Pattern Operations Revisited

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2018 issue

It seems that traffic patterns at pilot-controlled airports remain a source of concern for general aviation, as the majority of accidents happen in the pattern. It would be oversimplification to say that this is due to the fact that this is where airplanes congregate, so what do you expect? In fact, the accidents tend to be clustered around a couple of simple acts: overshooting the turn to final, and failure to observe traffic pattern protocol.

First, think about the turn to final. All too often the pilot loses track of the location of the runway and when turning to final, finds that the runway has been overshot. This is particularly a problem when there is a tailwind on base causing the final course to be overshot. In an attempt to correct, a steep turn is entered, and in frustration, rudder is used incorrectly. The combination of increased angle of attack associated with a steep turn results in a stall, and the non-coordinated use of rudder results in a snap roll or spin, neither of which can be recovered from low altitude. Most of these accidents happen at pilot-controlled airports. Therefore, the following comments are directed principally to non-towered operations whether on or off airport.

Currently, there are discussions focusing on a revised pattern to correct the problem. This revised pattern is an adaptation of the military overhead approach in that a continuous turn from downwind to final is advocated. In my opinion, this is a very bad idea for several reasons. First, while in that turn, the pilot cannot see the runway because the wing blocks the view in a high-wing airplane and the view is blocked by the window top in a low-wing airplane. Both block the view toward anyone entering the pattern on final or base. Further, part of the problem is that pilots generally try to look at the runway while in the turn from base to final and therefore, violate the old adage: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Entering the pattern on base or final is not recommended, but reality is that it happens on a daily basis. Usually a call is made to the pattern to announce this, but not always. Therefore, the continuous turn increases the risk of collision. On the other hand, flying the standard pattern, when done properly, results in a 90-degree ground reference turn from downwind to base with wings level on base. This permits much better visibility of any traffic entering on final and also allows the pilot to judge the aircraft height and position without the perspective distortion caused by sighting down a wing pointing at an angle toward the runway.

One argument used in favor of the circling approach is that the military uses it successfully and safely. The issue with this statement, in my opinion, is based on several facts. First, military pilots have been trained extensively and intensively in this approach from their earliest training days. Second, military aircraft usually have much better visibility from the cockpit than do general aviation aircraft. Third, military pilots are required to maintain currency at a much higher level than general aviation pilots. Fourth, military pilots are much more adept at upset recovery than the average general aviation pilot. Fifth, almost all military fixed-wing operations are conducted under a controlled environment.

Frankly, I feel a much better approach is proper training. Perhaps this should be included in a biennial flight review (BFR) as well.

A significant factor in a successful pattern and landing operation is to be consistent in track and airspeed. Once this has been accomplished, the only variable becomes the wind. This is a much better situation than having to compensate with varying airspeed and track in addition to the wind. First off, since most pilots tend to look for the runway all the way through the turn from downwind to base and from base to final, this adds to the difficulty. This does a couple of things that are, in my opinion, counter-productive.

Turns tend to be arcs because the pilot is not paying attention to the track, but rather the runway. This usually means a different distance to the touchdown point and hence time, and therefore, a different altitude at the threshold from one landing to another. A runway has yet to be moved on me once I’m in the pattern, so I don’t need to watch it while turning. It’s not going anywhere. Far better to pay attention to a turn to 90 degrees to the runway, plus or minus any crab required to keep the track at 90 degrees to the runway centerline, and then level the wings.

This allows the pilot to more accurately judge the height and distance to the runway because the visual distortion caused by looking along a wing is not there and allows a more effective view of potential traffic conflicts approaching from outside the pattern because both high and low wings tend to block traffic view while in a turn. Also, this gives a more effective means of judging when to turn to final because one can see how fast that imaginary extended centerline is approaching and simultaneously providing an opportunity to judge wind effects.

In addition to these considerations, it would seem logical to emphasize during training, including the BFR, that coordination and pitch control are key elements to any maneuver, but absolutely essential in the landing pattern. The stabilized approach is still one of the best techniques. Lastly, we should all recognize that there will be times when we overshoot that turn onto final by too much to safely recover and the ONLY appropriate action then is a go-around. But whatever happens, remain coordinated and watch the pitch and hence airspeed.

One hears the comment, “That is all well and good, but what about when you’re in a towered environment and you can’t willy-nilly choose when you turn base or final?”  The answer is also simple. If this technique is practiced, the pilot will soon learn to judge that point at which a stabilized final approach can be completed regardless of where and how the pattern is flown.

The other major issue is “collision avoidance” in the pattern. Much has been said on this issue in previous columns, but repetition seems to be in order.

There seems to be a continuing problem with the definition of what and where the pattern is. Just the other day I heard someone say, “Airplane on a 10-mile final for ten.” Really? Just where is the pattern? And when did we stop using individual numbers when referring to the runway?

Another issue with patterns is the tendency of some folks to think that as long as they enter on the sacred 45 degrees to the downwind, they don’t have to worry about other aircraft already in the pattern. It is not unheard of to be cut off on downwind because someone just enters without thought to anyone else on downwind. Sometimes this happens because the plane entering the pattern is much slower than the one already in the pattern. At other times it happens because the offender is simply not used to flying in a pilot-controlled environment.

The first lesson to remember is that the pilot in the pattern assumes the right of way over anyone entering the pattern. Further, the pilot closest to the runway in the pattern, has priority. This is not regulatory… It is just general practice. Hence, when someone declares they are on final 10 miles out, they are, by implication, attempting to establish priority over someone already in the pattern. I know a few (very few) pilots who would do this deliberately, but I believe most of pilots who do this are unaware of the implications. It is far preferable for the aircraft 10 miles out simply to state position and intentions, but not to try and butt in line to land.

At this point, no matter what statement is used, more than a few pilots will say: “Any traffic in the area, please advise.” The FAA has declared in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), 4.1.9.g.1 that this phraseology should not be used under any circumstances.

There is one area in the referenced section of the AIM that I feel should be expanded upon. That is in the discussion of announcements to be made when executing practice instrument approaches. The AIM calls for announcement at specific points in the approach: departing the final fix on a non-precision approach, marker or marker beacon, or on final on a precision approach. To a non-instrument rated pilot, or one unfamiliar with the specific procedure, this means very little. Stating position relative to the airport, the runway involved and lastly the fix would be far more informative. Including the fact that the approach is being executed is important because then everyone should be aware that maybe the pilot isn’t looking outside as much as desired and extra vigilance may be required.

While not in the AIM, I believe it is wise to state intentions upon completion of the approach. If it is going to be a low approach, you should state that and the direction in which you are going to exit the pattern. If you are going to circle to land, you should say so and define the runway to which you are circling. If flying a practice approach, and there is conflicting VFR traffic, consider terminating the approach at or above pattern altitude, and be sure and tell the other folks when you do it.

Many non-towered airports are served by approach control from a nearby towered airport. Assuming there are two radios in the airplane, it is wise to have one tuned to approach and one to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). That way if there is someone executing an approach, those aircraft in the pattern can be aware of that fact and act accordingly. Typically, the non-towered airport is in Class G airspace until 700 feet AGL. Therefore, while not particularly wise, legal pattern activities only require one-mile visibility and clear of clouds while remaining in Class G airspace. Under these circumstances, it is also possible that an airplane on a legal IFR approach can collide with an airplane in the pattern flying legal VFR. The result is that both pilots will be legally dead. The best approach is to be aware of the activity and simply get out of the way and let the aircraft on an instrument approach land.

In short, precision in flying the pattern, coupled with proper communications, can go a long way toward bringing the accident rate down.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument 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 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 instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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