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 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”.