Adventures In The Traffic Pattern

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2017

Occasionally, I am overcome by an irresistible urge to comment on traffic pattern manners observed around various pilot-controlled airports. The items discussed here are not violations of regulations. They are, however, opportunities for improvement in courtesy and/or common sense.

As with virtually all of us, the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) at the airport I fly out of, Middleton Municipal Airport/Morey Field (C29), is shared by several airports. This, coupled with normal excursions to other airports, provides insight into traffic situations at many airports. This offers each of us some consolation that our airport is not unique in its traffic issues. The most common annoyances are pilots who call in every mile or so as they approach from as much as 10 miles out, or provide excruciating detail regarding their position. “Over the pig farm” may be useful if you fly there frequently, but conveys little information to transient pilots. Then there are the two buddies who must discuss where they are, the condition of their airplanes, and where they will meet when on the ground.

Thank goodness there are not many regulations covering the traffic pattern at pilot-controlled airports. As a result, things in general, work quite well. However, manners and situational awareness counts for a lot.

The following are three incidents, which I have observed over the past two months at our airport:

1) An aircraft reported “four south” to enter downwind for  “two eight.” The pilot actually entered on base for Runway 28 at an altitude well lower than pattern altitude and then proceeded to head for an aircraft already on a long final. At the time there were three aircraft in the pattern and all had announced their positions. One had just turned base leg and would soon be on final and the target of the incoming plane, one was on downwind and one had just announced it was turning downwind. What could have been improved was better communication regarding the newcomer’s awareness of other aircraft and a more definitive statement as to his position on downwind. After all, the downwind leg is at least two miles long making it difficult for those already on downwind to locate incoming aircraft.

There are several options here. First, announcing intent to enter the pattern on a base leg would have been far more informative and helpful for the rest of us in the pattern. Maintaining pattern altitude until entering base would have also been helpful. Additionally, if the pilot saw the other two airplanes on downwind, letting them know would have been the polite thing to do. If not seen, a comment to that effect would have been useful as well.

2) The pilot of another aircraft reported “six out for two eight,” then corrected that to “one zero” when aircraft in the pattern announced their position. The pilot then proceeded, with an announcement beforehand, to execute a midfield crosswind closely ahead of an aircraft already on downwind and previously announced as such.

The issue here was that the arriving airplane was about 20 kts slower than the aircraft already on downwind. The pilot approaching from outside the pattern did most things right, except for placing the aircraft just ahead of a much faster aircraft. This resulted in a potential collision and a very definite need to extend downwind to avoid over-running the slower aircraft. Interestingly enough, when discussing the incident with the pilot, his concern was that he entered on a midfield crosswind and kept defending that decision even after the real issue of cutting off an aircraft already established in the pattern was pointed out to him. Presumably, the concern on the part of the pilot came from the fact that the recommended entry is on a downwind. However, given the circumstances, a midfield, crosswind entry actually made the most sense because of traffic considerations in general. The pilot just needed to be more circumspect about where he entered the downwind.

3) A pilot announced departure on Runway 28, despite the fact that traffic was using Runway 10. There had been a slight wind shift with a velocity of 3 kts and about an 86-degree crosswind. The wind direction had been shifting about 10 degrees all morning favoring first one runway and then the other. Traffic had been using Runway 10 for some time. There were two other aircraft in the pattern and a Citation had just departed Runway 10. Apparently, the departing pilot felt he was obligatory to takeoff upwind regardless of traffic.

(With a light wind, I prefer to go with the aluminum flow, rather than the air flow, runway permitting. If I feel the wind is too strong, I am not above requesting a change in runways.)

Since training activity was ongoing at that time and there was at least one relatively new solo student in the pattern, the potential for stress was quite high. One can only speculate that the pilot going against traffic has been told you ALWAYS take off into the wind. Obviously, a little attention to the radio while taxiing to the runway would have let the pilot know that things were a little different than what was usual.

It just so happened that I know two of these folks. I know they are capable pilots and I assume the third was also. The point is that sometimes we need to pay a little more attention to situational awareness in the pattern, particularly when it concerns other aircraft. Also, our usual habit patterns could perhaps use some review from time to time.

Another issue that arises frequently is the spacing between aircraft. Since, at a pilot controlled airport, we pilots set our own spacing, it is worth a review at this point.  Again, it is important to develop situational awareness concerning the type and position of other aircraft.

The simplest spacing is probably when landing. We all know that we should not touch down on the runway when another aircraft is on the runway. Therefore, we know to go around under those conditions. To establish this spacing when following in the pattern, given two airplanes of roughly similar performance, it generally works to turn base when the lead aircraft passes you on final. Otherwise, this becomes a judgment call on our part as to when to start descending on final. If the plane ahead is faster, then an earlier turn to base would be appropriate. However, leave enough time for the plane ahead to reach a taxiway and depart the runway. It is always a good idea to be prepared to execute a go-around if, at the last minute, things don’t work out as planned.

If entering the pattern after listening to any reporting aircraft, develop a picture in your mind of the situation. Then plan an entry point and time, which will give you most traffic separation. If necessary, loiter outside the pattern until you can safely enter. As you do so, keep your head on a swivel and keep in mind that the primary concern is to make sure the airspace you are about to use is free of obstacles.

Care is also needed on departure. Life is good when taking off behind a much faster airplane, so long as we allow for wake turbulence avoidance. There is no danger of collision. However, when taking off behind an aircraft of similar or lesser speed, care must be exercised.

There are two things that can make this situation interesting. The obvious issue is a fast airplane taking off behind a slower one. The less obvious one is that airplanes in the pattern don’t usually fly a pattern of the same dimensions. The whole thing is compounded by the fact that airplanes, being streamlined, present a small cross-section to the airflow, which also means they are hard to see, particularly head or tail on. A good idea is to wait until the aircraft departing ahead of you has at least 500 feet of altitude. At our airport we have a noise abatement procedure which, on one runway (Runway 28) calls for a turn 20 degrees to the right of runway heading soon after liftoff. The issue with this is that when you turn left crosswind, you are cutting back across the straight-out path from the runway. If the aircraft following you is unaware of the noise abatement procedure (despite the signage) and has flown straight out, you are now cutting across their flight path. This can be an adrenalin creator for both. That’s one of the reasons why we call our crosswind on the radio, even though it adds to the frequency congestion. A little care to acquaint yourself with such procedures at strange airports, is well advised.

Perhaps as a flight instructor who spends an inordinate amount of time in the pattern, I have become overly sensitized to pattern issues. However, despite all my carping, as a group I think we do very well at controlling our own traffic, but there is always room for improvement, common courtesy and common sense!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at harlgren@aol.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).

DISCLAIMER:
The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author(s) only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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