Pattern Police?

January 20, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

CopWe’ve all been in the pattern at non-towered airports where there is more traffic than can be comfortably handled. This typically happens on a flying season weekend, between the hours of 1000 and 1800 in good VFR weather. That, not coincidentally, describes exactly when and where most midair collisions take place. Prophetically, “final” approach is where most of the final flights take place. What to do – if anything?

At busy road intersections, traffic control devices such as stop lights, stop signs or traffic circles are used. At many airports with air carrier service we get a control tower. But what about non-towered airports that are really busy at certain times and don’t warrant a tower most of the time? Control towers, while a great amenity, are expensive to build and staff. You may have noticed that neither the government nor the GA community is exactly flush with cash these days.

The Hudson River corridor went 45 years before a collision last summer between a helicopter and a Piper Saratoga. Of course, there was an immediate call to close the corridor. Was this accident a statistical oddity? Not when you start, to use the over-used phrase, to connect the dots. AOPA, FAA, ATC and the helicopter tour operators spent months delving into this and discovered that there were a number of procedures that could be employed that would have minor impact on corridor users but would significantly reduce the chances of a collision. After a collision quite a number of pilots will comment that it was only a matter of time. That’s hindsight and perhaps a bit fatalistic.

Without regulation, could there be some sensible procedures employed to reduce collision potential? Back in my full time CFI days, our airport manager had a rule that there were no touch and goes with more than 5 aircraft in the pattern or on weekends. This allowed transients to get in and out after a reasonable wait and still allowed student landing practice. Woe be to the errant aviator who broke the “rules.” There was an immediate tirade on the CTAF from the old gal with the warning that they’d be “sent on down the road” if they didn’t abide. I should point out it was a privately owned, public use facility. It was traffic control at its most basic and we never had a collision.

There is always bad mojo in a community after a collision and pressure to close airports, although it isn’t usually successful. It does reinforce the perception that GA is dangerous and doesn’t endear us to local politicians. Should we consider voluntarily employing some sort of traffic management that would be used only on condition – when the pattern was full? Maybe there’s a better idea. Another view is that there really are very few collisions annually ( typically less than 10) and that is an acceptable loss for the millions of flight operations that occur at non-towered airports.

Your thoughts – either way?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Stan Comer

    When I learned to fly in 1946 most of the airports did not have a tower and most of the airplanes (J3’s, Champs, Cessna 120’s) did not have a radio. So we were all trained to enter the down wind leg at a 45 deg angle, turn down wind, turn base and then enter the final approach to the runway. We knew where to look for traffic because everyone (?) was following the same pattern. When radios came on the scene pilots started getting away from following this pattern. Some would report that they were in the down wind leg, or were turning base or were on a five mile final approach. Now, a pilot doesn’t know where to look for traffic. Of course now it is recommended that a pilot use his radio to let other pilots know his intentions, but there are still airplanes flying with now radio. Therefor, I recommend that we go back to the old standard of using the 45 deg approach to the active runway.

  • Avi Weiss

    Hey Bruce;

    Procedures, “police”, facilities and technologies are all very useful supplemental items to help ensure “proper” pattern usage, but even if the spending constraints weren’t present and such items can be had, in the end the most effective tool is instill and nurture proper culture via tough pilot candidate assessment and superior training.

    CFIs ultimately have the greatest chance of ensuring pilots not only learn the proper techniques, but driving home the practical reasons for using them, and developing a sense of professionalism in one flying “attitude”. Unfortunately, many CFIs simply focus on the “tactical” part of training as that is what is tested on checkrides, and come up woefully short on the “strategic” components such as “situational awareness”, for ALL situations (e.g. crowded non-towered airport).

    Given the variability in CFIs, training programs, need for more students, it will be a longer road to improving and “standardizing” the “flight training and education” process. ASF can continue to help this effort by continuing to produce the strong safety and safety-training material they are known for.


  • Rob Nebgen

    All too often GA pilots at uncontrolled airports can be their own, worst enemy. I have had the luxury of 20 years of training and flying out of a towered environment in the midwest, with frequent visits to an uncontrolled airport in Colorado. We have now moved to Colorado and my Saratoga is based at this airport. It seems that complacency becomes the norm with operators of “resident” aircraft. I’ll cite an example. I was doing pattern work on a beautiful VFR day. Upon turning crosswind to downwind, I noticed another Piper sitting at the end of Rwy 33, apparently doing a run-up. I announced my position in the patter and mentioned I had the aircraft in sight. No response. I announced turning downwind to base….no response. I anounced turning base to final….no response; half mile final….no response. Stress level rises as I cross the threshold in front of the other aircraft, fully prepared to execute a go-around at any second. As I land and prepare to exit the runway I hear the other pilot announce his position. Immediately, I called him and asked him if he has heard any of my position reports. He said, “Well, I just turned my radio on”. Unacceptable complacency in an uncontrolled environment that can lead to fatal consequences.

  • Rebecca

    I like the rule-of-thumb about no touch and goes with 5 or more in the pattern or on weekends. Other than vigilance, avoiding crowded airspace (when possible) is the best thing a pilot can do to avoid a collision.

  • Jim

    There is NEVER an “acceptable” accident rate for GA, any more than there is an acceptable vehicular accident rate. Although I am a low time pilot, the near misses I have experienced at my home airport have come from pilots failing to follow the rules… straight in approaches instead of entering the approach pattern, failure to acknowledge the unicom transmisions, jumping on the “active” runway in front of a landing plane, because they are “faster” taking off than the plane landing. AND more!!
    Common safety practices and courtesy for our fellow pilots will stop accidents and save lives. Towers and Runway Police are not needed for the smaller GA airports, JUST COMMON SENSE!

  • Bet

    A few self-management suggestions:

    On a busy day, include IAS when announcing position, especially if your plane is unusually fast or slow. “Cirrus 123A mid-field downwind 120 indicated.”

    Adopt a sort of “personal minimum” – 3 or more planes in the pattern, don’t enter! Announce your holding position and enter when there’s less traffic. Usually one 360 at a safe distance is all it takes to hugely reduce risk.

    If you are not sure about or can’t verify that another airplane is safely separated from yours, don’t just assume it’s ok; depart the pattern for a few minutes and come back.

    Don’t tempt fate – yours and others!

  • Ken Rousseau

    I think the following practices would help at busy uncontrolled airports: On

  • Ken Rousseau

    I think the following practices would help at busy uncontrolled airports: On take-off make adefinate turn left, or right as prescribed locally as soon as practicle. This willallow faster aircraft to depart behind you without flying up your tail feathers. Fly a normal size pattern in the proper direction. Not one that a B-52 could fit inside of. Communicate on the proper frequency and let other traffic know exactly where you are in the traffic pattern. Be courteous. Look outside don’t be playing with the GPS. Fly your own airplane and don’t badger other pilots; you can do that when you get on the ground. finally, for pity-sake turn on some lights so people can see you.

  • Kevin

    Some good comments. My experience has been that regulars at an uncontrolled field often use local jargon for position reports. For example at our airport a common call is, ‘I am over the bend in the river’ – well there are 3 or 4 bends in the river within 5 miles of the airport! Position reports need to be more specific e.g., ‘Cessna 890T 5 miles southeast of the airport entering a left 45 for runway xx.’

    I think voluntary traffic management when the pattern is full is a good idea like limiting pattern work or touch and goes if there are more than 3 planes in the pattern.

  • Steve

    If you fly a classic airplane without a panel radio, get a handheld radio and use it. This is not a high ticket item anymore – a couple of hundred bucks. There really no excuse to compromise safety in the pattern by flying without radio communications today.

    Added bonus: My handheld probably paid for itself in a few months of flying just by allowing me to get WX , ATIS, and IFR clearances before engine start.

  • Tom Cordell

    The AIM only addresses two entries – 45 degrees to downwind and straight-in. Straight-in approaches will continue to increase at least as a minimum to accomodate pilots practicing the ever increasing offerings of GPS approaches that are mostly straight-in. There is no written guidance on entering the pattern when arriving from upwind side of the pattern. Local FAA guidance that has not made it into print would suggest overflying at at least 500′ above pattern altitude then using the standard 45 degree entry. If this was put into the AIM it could be an acceptable procedure. Its drawback is that it puts a maneuvering 180 degree turn in the quadrant with the most favored entry. Where does one then safely lose the 500 feet to enter the pattern in level flight? I prefer to enter the upwind leg at pattern altitude, midfield. I enter upwind and fly to the end of the runway before crossing over to downwind. In the event there is takeoff traffic in position when I would otherwise enter upwind, I cut across at midfield to enter downwind. It goes without saying that I need to fit into other traffic just as with any entry. But I am very wary of procedures that involve altitude changes in or near the pattern. As if to emphasize my concern, I recently had a near miss (10 feet vertically, 1/2 plane length horizontally) when a low-wing descended 200′ on downwind on top of my C-152.

  • John Worsley

    I fly in and out of uncontrolled airports almost exclusively. Several good suggestions have been made. The best suggestion involves radios. As Steve suggested, with handheld radios so available there is no excuse for any airplane to be flying without a radio in this century. Also, turning on your radio should be done immediately after starting the engine. While no level of collisions is acceptable, there are always going to be some as long as humans are flying. I have just seen too many cases of regulations and restrictions being put in place because of a very few idiots doing something stupid. There was a classic Dilbert cartoon where all the employees had to take “chair training” because one fool stood on a chair and fell off. As the saying goes “you can’t make anything foolproof because fools are too ingenious.

    Finally, there is no substitute for “see and avoid”. I was in the pattern on downwind once when another pilot announced that he was entering the downwind at a 45 after I had announced entering the downwind. I wasn’t sure how close he was because the radio in his rented plane was pretty weak. I saw him enter no more than 100 yards ahead of me even though I was in a faster plane. He had heard my transmission, but never saw me, even though we were approaching at the same level and angle. I thought a Cherokee 6 was big enough that he should have been able to see me, since I saw his smaller plane. I announced that, since he was in front of me, I would extend my downwind and let him land first.

    I don’t think more regulations will eliminate the problem. Your best bet is to stay alert, follow the rules and fly defensively.

  • herb ludgewait

    FAR 61 requires the student pilot to have 3 full stop landings at a tower controlled airport. Nowhere is he/she required to have experience at a non-tower airport. FAR 91 requires adherance to the published traffic pattern(left if none stated.) AOPA is incouraging the fallacy that straigt in approaches are legal at non-towered airports. The AIM specifys that IFR approches in VFR conditions follow the normal traffic pattern. Just today I watched a part 135 Navajo execute a right pattern to our runway that had a quatering tailwind. Our airport has 2 runways w/ left traffic only. Quit blaming the local hicks, at our airport the problems are caused by people who were trained at towered fields and corperate and charter “proffesionals” who think they own the airspace, or compomise safety to get their high price passengers on the ground asap.

  • Bob H.

    Tom Cordell has it exactly right. The 45 entry to upwind is also the 45 to downwind when the winds favor that runway. It’s unfortunate that this is not listed or taught. Well, I teach it because the home drome has big busy airspace 300′ above TPA – no 500′ overflights permitted. It provides visibility for you and to you, easier sequencing options, and 100% access to an emergency landing site at all times. What could be better?

    Go to any untowered airport any day with at least a medium level of traffic and observe. Traffic will make an initial entry to the pattern using point on every leg. Why? The rule of “Monkey see, monkey do” applies.

    For example: Cessna 2 alpha bravo, Tijuana tower, enter 3 mile right base for runway 23R, report turning final.

    Now 2 Alpha Bravo goes to Small County airport. Hmmmm, no tower and I’m west of runway 18…. Small County, 2 alpha bravo is three mile right base for runway 18. (Small county is of course left traffic.)

    I “hear” you Rob N., been there, done that. See and avoid takes precedence so I don’t quite agree with your conclusion. I’m not even sure what you expected in all of those “no responses.” It’s a broadcast medium, not a discussion board. Ever hear someone making traffic calls on 121.5 or 122.0? It’s going to happen … since you can’t guess every random frequency the other guy is using … or if the radio is actually on, or turned up to an audible volume, etc., etc., etc., …

    yeap… see and avoid.

    And keep the rant off the CTAF, someone is trying to report that they are on a 5 mile right base. 😉

  • Paul Miller

    Like John W., I fly in and out of uncontrolled airports almost exclusively. Of the 4 airports in my immediate area, 3 are non-towered and one is a very low usage air park. The air park I trained at and rent a plane from is a left/right pattern depending on the wind/runway. We also only have one way to and from the ramp area to the runway. You have to back taxi on the runway to take off or after you land.

    My instructor taught me to enter the downwind leg at a 45 degree angle. He also taught me to use the radio, but mos importantly, he taught me to use my brain. The old fashion Mark 1 EB ( your eyes) is the best collision avoidance item a pilot has.

    Many times I have pulled out of the pattern to allow a faster plane to move ahead or allow a slower plane time to land in front of me. Even as a student, my instructor taught me that sometimes common sense and courtesy is required in the pattern.

    As a student doing touch-and-gos, I would often leave the pattern to allow someone to land or take off. Again, common sense and courtesy.

    As for a straight in approach….well, from our air park to almost anywhere is due south (mountains very close to the north) and as the closest major airport is due south, I have seen many and have done straight in approaches – when there is no traffic in the pattern. Traffic? Enter the pattern.

    Rules and pattern police – isn’t that what we call an airport with a tower?

  • Bruce Landsberg

    As Usual, some very good responses. Two points.

    1. Since not many of you commented on the “full pattern – no touch & go [policy” I assume that you’d prefer to just look out.

    2. I should have mentioned that ASF has a detailed Safety Advisor on Operations at Non-towered airports

    or – publications – safety advisors – etc.

    Not everyone will agree with all the points made and that’s a blog for another time.

  • Tommy

    There is no guarantee of not having a midair collision @ a towered airport, but it sure increases your odds of not having one.

    My home airport in LA (Lower Ala.) has a tower that is operated by the U.S. Army during day light hrs. Mon – Fri with considerable military traffic (Army/Navy fixed-wing & rotary-wing).

    On a return X-country VFR flight with my partner in the left seat of our C-172, APP (Flight Following) advised that the tower’s primary freq. was inoperative, but the ground control freq was operative. My partner contacted the tower on the ground control freq and was cleared for a straight-in approach and cleared to land. Just as he started the flair to land we received an urgent call from the tower advising that another aircraft (C150) was just below and to our left. My partner immediately applied power, made a right 180 turn and barley got a glimpse of the other aircraft. The tower cleared us for another 180 turn and again cleared us for landing. As we lined up with the rwy the C-150 was taxing off the active rwy.

    After landing we talked with the C-150 pilot (who was a friend) and he had tried to contact the tower with no success and had flown a normal 45 deg entry to the down-wind leg and normal landing pattern. He never saw us until he had cleared the active rwy and was on the taxiway as we were coming in to land.

    The tower operator sure save us from a bad day. I have always regretted that I did not make the effort to thank the operator and advise his superiors of his assistance.

  • Jim Jackson

    My aviation mentor a former Tuskegee Airman used two terms I will always remember. Head up and locked and rubber neck. If we were flying tandum he would wack me on the back of my head with these words, ” You’ve got your head up and locked! I want to see you looking for traffic! I want to see a rubber neck!” That was 1948. The most memberable flying days of my life.

  • George Lafly

    Rob N., I believe your example shows you to be more interested in being right (“unacceptable”) than in safety. If you really thought that guy running up was an unacceptable safety concern, you would have flown the pattern until he took off and cleared the area. In fact, you were just feeling superior because he didn’t do what you thought he should do. I count you as one of the pattern police.

  • Bob H.

    As coincidence would have it, I ran into the pattern police today. We ended up on the wrong side of the airport on a non-precision practice approach. I needed to show my student circling procedures, and at no time was safety of flight compromised by being opposite the established traffic pattern. The unicom operator thought differently and followed every position call we made to point out that the runway was opposite pattern.

    As we turned final, another aircraft began his back taxi, stopped it, did a 180, and in doing so repositioned his plane on the runway side of the hold short line. Automatic go around for safety..

    The problem with pattern police is that it contradicts FAR 91.3, and in my opinion, pilots that don’t understand the authority and responsibility granted by 91.3 to them *and others* is the dead elephant in the room.

  • James Ferguson

    As much as I hate more regulation, I think that a new FAR is needed in the case of non-tower airports. The FAA has promulgated “guidance” for operations at non-tower airports, but it is commonly ignored, especially by the pilots of fast aircraft. For non-tower airports, it is proposed that all aircraft be “required” to make a 45 degree entriy to the pattern at pattern altitude, fly a downwind leg, a base leg and a final. In other words, outlaw the following approaches in VMC: straight-in, overhead, base entry, downwind entry, crosswind entry. It sounds harsh, but too many pilots simply barge into the pattern creating usafe conditions.

  • herb ludgewait

    james is right on. Yesterday our non-tower ap was very busy with aircraft of all speeds. Some nut in a medium twin entered a right base, disrupting the entire flow. Only the profesionalism and discipline of the locals prevented an accident. We need an eisier way to violate these idiots

  • David Lemmer

    I disagree that we need more explicit regulation. The FAR’s prohibit careless and reckless operation. If you think “violating” these rude pilots will make a difference (which is questionable), then call the FAA and report them under that FAR.

    The trouble with Jame’s suggestion is that many, many uncontrolled airports have very little traffic. To make all users follow your pattern is wasteful of energy and time. It will end up being yet another FAR the feds can use for a gotcha. All that just so you can “violate” a few bad pilots. Bad idea.

  • Greg

    I cringe whenever I hear the “there ought to be a law” argument. More regulation is not the solution here. There are already regulations on the books that cover reckless or irresponsible behavior. Realistically, there should be nothing wrong with entering the pattern at other than the standard 45 if the situation allows for it (i.e. no other traffic) and so long as you comply with 91.126. In the end though, regardless of where or how the pattern is entered, it still comes down using the Mark I eyeball and situational awareness.

    Unfortunately, these days it seems the flying is more expensive and pilots have less spare time for practice than ever before. In the quest for making things as affordable as possible some things are suffering. The result: pilots are flying less frequently anymore which leads to lower skill levels, poor technique, and increased task saturation. Airfield closures are leading to more congestion as well. As this situation continues, eventually problems will occur resulting in aggravated pilots or, in the very rare extreme, accidents.

    Having had flight training in the civilian, military, corporate, and law enforcement realms, I’ve seen things done a number of different ways but they all rely on the same basic elements: be prepared (i.e. be familiar with and ready to enter the pattern), maintain situational awareness (know where you and the other guy are), and keep your head on a swivel (see and avoid).

    Oh, and for the errant and irresponsible pilots you encounter, report them to the FAA under 91.13 if you must. I’m certain they’ll get a visit from someone willing to help them see the light.

  • herb ludgewait

    Davi and Greg prove my point. They rationalise they should make thier own rules, and let everyone get out of the way. Violating their ilk is not as easy as they make if sound. Commo step ons and other electronic problems prevent radios from becoming a panica. What do you want next, requiring TAS at non-towered airports ?

  • Greg

    Hmmm, Herb I’m not sure exactly what I said in my post to lead you to believe that I advocate making my own rules and everyone else should give way to me. While I can’t speak for exactly what David had in mind, I’m fairly certain he didn’t intend that impression either.

    However, in reading your previous posts I feel the need to point a few things out. There is a big difference between the FAR’s which are regulations and the AIM which is guidance and not regulatory in nature. This is stated in the front of the AIM in the Flight Information Publication Policy section. As for AOPA, I’m not sure where you feel that they are encouraging any fallacies but straight in approaches are even discussed in the FAA’s own AC 90-66A (7e). Knowing the FARs and how to apply them is an important part of flying.

    One of the things I was trying to do though was vector things away from the call for more regulation. In his blog Bruce was looking for solutions to the issue without regulation and all the situations you mentioned already have FAR’s that apply.

    I’ll admit, I’m squarely in the see and avoid camp. Using the radio, lights, and good pattern practices are important tools but looking outside and keeping good situational awareness are required equipment.

    As for finding an easier way to violate the “idiots”, a simple call to your local FSDO would get the ball rolling. It really is that simple.

  • Dan Nelson

    I regularly flyout of a non-towererd airport and to a towered airport a short distance away. A few years ago, the towered airport was still without a tower.
    At that time, there were huge numbers of students practicing at that (now towered) airport and it wasn’t unusual to see 5 or 6 aircraft in the pattern. It was a real problem to break into that beehive of touch-and-go’s and aircraft really never exiting the pattern. Once the tower came in, they started making practicing students exit the pattern and re-enter—particularly on busy days. It is great—now I can actually land at that airport. The airport I fly out of is now experiencing the same problem with multiple aircraft in the pattern, never exiting and also a high concentration of helicopters using a parallel taxi way for their practice landings. Quite often the helicopters are also using the main runway for engine out practice. Short of obtaining a tower, we have quite a dilemma.
    I would hope that in the future we might come to an arrangement of practicing students actually exiting the pattern once in a while to allow departing/arriving aircraft to use the same facility

  • John Picker

    I have a suggestion which would require modifying a regs, but would save both time and increase communications. I fly our of HTO (East Hampton, NY…. yes, THAT Hampton), and in the summer time there is a big mix of aircraft and lots of traffic. Most of us are taught to give :Cessna Apha 1234. I really don’t care about your numbers… if I’m close enough to read them, it’s already too close, so why clutter the airwaves with that. On the other hand, a better description might be helpful, such as a red Mooney.
    One afternoon I heard the report of “Cessna 1234″ … would you have been looking for a Citation? I wasn’t. Radios, at least handhelds, should be required in this day and age, and communication is all about transferring useful information in the shortest time.

  • Bern Heimos

    Rule #1: we don’t need any more rules. The FAA covers operations at non-towered airports just fine.
    Rule #2: Pilots are “goal oriented” personality types. (Stubborn comes to mind)
    Rule #3: If either close to entering the pattern or in the pattern and things don’t seem right, back off, be polite, and work to keep the traffic pattern safe.
    Rule#4: To quote a line from Camelot, “It makes no difference whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher; it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.” (Okay, the quote wasn’t exactly that way, but you get the drift).

    Did the point I made about being polite and doing what it takes to keep the pattern safe make it through okay?