Traffic Patterns & Rube Goldberg

by Harold Green

Some of us remember when the name Rube Goldberg conjured up visions of unduly complex contraptions designed to accomplish some simple task with a level of complexity that was mind-boggling.

For example, to turn on a light switch, a ball might be started down an inclined plane, thereby falling onto a lever, which triggers a bucket of water to tip and start a waterwheel moving, which in turn drops a steel ball onto the latch of a cage containing a mouse which then runs free causing a cat, with a string attached to its tail and the light switch, to chase after it, which in turn turns on the switch. Unduly complex, yet humorous in its absurdity: At least in part because it would seem to do the job.

Well, we seem to have such a thing in aviation. It’s called a traffic pattern at a pilot controlled airport. We have airplanes of many sizes and performance capabilities, arriving from all points of the compass at random intervals. In this situation, most folks realize the need for communications with their fellow pilots and generally do so. However, some call in from 10 miles out and continue to let us know every mile where they are and at what altitude and what their intentions are. Others wait until they are about to enter the pattern to make their initial announcement. Some pilots give us enough information to judge the performance of their aircraft and some do not.

The issue is made even more “Goldbergian” by the fact that the regulatory definition of a traffic pattern simply, and only, says all turns will be to the left unless otherwise specified. The Airman Information Manual (AIM) does define the portions of the pattern as Upwind, Downwind Base, and Final. (4-3-2 and 4-3-3). Pattern altitudes are currently at 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL) unless otherwise specified. (Used to be 800 feet, but that changed some years ago.) Another thing, there is no standard definition of where the pattern begins. The rules also say that the aircraft at a lower altitude has the right of way (FAR 91.113g), except that it “shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another (aircraft), which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft.”

Entering the pattern can also create issues. The FAA recommends entering downwind at a 45-degree angle, midway along the runway of intended landing. Sometimes this may not be the best way. At times a normal or midfield crosswind entry makes more sense. The determining factor is where the incoming aircraft is relative to existing traffic. I suggest the best way is the one, which minimizes potential conflict with other traffic, while affording the best view of other aircraft in the pattern.

What makes this even more fun is the way we usually call in. Typically, we say something like “Piper 12345, 5 miles west, landing Morey Airport.” The basic problem here is that we don’t know what model of Piper aircraft it is. It could be a Meridian, Tri-Pacer, Cheyenne or Cub. This makes a difference in how we respond to the flow of traffic.

BTW, those who have not kept up with their radio phraseology should be advised that the FAA does NOT like the phrase “Any traffic in the area, please advise.” (Reference AIM Par. 4-1-9g.)

A classic incident happened a few years ago as I was on midfield downwind when a pilot announced: “North American, 7 west on downwind for 28.” North American made quite a few airplanes including a Navion, two versions of four-place airplanes of their own design, T-6s, and T-28s. I expected to rule out F-86, B-25, B-45 and X-15. I also figured it was probably not a P-51. As the aircraft slid by me 50 to 100 feet below, I saw that it was a high-performance trainer. (The guy in the backseat was wearing white socks.)

Some pilots have taken to identifying their aircraft by color, make, model and N number (Red and White Cessna Skylane N950XX). This actually makes sense to me. I know how fast and the color helps me spot it. Some folks at our airport have taken to referring to their airplane as Yellow Cub.

Prior to entering the pattern, wouldn’t it make more sense to state how long until arriving, rather than how far away we are? Maybe we could do both. At my airport, it takes about 6 minutes to do a touch and go cycle in a Cessna 172. Thus, if I know that “Super Wing Five” is 10 minutes out, I could plan my pattern accordingly.

Then comes the question of who has “priority.” The pilot who states “On a 7-mile final” poses a priority question. Is this pilot claiming priority in the pattern or simply stating position? According to the FAA, the “aircraft at the lower altitude has priority.” If there appears to be the possibility of two aircraft occupying the same airspace at the same time, it is appropriate to avoid that possibility by any of several means.

If on downwind, you could just extend the downwind until Super Wing passes on final or you could just leave the pattern until things settle down. Often you find yourself on downwind, or just about to turn downwind, when someone you never heard from before announces that they are on downwind for the same runway as you. It is entirely appropriate to say, “Aircraft on downwind, please state your position.” Obviously, since you always announce your departure and turn to downwind, this person has not been listening to the common traffic advisory frequency. What you do then depends on the details of what you learn from your query.

Whenever there is a question of possible conflict, it is wise to run from the situation.

As you run from possible conflict, remember that you may not be able to see everyone. The best thing, after telling everyone your intentions, is to make sure the air you are going to use is clear before changing heading and/or altitude. The basic theory is: You cannot control what the other person does, but you can control what you do. Therefore, get out of the danger area until the situation resolves itself.

Remember to tell the traffic in your area what you are doing so they can look for you. The question of who has the right of way is best discussed over a cup of airport coffee, rather than in the air or on the radio.

Then there are those pilots who start announcing their position 10 miles out as suggested by the FAA, but then keep reminding you every mile as they come closer. While their enthusiasm is to be appreciated, this does tend to distract from other communications unless there is a traffic-related reason for frequent updates.

Another instance of concern is when shooting an approach into a pilot-controlled airport. Stating that you are at the final approach fix for runway XY conveys absolutely no information to the novice pilot in the pattern, even if you give the name of the fix. It makes much more sense to state where you are and what your intentions are relative to the traffic, which may be around the airport.

Then there is the question of exactly where the pattern is located. We have agreed that it is probably 1,000 feet above the airport elevation unless otherwise defined, but how far out does it extend? Obviously the pattern track is wider for a Citation than for a Cub. But how far away from the airport does the pattern extend? After not finding a definitive answer, I turned to the folks at our local Flight Standards District Office. They, too, were at a loss for a definitive answer, but we were able to conclude that 2 miles on final was about as far as it needed to go.

Obviously, there is another amorphous definition, which needs to be interpreted in the light of the actual situation. The higher the performance of your aircraft, the wider the pattern needs to be. This of course ignores the desire of some folks to execute a 180 or 360-degree overhead approach, a la military, which are really fun and, if practiced with due awareness of other traffic, are perfectly safe.

Communication skills are very important here. That does not mean just the ability to utilize the formal jargon of radio talk. The formal stuff makes communication efficient and understandable, however, equally important is the content of the communication and the clarity of expression.

Things can become quite informal by some standards, but the use of standard terminology, clarity of speech and rapidity of delivery are at least equally important.

Everyone understands Upwind, Crosswind, Downwind, Base and Final. Those position reports, along with altitudes and distances, are very helpful. One of the most important things, though, is speaking clearly, concisely and with normal rapidity. This is as important as proper formal phraseology. Clear communication makes a tremendous improvement in traffic awareness in the pattern. Neither a drawler nor a rapid speaker be!

Now please don’t interpret this little tirade as being a plea for more regulations. First, while we sometimes encounter frustration with operations in the pattern, the frustrations are caused by the situation – never by each of us, of course. Second, attempting to regulate this situation would be virtually impossible, as regulators would attempt to define and address each and every situation that might arise. We are far better off with a set of general rules and a good, strong application of common courtesy. Like Rube’s inventions, the current situation for the most part works very well, even if at times it is very complex.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a Certificated Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). Readers can email questions and comments to: or call 608-836-1711 (

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This entry was posted in Columns, Dec2015/Jan2016, Pilot Proficiency and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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