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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.