially on how to talk with other pilots. Drop an e-mail to email@example.com.