Traffic Patterns Part 7: Control Towers

The previous posts about traffic patterns have assumed that you are operating at a non-towered field. This is because at a non-towered field, you are the controller along with any other pilots in the pattern. This post will deal with the pattern but leave the bulk of the details about towered communications out. Look for towered communication details in another post.

Towered operations follow the same pattern concepts with some exceptions. The biggest difference at a towered field is obviously communication. You don’t announce your position as you fly around the pattern. Instead, you make contact with the tower and they will give you directions to fly.

Incomplete Patterns

You will rarely fly a complete pattern at a towered field and rarely use the 45. Instead, the controller will decide where you will enter the pattern.

For example, if you are approaching Lancaster, PA (KLNS) on a heading of 090 to the airport and runway 8 is active you will likely be told to maneuver for the straight-in for runway 8. This does NOT mean that you should fly around the class D airspace and enter on a 45 for downwind runway 8. It DOES mean that you should turn to the right and line up on a long final for runway 8 (no downwind or base leg at all).

If you are coming from the opposite side of the field you will likely be asked to enter left (or right) downwind. Again, you will not fly a 45. The only way you would fly a 45 is if you happened to be coming from a direction where the 45 would be. But in this case it is not called a 45, you will just be asked to enter downwind.

Remember that the purpose of the complete pattern at a non-towered field is to help pilots control the airspace by flying in expected ways. At a towered field the controller is handling this and will give you instructions to get you to the runway relativley quickly.

As I will say again and again: if you aren’t sure, just ask.

Position Reporting

They may also ask you to report a position. For example, they may say “Cessna 12345 report 5 mile final runway 8”. When you are on final 5 miles from the runway you would say “Lancaster Tower, Cessna 12345 5 mile final runway 8”.

From there the controller will usually clear you to land.

Note that when the controller tells you to report, he is also telling you to enter. So in the example above you are expected to maneuver to final. You are NOT expected to fly around the field and get on a downwind. The only exception would be if you are already on a downwind or base, in which case the controller will usually handle this by saying “Cessna 12345, enter left downwind runway 8, report base turn.” Notice that you have been told how to enter and then how to report.

Another common reporting point is “Cessna 12345, report 3 mile base runway 8”. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about what this actually means.

Some people believe that you should fly a base leg leading to a 3 mile final and report right before you would need to turn final. This seems like the least plausible meaning to me.

Others believe it means that you should fly a long base leg and report when you are 3 miles from turning final. This seems more likely and is what I would actually do in most situations.

Here is the real deal. The controller is not ready to clear you to land so he is telling you to report this point as a way to help him manage the traffic. When you report you are reminding the controller to deal with you. He has chosen a report that hopefully will be a good time to clear you for landing. So as long as you are somewhere in the base leg area and roughly 3 miles from the airport he will be happy. Still, I would love to see an official technical definition from the FAA for this.


A and B are correct. C will almost never be what the controller is asking for.

The overall point of towered traffic patterns is to go where you are told and listen closely. The controller is managing the flow of traffic and you just need to help him to do his job. If you don’t understand what you need to do, just ask and the controller will be happy to help. Controllers are people like you and me, try not to get intimidated if you are new to flying.

Controllers are professionals, but they can make mistakes, so keep listening and looking for traffic. If the controller tells you to do something that looks unsafe, get clarification. If you are told to do something that you can’t do, say “unable”. It is your responsibility to accept commands given by the controller and turn them down if they aren’t going to work.

Traffic Patterns Part 6: Wind

Wind can have a large effect on the traffic pattern, especially when it comes to the base and final leg.

You should familiarize yourself with the current wind at the airport before takeoff and when preparing to enter the pattern. Remember that the wind report you get from an automated station is on the surface and may not be as strong as the wind at pattern altitude.

When flying each leg around the pattern think about whether the wind is coming from your left or right and crab towards it to fly a straight track. When preparing to land look at the crosswind and what it will do to your base leg.

If you expect to have a tailwind on base you will need to turn final sooner in order to not overshoot the runway. Conversely, if you experience a headwind on base you can expect to have more time before you need to turn final. More time also means more time to descend, so adjust you glidepath and consider adding some power.

On final, if you face a strong headwind component you will again have more time to descend and may need more power to make it to the runway.

Plan in advance so you know what to expect in each leg of the pattern.


Traffic Patterns Part 5: Directions

Left or Right

Traffic patterns at a non-towered airport are usually left-handed patterns, meaning that all turns are made to the left. There are exceptions, and you can find these details on a sectional chart. See the sectional chart for Brandywine airport, below. There is a lot of airport info here, including “RP 9” which means that a right pattern is to be used for runway 9.

Why a right pattern?

The reason for the right pattern doesn’t really matter, but it can be interesting. In this case, there may be two reasons for this. The first is that the airport has a reservoir to the south. If all planes use a right pattern for runway 9 and a left pattern for runway 27 then all of the traffic will be over the reservoir and reduce the noise footprint over the QVC studio located north of the airport.

Second, Brandywine is home the American helicopter museum on the north side of the field. If the airplane traffic is kept to the south then helicopters can operate more freely on the north side without conflicts. Go visit the museum if you are ever in southeastern Pennsylvania, its great!

Helicopter Pattern

In airplanes, we generally fly left patterns. This is because the pilot sits on the left side so the left pattern gives him an excellent view of the airport and other planes operating there. Helicopter pilots sit on the right side so they fly right patterns. This helps to separate helicopter and airplane traffic as well.

So stick to the left pattern unless otherwise published. Don’t take a shortcut just to get to the runway faster. The correct way to enter the pattern is much safer.


Switching Runways

The wind changes and you must adapt to it. Sometimes this means that the full pattern will need to switch to the other side of the airport.

The simplest runway switches are done at airports with a standard left pattern to both runways. To switch simply use the downwind leg you are flying as an upwind leg. Then stay at pattern altitude and turn crosswind instead of base. Your next turn will be another left onto downwind for the new runway.

If you are switching from a left pattern to a right pattern on the opposing runway (like you would at Brandywine) simply depart the pattern and maneuver to enter the 45 for the new runway. Be careful about any planes that may still be in the old traffic pattern as they will be flying head-on towards you. Do not enter the new pattern unless everyone is flying the same way.

If you are at an airport with multiple crossing runways and you decide to switch to another runway, again, you should announce your intentions so hopefully the other planes will follow suit. Then, depending on the specific layout of the field you will fly your pattern at altitude until one of the legs of the old pattern puts you in a good position to get on downwind for the new pattern. When in doubt depart the pattern and reenter to try again.

Traffic Patterns Part 4: Handling Traffic

Other airplanes are the reason that we have a traffic pattern. If there were no other airplanes you could fly to the runway any way you want without worrying about a collision. This post digs into handling busy traffic situations so you will be confident next time the pattern fills up around you.

Multiple Runways

There are plenty of non-towered airports out there with multiple runways. If the runways are parallel there will usually be a right pattern but the real conflicts happen when the runways cross each other. Have a look at the Coolidge airport diagram below, along with my crudely drawn diagram of two conflicting patterns.

When two runways cross, the correct way to handle it is for all traffic to just agree on the same runway, usually the one into the wind.

But let’s make a scenario where things are more difficult. Imagine the wind is 050 at 15, meaning a direct headwind for runway 5 but a 13-knot crosswind for runway 35. In our scenario there is an aircraft in the pattern for runway 35 doing touch-and-go landing’s in order to practice in a crosswind. You are not comfortable landing in a 13-knot crosswind so you will still land on runway 5.

It is easy to just say that the plane on 35 should give way but I don’t believe in counting on others to always do things the right way.

The key to this scenario is to be aware of areas of conflict and have an exit plan. Assuming you enter the pattern from the north on a 45 degree leg to downwind for runway 5, you will be flying directly into the departure end of runway 35. Be aware of the timing and if the other aircraft is taking off from 35 make an early downwind turn, and consider continuing a turn to the right to depart north and try again.

If you can communicate with the other pilot by radio you can let him know of your location and intentions. Your downwind leg is in the same location as his crosswind leg, so if he verifies that he has you in sight, he can delay his turn to crosswind so you can get onto downwind. That is one of the 3 dangerous areas in this scenario.

Next, you will need to turn base and final, which can easily conflict with the other planes downwind leg. In the drawing, I show the best case where the other plane is flying a tight pattern and passing over the runway 5 numbers, but this may not be the case. Pilots often fly very wide patterns which could put him on a collision course with you. Yes, you will be descending by the time you turn base or final but the other plane may still be climbing or may just be at a lower pattern altitude than you expected. Again, communication is an effective way to manage this. State your location and intentions and make sure you can both see each other.

Your exit plan here is extending your downwind. You can extend as far as you need to until the situation is fixed or leave the pattern and try again.

Finally, there is a conflict on the ground since the end of runway 35 is in the middle of runway 5. In general this won’t be a conflict because the plane on 35 would be airborne before reaching this point, but they might have a long rollout or end up there for some other reason. Also, when they are above that point they still conflict with your departure path.

Plan your landing early so that you won’t be landing or taking off around the same time that the other plane is landing or taking off. Do not count on vertical separation because you need to keep the air above you clear for your exit plan. You may have guessed that the exit plan here is the go around. As always, a go around is a great option when the landing isn’t 100% assured.

This is a bit of a contrived example, but it is worth taking time to work through these kinds of thought exercises as they will help you to consider handling other situations in the pattern.

Traffic on Final

It is not uncommon for aircraft on an instrument flight plan to end up on a long final approach that conflicts with traffic in the pattern. If you are on downwind and an aircraft announces that they are on final you need to make a decision. If the plane is much faster than you, then you should almost always announce that you are extending your downwind for the landing traffic. This will allow them space to land and give you space to land afterward. Be cautious of wake turbulence if it is a large plane.

If the traffic flies at a speed similar to your plane then you need to make a judgment call. If they are far enough out you may have room to get in for a touch and go. If you are planning a full-stop landing remember that this takes longer. In these cases extending downwind can be a big problem, because if the other plane is far away and slow you may end up extending for miles, and then you will either have to make a long final or exit the pattern and come back in again.

As always, communication with the other plane can be a big help. Ask them how far out they are and you will get an idea of how long it is taking them. Don’t ask them to decide what you should do. You are the pilot in command and you cannot delegate your responsibility to people in other planes.

Speed Differences

Aircraft flying in the pattern at different speeds can often conflict with each other. This really becomes an issue when a slower plane is in front of a faster plane. This is one of many great reasons to fly a tight pattern. A faster plane has the option to slow down or fly a wider pattern to make room. It is not common for an aircraft to overtake another on downwind, but it does happen. Whether you are in the lead slower aircraft or the faster overtaking aircraft, make sure that the faster planes intention to overtake is clearly communicated and you both have each other in sight. The lead aircraft has the right-of-way but it is good to be courteous whenever you can safely do so.

Getting Cut Off

Sometimes you will get cut off. This can happen in a number of ways but perhaps the most common is when you are on final approach and an aircraft pulls out on the runway to takeoff. They might have done this because they didn’t see you or because they felt they could depart in time for your arrival.

You need to make an immediate decision and a plan. Decide if the other plane has enough time to be off the ground before your wheels are on the ground and if there will be enough spacing. Then make a plan that you will execute as soon as you feel that there will not be enough time for the plane to depart with room to spare. This plan should be a go-around, climbing out straight ahead and just to the right of the runway. Make sure you can see the other aircraft at all times and fly farther to the right of the runway if needed. Don’t forget to communicate that you are going around when you can comfortably do so.

Too Many Planes

At airports with a lot of flight school activity, the pattern can fill up quickly. In general, you will handle this by communicating your position and carefully searching for other planes.

Keep Communications Brief

Be professional and succinct in your communications. When there are many planes in the pattern there is a lot of radio chatter. Only relay necessary information and don’t make too many calls.  The goal is to make sure others know where you are and have time to tell you where they are.

Listen carefully

There will be a lot of position reports to manage and you don’t want to lose track of one. Maintain a mental picture of what is going on all around you. This is an important part of situational awareness.

Announce Position

When announcing your position, tell everyone where in the stack you are. For example, if you were flying at Brandywine you might say “Brandywine Traffic, Cessna 12345 left downwind 27 number 3, Brandywine” which indicates that there are two more aircraft in front of you. This helps pilots in front of you to know that you see them and helps pilots behind you to anticipate how much other traffic they may still need to find. Overall, it gives everyone in the pattern a chance to correct you if needed.

When to Turn

The beauty of the rectangular pattern is that it provides an easy way to space aircraft before landing. By extending downwind just slightly you can create more space behind the aircraft in front of you. As a rule of thumb, don’t turn base until the aircraft in front of you is on final and past your abeam position. If the pattern is crowded but you happen to have nobody in front of you, be courteous and try to turn base as soon as you are comfortable. This will create more space in the pattern behind you.

Getting Out

A full pattern can be frustrating if you are on the ground ready to take off and the landings just keep coming. Remember that they have the right of way so you can’t just pull out in front of someone. The best way out of this situation is to get an idea of the order of the planes and try to talk to one on downwind. If there are a few on downwind try to find one that is farther back so they will have more time to respond. Make sure you figure out the callsign and the correct plane. Once you make contact simply tell the pilot where you are and ask if he can extend downwind just a little so you can depart. Most people will be happy to help. When the plane in front of him lands, verify that he has left enough room and depart. And please don’t try any kind of line up and wait silliness.

Traffic Patterns Part 3: Departure

You might think that departing from the pattern at a non-towered airport is simple, and it usually is. However, there is a standard way to do it that is safer than the alternatives.

First, if you aren’t sure about how the traffic pattern works, please read Traffic Pattern Basics and Traffic Pattern Entry first.

See this diagram from the Aeronautical Information Manual.

For our purposes, we are only interested in #6. Notice the only two ways out of the pattern are straight ahead, or a 45 degree turn to the left. This is what the AIM says about it:

From AIM 4-3-3
If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out, or
exit with a 45 degree turn (to the left when in a left−hand
traffic pattern; to the right when in a right−hand traffic
pattern) beyond the departure end of the runway, after
reaching pattern altitude.

It’s pretty clear from this that there is only one real way out of the pattern.

When can you turn?

The AIM recommends a straight out departure, but you will need to turn at some point unless you happen to be going where the runway points.

Continue on your straight out or 45 degree departure until you are outside of the normal traffic pattern (2 miles from the airport).

Make a plan that helps you to maintain clearance from the traffic pattern if you need to pass back over the airport. This means being at least 500 feet above pattern altitude before passing over any part of the pattern, including the inbound 45 degree leg.

Why not depart from downwind?

Have you ever heard the story of the high wing airplane flying just under the low wing airplane, and neither can see the other. This kind of thing can really happen, and downwind is where it would occur. If you are climbing through the pattern while others are maintaining altitude in the pattern you are inviting this type of setup.

Conversely, it is hard to imagine this occurring on a straight out departure leg. Keeping traffic separated based on activity makes the pattern safer by making it easier to anticipate where planes are and what they are doing.

Traffic Patterns Part 2: Entry

There is a lot of debate around how to enter the traffic pattern at a non-towered field. A lot of experienced pilots make very good arguments for alternate ways of entering the pattern.

However, I am going to simplify this for you and recommend the most standard way to enter the pattern. It is in line with the FAA’s recommendations and safe to fly at non-towered fields.

First, make sure you understand Traffic Pattern Basics.

To enter the pattern fly to a point that is at least 5 miles out and 45 degrees from the middle of the runway (see diagram below). Then turn inbound “on the 45” towards the middle of the runway.

When approaching the starting point of the 45 plan your altitude carefully. If you will be overflying within a few miles of the airport you should be at least 500 feet above the highest pattern altitude (look in the airport facilities directory).

No matter which way you are coming from be sure to announce your arrival and intentions when you are 10 miles from the airport. So if you are coming from the relative direction of travel on the 45 (top-right in the diagram) then you might announce “Chester County traffic, Cessna 12345 10 miles out on the 45 runway 11, Chester County”. However, if you will be crossing over the airport you should announce something like “Chester County traffic, Cessna 12345 10 miles south of the airport. We will cross over the field at 2500 and join the 45 runway 11, Chester County”.

Getting onto the 45

Once you reach the point where you want to join the 45 you need to carefully consider a plan that will allow you to end up at the correct altitude inbound on the 45 and clear of other traffic. If you are expecting to turn to the opposite direction to join the 45 it is good to plan early and fly a relatively wide turn. This will usually be needed when you overflew the airport. Don’t aim straight for the point where you plan to enter the 45. Instead, aim for a point that is a mile or 2 to the side so you will have some room to turn inbound.

Flying the 45

Flying the 45 is easy. Just stay at pattern altitude and fly towards the middle of the runway. Use this time primarily to look for traffic in the pattern and get ready to enter downwind. If you haven’t completed your pre-landing checklist yet this is a great time to do it.

Enter downwind at a point close enough to the airport that you could land if the engine failed. Don’t be tempted to turn too early and fly a wide dangerous downwind leg.

That’s it! You’ve entered the pattern.

The One Thing Pilots Can’t Say

There is only one place in the Aeronautical Information Manual where the FAA has forbidden a phrase from use on the radio. Can you guess what it is?

“Traffic in the area, please advise”

Sounds innocent enough, so why does the FAA say that it “should not be used under any condition?”

Simply put, it doesn’t give the pilot any information. If this phrase is used and nobody answers, that doesn’t mean there is nobody in the pattern. Even if somebody does answer there still may be other planes in the pattern.

In addition, if there are several aircraft answering, they may all answer at the same time.

This phrase is often used in an attempt to circumvent the pilot’s responsibility to listen to the frequency at a non-towered field and self-announce starting 10 miles out.

Here is the excerpt from the Aeronautical Information Manual

AIM 4-1-9 (g)1. General
Self-announce is a procedure
whereby pilots broadcast their position or intended
flight activity or ground operation on the designated
CTAF. This procedure is used primarily at airports
which do not have an FSS on the airport. The 
self-announce procedure should also be used if a pilot
is unable to communicate with the FSS on the
designated CTAF. Pilots stating, “Traffic in the area,
please advise” is not a recognized Self−Announce
Position and/or Intention phrase and should not be
used under any condition.

Another phrase like this, though not forbidden is “Say active”. This one is used to ask which runway is “active”. Again it is the pilot’s job to listen to other traffic reports and not just skate in at the last second expecting someone to tell him what to do.

Most unicom operators will answer this with “traffic has been using runway….”. But most pilots I know will hear “say active,” key the mic, and just say “active”.

Landing Challenge: Clearview Airpark

Location: Westminster, MD
Identifier: 2W2
Runway: 14
Weather: Calm
Aircraft: Cessna 172
Difficulty: Easy
X-Plane 11 Save:Challenge01_2w2_dwnd
FSX:SE Saves:challenge01_2w2_downwind 

Use the provided save file for your sim to start on left downwind for runway 14.  If you aren’t familiar with how to fly a standard traffic pattern, read here.

After landing, make sure to go to the pilot’s shop and buy the coffee mug.



Landing at Clearview airpark is challenging. It is a short narrow field with trees at one end, and a road at the other. You will be landing on runway 14 where tall trees block the approach.

Make sure to focus on landing at the runway numbers beyond the displaced threshold. You should clear the trees with some room to spare. Make sure your airspeed is low enough on final and make a timely decision to go around if things aren’t working out.

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Traffic Patterns Part 1: The Basics

The traffic pattern is a simple set of paths in the sky that allow pilots to fly to an airport and land in an orderly fashion. This standard set of paths lets us know where we can expect other aircraft to be and makes it easy to communicate where we are.

To fly the pattern a pilot will depart and climb straight ahead until the airplane is past the end of the runway and within 300 feet of reaching the pattern altitude (usually about 1000 ft above the runway).

Then he will turn downwind soon so that the downwind leg is about 1/2 to 1 mile from the runway.

There are a number of steps to take to land and they begin on downwind (or sooner). Is the pre-landing checklist complete? Do that first.

On downwind, choose a power setting that will allow you to maintain altitude with your airspeed within or just slightly above Vfe (top speed of the white arc).

Then wait until you are abeam the runway, meaning that you are passing the end of the runway where you intend to touchdown and it is 90 degrees to your left. Once you are abeam reduce your power so that the aircraft may descend. Expect to add just a little bit of back pressure to the yoke so that the aircraft slows down while descending. If your speed is outside of the white arc then do not let the plane descend yet. Instead slow it so it is within the white arc. Once you are within the white arc below Vfe you can lower your first notch of flaps.

Next, you need to turn base. When to turn is a bit of a judgment call depending on a lot of factors including wind, power setting, speed, altitude, etc…. In general, you can usually turn when the touchdown point is about 45degrees behind your left shoulder.

Once you turn base lower the flaps another notch. Then look at the runway and decide if you are too high or low. Look at your airspeed and decide if you are too fast or too slow. There are some tricks to deal with this but the simplest thing is to add power if you are too low and reduce power if you are too high. If you are too fast or slow you can adjust with both power and pitch.

Turn final soon enough that you don’t overshoot the runway and feel free to make an earlier shallow turn if it helps. Then work to get your aircraft lined up with the centerline of the runway. Don’t let yourself drift around. Instead, aim to keep the plane lined up as perfectly as possible. As you get closer to the runway and you are almost over it go ahead and add in the rest of your flaps.

All the steps above should be taken smoothly in order to create a nice stable approach from the pattern down to the runway. Practice this until you can get from downwind to the runway and float in just over the numbers at the right airspeed.