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Just say no to traffic patterns

Over the past eight or so years, I’ve done more than my fair share of long cross-country flights with newly minted commercial pilots or CFIs. In most cases, the purpose of the flight was to reposition my helicopter at a temporary base of operations 500 or more miles away and the typically 300-hour pilot on board with me was interested in building R44 time. I was on board as a passenger and got a chance to observe the things these pilots did–or didn’t do. I think the fact that I’ve never been a flight instructor gives me a unique perspective on what I observed.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that typical flight training does very little to prepare students for a commercial flying career. Instead, students are taught to perform maneuvers “by the book,” often so they can teach those maneuvers to their own students in the future. While it’s obviously important to know how to perform maneuvers properly, there are other concerns that are important to commercial pilots. In my upcoming posts for Hover Power, I’ll tackle a few of them, starting with traffic patterns.

I can tell lots of stories about new commercial pilots and CFIs entering traffic patterns to land for fuel at nontowered airports in the middle of nowhere. I can even tell you about the pilot who landed on the numbers of an empty airport’s runway, hover-taxied to the taxiway, and then hover-taxied a half mile down the taxiway to reach the midfield fuel island. They did this because that’s what they had been trained to do. That’s all they knew about landing at airports.

Our flight training teaches us a few things about airport operations, most of which are school-established routines at the handful of airports where we train. There’s a procedure for departing flight school helipads and there may be a procedure for traveling to a practice field nearby. Once there, it’s traffic patterns, over and over. Normal landing and takeoff, steep approach, maximum performance takeoff, run-on landing, quick stop, autorotation–all of these standard maneuvers are taught as part of a traffic pattern. It gets ingrained into our minds that any time we want to land at an airport, we need to enter a traffic pattern.

The reality is very different. Remember, FAR Part 91.129 (f)(2) states, “Avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft, if operating a helicopter.” Your flight school may have complied with this requirement by doing a modified traffic pattern at the airport, operating at a lower altitude than the typical airplane traffic pattern altitude of 1,000 feet, or landing on a taxiway rather than a runway. But despite any modifications, it’s still a traffic pattern.

But is a traffic pattern required for landing? No.

Experienced commercial pilots–and their savvier clients–know that traffic patterns waste time. And while the pilot might not be concerned about an extra few minutes to make a landing, the person paying for the flight will be. Why waste time flying around the airport before landing at it? Instead, fly directly to or near your destination and land there.

Before I go on, take a moment to consider why airplanes use traffic patterns. They enter on a 45-degree angle to the pattern to help them see other traffic already in the pattern. They then follow the same course as the other planes so there are no surprises. This is especially important at nontowered airports that don’t have controllers keeping an eye out for traffic conflicts.

But helicopters are avoiding this flow, normally by flying beneath the airplane TPA. As long as they stay away from areas where airplanes might be flying–remember, avoid the flow–they don’t need to worry much about airplane traffic. Instead, they need to look out for other helicopters and obstacles closer to the ground. If a runway crossing is required, special vigilance is needed to make sure an airplane (or helicopter) isn’t using the runway to take off or land. Obviously, communication is important, especially at a busy airport when a runway crossing is involved.

Now you might be thinking that this advice only applies to nontowered airports, where the pilot is free to do what he thinks is best for the flight. But this can also apply to towered airports.

Airport controllers who are accustomed to helicopter traffic and understand helicopter capabilities may instruct you to fly to and land at your destination on the field. You must be prepared to do this, even at an airport you’ve never been to before. That’s part of what your preflight planning is all about. Consult airport diagrams or even satellite images of the airport. Know where you’ll be flying from and where you need to park. Imagine the route to that spot. Be sure to take note of where the tower is–it’s often a great landmark for navigating while close to the ground. Never assume the controller will put you in a traffic pattern. And don’t be afraid to admit you’re unfamiliar if you didn’t do your homework or if things in real life look different from how they looked on paper or a computer screen.

What if a controller does instruct you to enter a traffic pattern and you don’t want to? As amazing as this might seem to new pilots, you can ask the controller to allow you to go direct to your airport destination.

I’ll never forget the flight I had one day as a passenger on my friend Jim’s Hughes 500c. Jim was a retired airline pilot who had been flying helicopters for at least 10 years. We were flying into Prescott Airport (PRC) in Arizona for lunch. When Jim called the tower, he asked for landing at the restaurant. The controller told Jim to enter a traffic pattern that would have required him to fly all the way around the airport, taking him at least 10 minutes out of his way. “Negative,” Jim barked into his microphone. “One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is a helicopter. We want to land direct at the restaurant.” A new pilot at the time, I was shocked by his tone of voice. There was an uncomfortable silence and then the controller came back on and told him he could fly direct to restaurant parking.

 

The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

 

Will the tower always grant your request? It depends on the situation. If a runway crossing is involved and the airport is busy with traffic, they might not. It might be safer or more convenient for them to keep you in a pattern with the airplanes. But it can’t hurt to ask, although I don’t think I’d be as aggressive as Jim was that day.

One of the big challenges of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot is thinking like a commercial helicopter pilot. There are things we can do that seem to conflict with what we were taught. Landing at airports without the formality of a traffic pattern is one of them.

12 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. We humans are creatures of habit and remember one of the laws of learning “what is first taught is first learned”

  2. Great article Maria! I started as a fixed wing (FW) pilot in ’76 five years ago I took a helicopter discovery flight on a whim as I never even thought about them. After that flight I never looked back at airplanes. That said things like Traffic Patterns (TPs) procedures are burned into fixed wing pilots minds even more so than helicopter pilots. So transitioning FW pilots to helicopters TP are even a harder thing to come to grips with. This has been a topic that has concerned me for sometime. For instance you cited FAR Part 91.129 (f)(2) in the TP the instructors have instructed us to fly in the opposite TP direction as FW so if the TP direction is Left Hand (LH) we would fly a Right Hand (RH) pattern. Also there seems to be an unwritten rule about also flying 500′ below the published TPA as well. So what exactly show we do in a non-towarded TP besides going direct to the LZ?

    I have had situations flying in the TP with slow flying tailwheel planes they are on a LH TP and I’m on a RH TP me 500′ below them. This has caused much concern with the fixed wing pilots thinking I’m a hazard to them by not following “their” rules in the TP. I’m finishing my commercial requirement so I look forward to your future articles!

    Regards,
    Fred B.

  3. Thanks for your nice article, Maria. I’d like to offer you and your other readers few additional things to think about.
    – Right hand patterns make really good sense for helos when your consider the command seat is on the right. If a single pilot helo joins the regular FW pattern, the pilot can’t see what he or she is turning into.
    – Not all controllers have experience with helos. Just be patient with them and tell them what you’d like to do. If they ask you to do something weird like HOGE between parallel runways while FW traffic lands, tell them you’re unable and will circle until it’s clear to fly over both at midfield. With that said, controllers who understand helos will often allow you to air taxi, which is different from hover taxi. It also helps if you identify your aircraft type on check in. Both the controller and other pilots know what to look for.
    – While it should go without saying, always consider the wind when you land or depart. The advantage of joining the pattern gives you a headwind. Unless you approach the field from downwind, you will have to fly some sort of pattern to land safe place on the field.

    Regards,
    Marty

  4. Maria,
    Great article! I owned & operated a helicopter sightseeing business in Houston back in the late 80’s & early 90’s and I very seldom, to almost never, used a traffic pattern. Even at the larger, towered airports they always allowed us to fly direct to our intended destination. Maybe that was because there was/is so much helicopter traffic in that environment…I don’t know…but, you are right…when time matters to a client or an owner/operator, it’s prudent to fly “direct.”

    Looking forward to more great atricles from you in the future!

    Best Regards,
    Mike…

  5. Great Article. Another time to consider traffic patterns is at night at an unfamiliar airport.(I’d say avoid any night approach/takeoff you haven’t flown during the day) I’m thinking the reasons should be obvious. I’ll never forget the night, I turned down a direct take-off while working on my commercial. I really think the words “…at your own risk” saved me from doing a dangerous maneuver. I looked around and decided that I didn’t feel safe taking-off into the unknown so close to buildings, fences, light poles, etc. No shame in using a runway at night.

    If your doing to be doing a lot of lands and take-offs from an towered airport and you think they could improve their handling of helicopter traffic. Call the tower and schedule a meeting with them tower. Plus, it’s always fun to put a face to those voices in your head’ Bring some article like this and FAA references, etc.

  6. Excellent article. This is an concern I had during my helicopter flight training. During the cross country training be sure to take your students to a non-towered and have them “land direct”. Include the high- and low-recon procedures to ensure all hazards are identified. Finally, when reviewing the A/FD be sure to check for noise abatement procedures applicable to helicopters and check the airport’s website of unfamiliar airports for any additional information which can help clarify and visualize the helicopters approaches and procedures.

  7. Something the “you must always fly the traffic pattern” airplane pilots forget is that helicopters can be slow. Like when I was flying Bell 47s and 300Cs, we would typically fly 60 knots. Following a helicopter flying that slow, in the pattern, could make for fun in an airplane depending on the airplane’s stall speed……

  8. Thank you for the article.

    I fly both fixed and rotary wing and agree that it certainly makes sense for a helicopter to use its abilities to fly directly to the touchdown location. However, please keep in mind that most general aviation airports are dominated by fixed wing aircraft and pilots of those aircraft are expecting others to fly a standard pattern. A fixed wing pilot who flies into an airport and makes up their own pattern is often not appreciated by others in the circuit and any aircraft (helicopter or otherwise) which flies an unexpected pattern has the potential to create a problem. If the helicopter can be flown to touchdown without crossing any portion of the standard pattern, then this might not be much of an issue, but if the helicopter’s approach pattern crosses or impedes the pattern flown (or taxied) by other aircraft, the potential for trouble exists and will at least be a distraction for other pilots wondering where the other aircraft is and what they will be doing.

  9. I need to hear a lot more about landing procedures at unfamiliar fields. Airports I fly to have landings on the runway, a certain taxiway, a helipad, a grass strip, or a FBO. Also not unusual to have named airport approach and departure points (North PCH, Bull Creek, Tracks, West Wardlow, etc), noise sensitive areas to avoid, and a special frequency for helicopters with all of this unpublished.

    As far as I am aware there is no published information easily available (the airport might locally distribute a pamphlet for heli ops but not all airports even do this), so arriving pilots may not know the right frequency to use, what approach to the field, or where to land!

  10. Daniel: Thanks for the suggestion on a future post. Sometimes, the hardest part about writing is coming up with an idea. I’ll do something about unfamiliar landing zones soon.

  11. A fine article.As a an ATP fixed and rotor, having operated at two helicopter airlines and military aviation, this is an area close to the vest for me.I fly a Bell 47 in retirement and avoid runways like the plague.As the AIM states, avoid the fixed wing flow.Towers commonly mix rotorcraft into the fixed wing flow.For safe operation, approach the field on the opposite side of the fixed wing pattern at 500 agl.Pay attention to potential forced landing areas.Do not overly homes.If wind is a consideration, adjust accordingly.If your landing area reguires crossing a runway, land short to a hover if necessary, and visually clear both approach ends ( assumes uncontrolled field) before crossing using hover taxi or air taxi as warranted.A close study of airport diagram prior to arrival is helpful.A mid air collision in the early nineties at a small airport in california, killed two people in a Pitts special when a Jet Ranger flew in their path on takeoff over the active runway.If you need a runway for an emergency, by all means do what is necessary.However, in normal ops, do not let the tower or anyone else fly your machine.Fly safe….R.A. Viscio B-767 / S61N

  12. Maria, very nice article. I myself have always taught my students that for the purposes of training, we fly a pattern at the Home airport and other airports of operations.

    But I stress it’s important to remember that when someone else is paying for the aircraft that we take advantage of the capabilities of the helicopter and go direct to the spot, or depart from the spot, which I demonstrate to them on occasion.

    Something along similar lines, watching students try doing steep approaches into a confined area, if they try to avoid the shaded areas of the hv diagram, that approach will fail. A terrific examiner I’ve had summed this up for those situations – “we teach students through commercial and CFI to avoid the hv diagram, yet then when they’re on the job their paid to be smack in the middle of it” 🙂

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