Flying Defensive Patterns

Mid-airs usually happen in the traffic pattern. Be where you’re expected, and expect the other guy to do it wrong.


All pilots fear mid-air collisions (MACs), even though they’re relatively rare. The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s 2011 Nall Report, an annual look-see at general aviation’s safety record in the U.S., found only four of them. That means the other 1373 accidents occurring in the U.S. during 2010, the year examined, involved other causes, including the always-interesting stupid pilot tricks. Of the four mid-airs in 2010, one of them involved no fatalities; in only one MAC did everyone aboard both aircraft suffer fatal injuries.

The relative lack of mid-airs doesn’t mean we should ignore the risks they pose. History has demonstrated a mid-air can occur anywhere, anytime, although the risk is greatest near an airport—who’d have thought it?—where the concentration of aircraft is greatest. The sidebar on the opposite page highlights some recent statistics, also from AOPA’s ASI, and the traffic pattern diagram serves as a reminder of where the highest risks can be found. Once we have this information, there are some very easy things we can do to detect other airplanes and avoid collisions. Some of them we are taught before we ever solo an aircraft—although many of us seem to forget them along the way. Other mitigations aren’t commonly taught in most flight instruction, but they’re simple and effective. Avionics, portable or installed, also can help, of course, but their utility is limited in most environments, and even more so once we’re in the traffic pattern. Ultimately, how we view the chances of a mid-air translates into how we should fly a traffic pattern.


What are we doing Here?
Once we’re close in to a runway, our attention naturally focuses on two things: the runway itself, about which all our maneuvering for landing is based, and inside the airplane, where the airspeed indicator is king (or in some cases, angle of attack indicator) and other chores like positioning flaps and landing gear demand our attention. Especially when we’re in a training environment, very little time seems to be spent looking out for other airplanes, although the landing pattern is where we naturally are at our closest to each other.
On takeoff, we usually are focused on our precise direction of flight, and not what may be coming at us from the sides. One result can be a sort of departure tunnel vision that doesn’t account for objects more than a few degrees off our course. Meanwhile, the nose-high attitude of climb blocks what’s straight ahead of us, and may obscure a slower airplane that departed before us, or one (mis)aiming toward the airport we just departed.

Current and near-future technologies like ADS-B won’t fully protect us—not all aircraft participate or have the equipment to be detected, and some traffic-warning devices do not work when we are close to the ground. And ATC services are no panacea either: The closest I ever came to a MAC happened at a tower-controlled airport with both airplanes actively talking to the tower (see the sidebar on page 14). Much more so than when in the en route airspace, flying in an airport traffic pattern requires that we actively look for other airplanes while maneuvering, both to avoid them and fly a good approach—from which a good landing can be made—to the runway.

Be where you should be
The first strategy for avoiding MACs is to fly standard procedures. This helps you orient yourself more easily, but more importantly it puts you where other pilots know to look for you. Fly tight patterns like you were taught when you first learned to fly—the wider your traffic pattern, the less likely you can see and be seen. Flying a wider pattern also takes longer—you’re covering more ground—and increases exposure to a MAC. Flying standard procedures is defensive flying.

After takeoff, you’ll follow a cleared route at a towered airport or when on an instrument clearance, being very careful to visually check for other aircraft while in visual conditions. But on a visual departure without a required departure route is when it get tricky. I’ll follow the pattern to the extent it makes sense. For example, if I’m taking off to the south but making a visual departure to the north, I’ll turn crosswind, then downwind as I climb, eventually departing the pattern by climbing through its altitude. Flying a VFR departure in this fashion puts me in the places other pilots know to look. But never assume all others will be following the procedures—watch all around for the other guy.

When arriving, and unless given specific instructions to the contrary by ATC at a towered airport, fly the full VFR pattern—entry, downwind, base and final. Don’t short-cut by entering on a base leg, and think long and hard about bringing it in on a long final approach at a non-towered facility. There’s nothing illegal about it—and for some aircraft types, it’s preferred. But understand you’re increasing your risk of a mid-air by not being where you might be expected. Another risk of the straight-in approach is whom you might meet coming off the base leg. Minimize that risk by using the radio to announce your position and intentions, and pay lots of attention to the point at which your final leg might join someone else’s base.

Otherwise, and without tower guidance to the contrary, maneuver to enter the circuit on a 45-degree entry to the downwind leg. Be at the proper altitude before getting within a couple of miles of the pattern—avoid descending into the circuit from above. If you’re planning a descent from the en route environment or are setting up a GPS navigator to program a vertical-speed rate and determine your top-of-descent point, five nm from the destination airport center is a good place to aim. After arriving at your target altitude five miles out, you can use the extra couple of minutes to scan the area for traffic, decelerate and plan the pattern.

As I learned while training for my private certificate, when arriving at an airport from the opposite side from the in-use runway’s downwind leg, I plan to overfly airports at 500 to 1000 feet above pattern altitude, descend away from the runway after crossing it at a right angle, then making a 225-degree turn (180+45) back to enter the downwind “on the 45.” I do this instead of a midfield crossing at pattern altitude and turn directly onto downwind—this makes your entry more predictable to other pilots.

Do what’s expected
Fly the pattern as published. Do your homework, or at least look on a chart for the “RP” depicting non-standard, right-hand traffic patterns before you approach an airport. If you’re flying a simulated instrument approach, fly the procedure as charted—again, you want your current and future positions to be predictable to other pilots.

Another “something we’re supposed to do” is to make position reports on the CTAF at non-towered airports even when flying IFR. Once you have your release for departure, flip to CTAF and make your radio calls. When ATC permits you to “contact the advisory frequency,” switch to CTAF and start making position reports. All of which brings us to….

Self-Announce Precision
Make standard radio calls when approaching the airport, entering a downwind, turning base and turning final. Be concise but precise: “Newton traffic, Cirrus on left base, full-stop Runway 18, Newton,” instead of a frequency-hogging “Newton area traffic, Bonanza N12345 turning onto a left-hand base leg for Runway 18 at Newton. Oh, and this will be a full-stop landing.”

Further, when making practice or actual approaches, make position reports using direction, distance and altitude—information even VFR pilots will understand—instead of the fixes on the instrument approach procedure. Imagine you’re flying into an unfamiliar airport for the first time. If another pilot reports, “Hance inbound on the RNAV (GPS) Alpha approach,” you probably have no idea where to look. If that same pilot reports “six miles east of the airport, inbound at 2000 feet,” which is about where Hance intersection is located, the unfamiliar pilot will know precisely where to look. So will the post-solo student in the pattern. It takes a little extra effort for the inbound instrument pilot to make this type of radio call, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

As a reminder to make good visual checks, I’ve developed some standard operating procedures (SOPs) and callouts for use in the pattern. I use these myself and encourage my students to do so as well. For example, when taking off and just before taxiing onto the runway, I visually check and say the following aloud: “The runway is clear, the base leg is clear, the final approach course is clear. I’m cleared for takeoff.”

At tower-controlled airports, I’m double-checking the work of tower controllers—after all, I’m the one taking the risk: It’s not like ATC has never cleared an airplane into another’s location. Regardless of whether the tower has cleared us to land or onto the runway to take off, ensuring the runway is, in fact, clear, is the last opportunity we may have to prevent something “bad.” At non-towered airports, I’m the one “clearing” myself for takeoff, so although an ATC clearance isn’t required, my clearance of the airspace most certainly is. Also at non-towered airports, the airplane apparently waiting patiently at the hold-short line can move onto the runway at any moment, on purpose or thanks to a failed parking brake. Even after you’ve already scanned the area to make sure there are no obstacles.

As I’m entering the pattern (on a 45-degree entry to downwind or as otherwise directed by the tower), I also check for and call out: “Pattern left is clear, pattern right is clear, above and below are clear. I’m cleared to enter the pattern.” This is, of course, after actually looking for traffic. Too often, we’re in a hurry, or not focusing our eyes much beyond the wingtips when looking for traffic. And since traffic posing a real conflict likely isn’t moving much relative to us—only growing larger—we can easily miss it. Scanning for traffic is a skill, just like a good landing, and the more attention we lend the task, the better we’ll be.

A final SOP I use is for when I’m turning onto the base leg from downwind. A pilot’s attention is naturally focused on the runway, to help ensure the turn is begun at the proper point and ends with the airplane correctly positioned. But on the runway isn’t where the traffic that’ll hit you is located right then. A much greater threat, however, is about a mile out on a long straight-in approach, whose position report you missed. There’s always someone who (wittingly or not) flies a right base when a left pattern is called for, because they didn’t check the proper pattern or because it’s more convenient. As I’m turning base, then, I make it a point to look outside and away from the airport, calling out to myself, “Base is clear, final approach to left is clear, final approach to right is clear, no one’s on a ‘backward base,’ I’m cleared to continue.”

Airplanes will appear motionless in the windscreen when you’re on a collision course. Unfortunately, human eyes detect motion far better than they do stationary objects; we even tend to ignore things plainly in sight if they aren’t moving. Further, airplanes are sometimes hard to distinguish from ground clutter or the runway striping.

Because most MACs happen below 500 feet (i.e., on final approach) and because it will be difficult to see an airplane we’re overtaking on final, the best place to check for threats on final approach is while we’re making the turn to final. During the turn, the collision threat will have some relative motion in the windows, before you’ve established a collision course with it. Turning final also is a good time to look for airplanes at the runway hold line or “lined up and waiting” on the runway itself. As I’m turning final, I make an effort to check the final approach ahead of me and call out to myself, “Final approach is clear, the runway is clear, no one is holding” or “I see the holding airplane. I’m cleared for the runway.”

Established on final, I still look for aircraft on the approach ahead of me, and any airplanes flying a tight approach inside my pattern—helicopters and agricultural aircraft often fly very tight patterns—or I may be making a long, straight-in approach on direction of the tower and need to look for airplanes on either a left or right base. Altogether, aircraft on or over the runway, at the holding point, or inside our pattern make up the airspace we need to clear ahead of our landing aircraft. I call out again, “Final approach is clear, base leg left is clear, base leg right is clear, the runway is clear. I’m cleared to land.”

This also serves as a reminder to check for landing clearance if you’re at a tower-controlled airport and have any question whether you’ve been cleared to land.

Get Defensive
What we often call a “near miss” (more correctly a “near hit”) is the result of pilots in two airplanes simultaneously falling short on their obligation to see and avoid each other. Our duties while flying the pattern naturally draw our attention to two things—the runway, and the inside of the airplane. Neither prompts us to look outside for collision threats.

Develop a strategy of being and telling where others know to look for you, doing what they should expect you to do, compensating for the visual shortcomings of your aircraft, and making callouts to remind you to actively look for other airplanes. These are simple yet effective ways to avoid adding to the “near miss” record (or worse).





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