Making An Entrance

Joining the traffic pattern isnt the hardest task a pilot has, but its the one most often done poorly


Success at a social function is judged by your entrance. If you stumble over the doorstep and land face first in the guacamole, youll definitely get noticed but probably not invited back.

Entering a traffic pattern requires the same dont-trip-over-your-joystick finesse. Unfortunately, there is no Emily Post guide for pattern etiquette, and it shows. Monitor the Unicom at any busy uncontrolled airport and youll hear pilots announcing modified downwinds (with no hint of what that modification is), the cursing that results from one pilot cutting another one off and multiple runways in use, even if theres only one strip of pavement.

Think its not a problem? Look at this issues Preliminary Reports section and count the traffic pattern midairs.

The basic source of how to behave in a public pattern can be found in the FARs, of course, especially FARs 91.126, 91.127, and 91.129. FAR 91.126 pertains to airports in class G or uncontrolled airspace and 91.127 applies to airports inside class E airspace. In the spirit of administrative obfuscation, 91.127 simply refers you back to 91.126. We skip 91.128 and continue with 91.129, which is the legal hammer for control towers.

You may wish to take notes, but all the rules boil down to a simple concept: A pilot of good breeding always makes left traffic, unless the host (airport management or tower) requests right. Being gentlepersons of the sky, we agree to this code and there should be nothing more said on the matter.

That is, until we encounter all those variables, the what abouts. What about when Im on an IFR approach? What about when my engine fails? What about when I think the wind favors runway 31 and the Mooney landing on 13 disagrees?

As anyone of good standing knows, stern-faced authority is the best arbiter of etiquette. When talking to an air traffic control tower, your questions are answered by the controller. ATC tells you how to enter the pattern: Make left traffic runway 13L. Make straight in runway 24. Enter right base runway 5. If you dont understand, you ask (which by the way is required under FAR 91.123) and ATC will clarify or amend your clearance.

Where an air traffic control tower does not exist and pilots roam free, the FAA intentionally limits its involvement in pattern disputes. They recognize that some situations have too many variables to warrant absolute control. Instead they offer the minimal regulation then stand back to discipline any offenders.

This is where many pilots get irked. How can a pilot know what to do – whats socially acceptable, whats merely window dressing and whats a downright faux pas – without more direction? The answer is, you cant, at least, not in advance.

The traffic pattern might have been a concise diagram in your ground school text, but in reality it becomes a vague shape in the sky. It has defined segments and in most cases a published altitude, but the airplanes that use the pattern cannot be restricted to absolutes beyond lift, drag, thrust and gravity. Like entering your freshman year in college, the pilot arrives with a somewhat vague sense of purpose. To succeed you must remain flexible and alert.

There are several accepted ways to enter the pattern. In the absence of a control tower, the most used method is to enter on the 45, meaning on a 45 degree angle to the downwind leg. You can rarely go wrong with a 45 entry. This gives the arrival a chance to study the pattern and maneuver to fit in. Its like taking an on-ramp to the New Jersey Turnpike, only not as scary and you know the guy in front of you with Iowa plates cant slam on the brakes when he should be blending with the flow.

Proper Entrance Speeds
This isnt to say, you should be unaware of the speed of the aircraft ahead. Controllers know the importance of speed control.

Back to the rule book. FAR 91.117 lists speed limits: no faster than 250 knots IAS for anyone below 10,000 MSL, and nothing faster than 200 knots when in the vicinity of an airport with a class D or C control tower. Thats the broad outline; there are exceptions but if you cant slow below those speeds you should be reading Kamikaze Weekly, not this.

A radar controller vectoring aircraft into a sequence is more concerned with the visual flow of the arrival sequence. The controller wants to see target A slow from cruise speed in order to follow target B thats already configured for an approach. United 1184, youre following a Citation on a five-mile final, reduce speed to 170. By using specific speed limits the visual flow on the scope is maintained. Busier facilities slow everyone to the same speed without explanation.

Tower controllers, not utilizing radar, do the same thing in a cruder fashion. They look out the tower windows at the arrivals and if they see a Cheyenne smoking into the pattern with gear tucked up and nose pointed at the runway, they know to either make the Cheyenne No. 1 or slow the screecher down to follow a Tomahawk. Thats speed control and sounds something like, Cheyenne 77G, reduce speed to follow a Tomahawk on a two mile final.

If the Cheyenne pilot sees the traffic the tower will say, Cheyenne 77G, follow the Tomahawk, cleared to land. The responsibility for spacing transfers somewhat from the tower to the Cheyenne pilot. The Cheyenne slows to follow.

If the Cheyenne pilot doesnt see traffic, he advises tower and the tower controller will amend the traffic pattern to make it work. Cheyenne 77G, extend your downwind; Ill call your base. Somewhere in there the controller, having realized the sequence was a poor call, might prompt the slower aircraft to increase speed, …keep your speed up; faster traffic following. Then the sequence problem becomes a three-way negotiation with two pilots and a controller trying to make it work.

A controller urging slow pilots to keep your speed up indicates poor sequence planning by ATC. In essence the controller misjudged and is asking the pilot to undo the mess. Your best bet is to cooperate, which will make ATC happy and make you a favored user. But never let ATC – tower, approach or center – force you to exceed the capability of your plane or its pilot. If you agree to an approach at Vne only to slide off the end of the runway, ATC will shakes its head and say, what a lousy pilot that is! Someone call the crash trucks.

Life is simpler without the FAA. Without the tower, the pilot assumes all speed control responsibilities and this should begin before entering the pattern. If youre flying a 60-knot Cub and you know there is faster traffic in the neighborhood, it makes good sense to adjust your arrival. The slow traffic does not have to be intimidated by faster traffic, but the slow traffic should keep the speed up as long as possible.

By the same token, the faster arrivals need to slow before slamming into the downwind like a runaway bowling ball.

Know Your Rights
You can see how a minor thing like speed differences between two airplanes can be so difficult to regulate. If everyone enters the uncontrolled traffic pattern on a 45-degree entry, then a natural flows sets itself.

Take another look at the rule book. FAR 91.113 Right-of-Way Rules says, (f) Each aircraft that is being overtaken (i.e. passed like a VW in the slow lane) has the right-of-way. Cool. Go slow, be first.

If Im in my 65 hp Champ on left down wind and you tailgate me in your Lancair, I have the right-of-way. Further reading tells us, (the) overtaking aircraft (madder than hell at this point) shall alter course to the right to pass well clear. That works fine in a left traffic pattern, but in a non-standard right hand pattern, this does not mean the faster traffic should cut inside to go first.

Whether left or right hand pattern, the faster traffic should extend its downwind and turn a wider base leg to follow. The road block Champ needs to be aware of its place in the food chain and keep the pattern in reasonably tight to not only show good manners but to avoid being swallowed.

In a textbook world, the weather is clear and airports are in wide flat areas surrounded by Kansas section lines and all pilots are persons of honor and skill. In the real world, weather stinks and youre slogging through the last of the NDB approaches on your IPC. Youre kicking yourself for not buying a GPS while the CFII is slapping you upside the Foggles for not holding your angle of intercept. Luckily you break out of the clouds and spot the runway more or less in front of you.

Its an uncontrolled field. You cancel IFR, switch back to CTAF and announce, Im straight in for runway 18! Are you legal? Are you safe? Are you about to make an ass out of yourself?

Sure its legal and circling under the scud would be dumb just to enter on a 45. The PIC always decides how to enter the pattern. If there is a published procedure such as noise abatement, the PIC would be expected to follow that provided it does not endanger the flight. (You did familiarize yourself with all available information as per FAR 91.103 before leaving, right?)

What if your approach brings you in on a base leg, say from a VOR-A? Nothing wrong with entering on a base leg provided you think of yourself as invisible. The other aircraft in the pattern scud-running under the clouds may never see you. The straight in and base leg entries, while legit, tend to literally fly in the face of the norm.

Announcing your entry method on CTAF is wise but 37% of airplanes have crummy or no radios, 32% of pilots arent listening because theyre on the wrong frequency and the rest of us think were first in line.

VFR pilots tend to lock into a mind set of my instructor and I always entered on the 45 degree to the downwind, so that is what Ill do forever and ever, amen. In addition, they may hear an IFR pilot announcing at the outer marker, inbound on the localizer and not have a clue where that is. IFR pilots tend to think that if they had to suffer through twenty miles of ice, turbulence and ATC vectors then, by golly, that pattern is mine! Were both right, but who cares.

Always refer back to the rule, FAR 91.113 (a), that says, it doesnt matter if youre on an IFR flight plan or VFR not talking to a soul, when the weather permits, its up to you to see and avoid other traffic. In other words, develop pilot skills that include good judgment and a vigilant watch for those not quite up to your standards.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Don’t Try This at Home.”

-by Paul Berge

Paul Berge is a CFII and former air traffic controller. He was recently named editor of IFR.


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