Cross & Descend or Just Cross?

June 12, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

There was no shortage of thoughtful response and opinion to last week’s blog on how to enter the traffic pattern at non-towered airports when approaching from the opposite side of downwind. My informal analysis of the more than 120 responses showed you were split just about down the middle between the “Crossovers” and the “Crosswinders” with a very slight edge to Crosswinders.

This is almost identical to the response we got years ago when ASF first published the safety advisor on Operations at Non-towered Airports. We consulted both with FAA Flight Standards and with Transport Canada. We looked at accident statistics on midair collisions and found by far, the most dangerous place is on final approach, not the downwind leg.

Both sides were passionate that their way provided the best separation, spacing and view of other traffic.

There were several recurrent themes of the string :

  1. Communication is the most important element, as well as LOOKING
  2. Some treated the AIM as gospel, others saw it as guidance and NOT regulatory.
  3. Pilot judgment is crucial.

Getting to the bottom line, obviously, the idea is not to swap paint. Clearly, based on your response, one size does not fit all, despite personal preferences. A thought – think like ATC – look for ways to avoid conflict, be courteous, orderly and flexible.

Next week, we’ll try to get beyond the traffic pattern. Thanks to all for participating.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Jim Dulin

    In the interest of Air Traffic Control, we use poor wind energy (groundspeed control) management. Where statistics support an arbitrary pattern direction to enhance compliance, a regulated pattern is appropriate. Where there are still few airplanes, making our crosswind downwind would be safer as this would cause our base to final to be upwind and at the slowest groundspeed possible.

    Why couldn’t the AIM say, “When the wind is more than ten degrees off runway heading, all crosswind legs will be made downwind and all base legs will be made into the wind. Wouldn’t that be safer?

  • William Perry

    My opinion of the statement crosswind=downwind and base=into the wind is not supported by traffic pattern arrangements at each individual airport, or those with more than one runway utilizing patters from both sides.

    I flight instruct full time at the busiest general aviation airport in the US and we all teach our students to cross mid-field, 500 feet above the in use traffic pattern (keeping in mind this could be more than 1500 agl), to enter a pattern on the opposite side of the runway. Once crossing the runway and verifying that downwind is clear with both a radio call, and visually, the student is taught to descend and setup for landing.

    The other argument for the 10 degree rule you propose would be this:
    At what point do you stick with your decision when the winds are VRB003 or when the wind direction is gusting and changing from 180 to 210?

  • Fred Longhi

    I think it is important to remember that at a non-towered airport some pilots may be flying in aircraft without radios. I realize this is not common but it is true. Sometimes there are so many airports within listening distance with the same frequencies that communications becomes a problem. For these reasons alone, regardless of whether I use a cross-over or crosswind entry, I never let down from above traffic pattern altitude until I am at least two miles from the airport. I have witnessed too many pilots flying very wide patterns. Letting down too close to the airport could result in a collision. Being at the same altitude as the traffic prior to entry makes it easier to see that traffic.

  • David Magaw

    A number of non-towered airports have skydiving activity. My home airport 2Q3 for example, and I have landed at a number of others across the USA. Generally this activity is noted on charts. However, crossing the airport mid-field to enter the pattern would be quite dangerous to both skydivers and aircraft. I did not see this noted in any comments.

  • Bob Pittelkow

    David Magaw just converted me to “Crosswind”. Several times I have encountered unannounced skydivers in the air around (but not limited to) airports in the MSP area. I always think “What If?” Of course, “Crosswind” may not help if the skydivers are jumping upwind to drift into the airport. Communication is vital.

  • David W McCarroll

    I think each airport has it’s own unique requirements and these should be taken into consideration. For example, my airport (KPLU) lies underneath the Seattle Class B airapace and very close to the eastern edge of the McChord AFB conrolled airspace. McChord controls from the surface to 2000′, Sea-Tac from 2000′ to 5500′. The preferred runway at KPLU is 16 with a left pattern for noise control. This makes for some interesting traffic for those of us who prefer to fly nice. When I am approaching from the west, I usually cross over at 2000′ to a point 5 miles east of the field, (taking into consideration terrain clearance), then work my way into a standard 45 to downwind pattern. What we try to encourage is the 45 to downwind. Not everyone uses that approach and it does cause conflict when pilots do not. As far as changing the pattern from left to right depending on the wind; I’m not sure that is the best answer as it can create confusion when the winds are variable.

  • Brian Baxter

    I have twice encountered aircraft either not communicating or without radios crossing directly in front of me on takeoff/climbout. On both occasions I had to stop my climbout to avoid a conflict. Both of these were low, possibly staying below the standard pattern altitude out of a false sense that they were providing more separation to aircraft in the pattern. The end result is that they cross the departure end of the runway so low that its impossible for them to see the approach end of the runway or for an aircraft at the approach end to see them before starting the takeoff roll.

    I’m a firm believer in crossing midfield at 500′ over the pattern altitude. This is the way I was taught and based on my experience above, I believe the safest way. I dont buy into the skydiving reasoning for a number of reasons. First, I begin monitoring advisory frequency 10 miles out. Parachute activity should be announced over the CTAF. Second, I believe skydivers routinely pull their chutes well above 1500 agl. If this is incorrect… refer to #1. I believe I could see and avoid a chute or vice versa.

  • David Tuuri

    That’s it? Just gonna call what you do a ‘cross-over’ instead of a ‘cross-wind’? No scientific study to settle the matter once and for all? Because statistics show mid-airs are more likely on final, not downwind?

    Suppose statistics show you can cross a railroad track on a country road just as safe with your eyes closed as open? Does that mean there’s no need to open them unless you’re in the city?

    Way to go, Bruce.

  • Gene Keyt

    One of the safest, to me is one we used in high traffic flow in WWii. Initial entry was directly over the landing runway, 500 Ft. above the traffic pattern. We would roughly space ourselves on the entry to the runway heading. and then make descent to pattern altitude during the turn to crosswind. Fine spacing for other aircraft is easy by extending the crosswind to space one self to the downwind aircraft.
    My experience is that everyone has a different idea for what the downwind lateral spacing should be. This makes it difficult to spot other aircraft both on the downwind, base and final. In order for it to work well, all aircraft should use it. Announce it as; “Bonanza 8135R 3miles out for a 360 degree overhead approach to runway 36.”

  • Mike Davidson

    From a new skydiver pilot and olden jump instructor: The lowest parachute deployment “must” be initiated by 2000′ AGL, and most jumpers pull by 3000′ AGL these days as modern parachute openings are slowed for safety and comfort and may take 300-500 feet after deployment initiation. So a jumper could be in the transition at that level of pattern entry/setup discomfort for GA. I like to hear a jump pilot announce to CTAF the general direction of body release along with his “jumpers away from 13,000′” call, or the 2-minute prior call. You can usually assume it is upwind of the airport, but with large-ship or multi-ship ops, the first jumpers out may open over top, or even a bit downwind. If you query Approach and/or jump pilot often enough, jump pilots will likely add that info to the required basic call. Another advisory is for higher-than-5,500′-AGL deployments, above where most Tandem pairs deploy, and also for Bird-Suit flyers who have a great deal of horizontal movement capability and speed in freefall phase. The pilot is briefed on these jumpers intentions, and that info is fair game for the asking. Most ships go to APPR freq at 2000 MSL or so, and toggle to CTAF for the 2-min, and jumpers-away calls, back to APPR, then later to CTAF for their own pattern set-up/entry. If I am flying GA elsewhere, and not sure, I’ll go wide crosswind at 1500-2000′ leaving a 1.5 mile margin x-wind and downwind if the set-up for wind-appropriate RW is upwind, or consider a long base entry if CTAF is fairly quiet. Only when upper winds are very stiff do we get over a 1.5 NM jumper release by GPS data.

  • Brad Fry

    Since righting the following story, I have received my Private Pilot’s License and have lodged over 200 hours in my PA-28-140. Recently I took a cross-country flight that would require one fuel stop. Because I hadn’t flown my plane this far before, I wanted to make sure that I had adequate fuel to make it. I checked out all the available airports within the area that I expected to use for the first fuel stop along with the expected winds and the elevations at these airports. Then I made up a flight plan and estimated times and fuel consumption with waypoints using Airnav and Flight Charts. I utilized both ways, old school and new school. The plan included head winds of 16 to 20 mph. I was surprised that both estimations were very close to one another. During my flight, I estimated my first waypoint at 1.3 hrs and arrived at it in 1.1 hrs. Upon landing at my planned fuel stop, I estimated my flight time 4.3 and arrived at 4.0. I used 38.27 gal. and estimated 38.69 gal. Planning keeps you flying and safe.

    Out of Gas and on the Ground
    By: B. Marshall

    One day I needed to drop off my car for some paintwork to a friend that has a paint shop at a private airpark. He told me that his friend could give me a ride back after I dropped off the car in his Cessna 182. The airplane was having a final check by the A&P who just completed the instillation of a rebuilt engine. I knew the A&P and about the recent problems the A&P was having with the instillation of the rebuilt engine and felt secure if the A&P certified the aircraft as airworthy, it’ll be OK. After arriving at his shop, the A&P had just completed a two-hour long check flight of the aircraft and pronounced it safe to fly. I had never met the Pilot before and began to question him about the airplane and how long he had been a Pilot. Being that I was a new Pilot and had just recently received my Private Pilot’s License I was pretty inquisitive. The Pilot told me that he had the 182 for quite sometime and that he had flown it several times. When I asked him how long he had been a Pilot, he told me that he did not have a Pilot’s License but had over 1,000+ hours of flight time. At this point a light went off in my head, Hmmm I thought, flying for over 1,000 hours and no License. I asked him, have you past your written test. Yes, he says. I tell him that I’m a licensed private pilot and do not have an endorsement to fly this aircraft and that I cannot be the pilot in command. He replies, here’s Joe my CFI he is going to be the pilot in command. I say, Good. I’m thinking well be OK this guy is a CFI. I get distracted and start talking to my friend and do not watch what the pilot and CFI are doing. I believe that there checking out the aircraft to make sure that fit for flight. We all pile in and I’m sitting in the back. The first thing they discover is the intercom is not working. I say to them, “That’s OK I don’t need to talk to you guys during this short flight” about a half an hour. They fire up the engine and start taxing to the runway. The airport we are leaving from is uncontrolled. As we taxi, both the pilot and the CFI are fumbling around with the radio switches and trying in fix the intercom, in doing so the pilot’s attention is on the intercom malfunction and not on taxi the aircraft, so we swerve from one side of the taxiway to the next. I’m thinking, “Strike 1”. We taxi from the side buildings onto the mid field taxiway. I notice the windsock and can see that the wind is coming out of the west. The pilot then turns towards 21 for takeoff and didn’t make any calls to other aircraft in the area. Another light comes were going to takeoff with the wind and not into the wind and the pilot is not making any clearing calls on the radio, “Strike 2”. I think to myself, it’ll be OK this is a powerful airplane and I think the CFI knows what’s going on and I’m only a passenger. We swerve down the taxiway along the runway to the run-up area. When we get there the pilot and the CFI do a quick run-up without using a checklist. OK, I think to myself, “Strike 3” I wonder if were going to die. With a look to the right and left and with no radio calls the pilot hits the throttle and we spin out onto the runway for a short takeoff. We weren’t even 50’ AGL and the pilot performs a 30’ bank to the north. Thump, Thump my heart goes, OK “Strike 4”. I think were going to die. So off to the north we go on the short flight from hell. We get about half way to our destination and I notice the pilot tapping on the fuel gauges. I look up at them and notice that the gauge indicates a ¼ of a tank in one tank and the other shows empty. I think, we have enough fuel to make it we’ll be OK. Then I notice the pilot looking around out the window at the ground, I take off my headset and ask him if every thing is OK. He replies to me “Well I think were going to run out of gas”. I say to him, “The fuel gauge indicates a ¼ of a tank in the left wing”. Says to me, “I know it runs out of fuel when the left gauge shows ¼ on a tank”. I ask him, “Did you look into the tank to make sure there was enough fuel”. He says to me, “No”. I think to myself, ya were going to die, “Strike 5”. At this time we are flying over an area that I had just drove through and as I was driving I noticed a pipeline road and said to myself, in an emergency situation I could make a landing on that road. You see as a pilot you should always be looking for a place to land in case of an emergency and I have flown over this area quite a few times and I’m always looking. Just then the engine starts to sputter. The pilot yells out “We running out of gas and were going down do you guys see any good places to land”. I yell, “Sure do that pipeline road right there” pointing out the window to the pipeline road I had previously driven by. Both the pilot and the CFI agree on the landing spot I’d pointed out. The pilot yells out, “Secure your seat belts and prepare for landing” and with that we headed for the pipeline road. I secure my seat belt and grabbed the shoulder harness on either side of me that the pilot and CFI did not use and said to them, “I’m ready let’s go”. We come in steep and fast and about 100 yards out from the landing point the pilot gives full flaps and as we come into the ground affect, we pass over two good size washes that would have surly caused the plane to tumble and roll. I’m thinking to myself, at least we don’t have any fuel on board so if we do crash we won’t burn to death. Bouncy, Bouncy down the pipeline road we go and then we come to a full stop. “Good landing we all cry”! Safe and sound and on the ground I began to realize what had just happen to me. I had been through a real life experience in what not to do when piloting an airplane. All the clues were there. Procedure by procedure were not performed and it all began on the ground right from the time the pilot did not perform his preflight check of the aircraft on to the distraction of the intercom and right up to the run-up and take off. What I am thankful of is the flying skill that was displayed in the emergency phase of the flight right down to the landing, “Textbook”. It is amazing that I am able to write about this experience due to the fact that so many procedures were ignored, I guess, I was just lucky this time.

  • Charlie Wolff

    Brad, that is an incredible story!
    When I was just a young kid and had only soloed I helped a guy work on his plane. He had a broken stud in an exhaust port on his 182.
    I was an outboard mechanic and knew how to remove the stud.
    While I was working he was doing some stuff on the front of the engine. After replacing the cowls we taxied out for a test flight. During run up the engine sounded flat and I told him so. I was much younger than he was and it took all of my courage to tell him to taxi back. He got mad and told me everything was OK and started to take off. I opened the door to get out! He was really pissed and called the tower that he had a nervous passenger and would return to the tie down area. Once there I asked him what he had been working on and he said the air cleaner. As I removed the cowls and cleaner I knew what the problem was. He had left a rag in the intake of the carb! I will never forget this lesson. If we had taken off we would have probably crashed. From that time on I trust my feelings about a situation and will go up against anyone if I find a unsafe condition. My younger son is a great pilot and has really good feel for what is not OK.
    He does not think I listen to him, but I do. Once when he was 9 years old we were traveling across the country towing a Corvette behind a Ryder truck with a freshly made tow bar. While I was paying for gas he came and told me he had found something I should checkout. I humored him and when to look. He proceeding to lay down and climb under the truck. I first refused to follow him but he insisted. He had found a broken weld that would have caused us to lose the Corvette on the highway! I was amazed, as I have never seen a little kid check out anything like that on his own in my life. From that day I pay attention even though he is much younger and less experienced.

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