Most pilots would rate takeoffs and landings as the most exciting part of every flight. This is also when things are busiest, as you navigate the traffic pattern and operate in a high-density traffic area. Fortunately, the traffic flow is standardized at airports to ensure all the aircraft transitioning to and from the active runway are on the same page and know where to look when making position reports. Here are some tips to help you better understand the flow of traffic to help get you on the ground safely at the end of each flight.
1. Runway Numbers
Determining the active runway, especially at a pilot-controlled field, is the best place to start. It’s important to remember that the runway numbers indicate the runway’s magnetic direction rounded to the nearest 10 and then dropping the last zero. As an example, Runway 36 may have a magnetic direction of 356.
Plan ahead and be familiar with the most likely landing direction before you arrive at the destination airport. Understanding the runway numbers will allow you to plan the best arrival path based on the current winds. A well-planned and stabilized approach will set you up for a smooth landing.
About ten miles out from an airport without an operating control tower call on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) and announce your plan to land and request an airport advisory. It’s called an advisory since they cannot clear you to land. You may not get a reply since the person attending the UNICOM may be busy doing other things. Call anyway because it alerts other aircraft in the area of your position and intentions.
Additional calls are made as the pattern is entered and on each subsequent leg of the pattern. End each transmission with the name of the airport you are located as the frequency may be shared with other local airports.
Call the tower at a controlled airport from the same ten-mile distance out. The controller will assign an entry into the traffic pattern, a landing runway, and where to make the next radio call. The pattern entry is up to the controller and may be right or left downwind, or base leg or even a straight-in final approach.
3. Pattern Entry
If not otherwise specified (see the sectional chart or the Chart Supplement), always use left-hand turns in the traffic pattern. The recommended entry position to an airport traffic pattern is to enter 45° at the midpoint of the downwind leg at traffic pattern altitude. The recommended traffic pattern altitude traffic pattern altitudes for propeller-driven aircraft is 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL).
Refer to the airport data block on the sectional chart to determine if the airport has a non-standard traffic pattern. The letters “RP” will indicate a right-hand traffic pattern for a specific runway.
There are several ways to enter the pattern if you’re coming from the upwind leg side of the airport. One method of entry from the opposite side of the pattern is to announce your intentions and cross over midfield at 500 feet above pattern altitude or higher, which would be 1,500’ AGL at most airports. When well clear of the pattern, approximately 2 miles, scan carefully for traffic, descend to pattern altitude, then turn right to enter at 45° to the downwind leg at midfield.
If the pattern is not busy, an alternate method is to enter on a midfield crosswind at pattern altitude, carefully scan for traffic, and then turn downwind. When using this method, always remember to give way to aircraft on the preferred 45° entry and to aircraft already established on downwind.
Many runways have visual glide slope indicators to help pilots during landing approaches. VASI, or visual approach slope indicator, is a lighting system that provides visual descent information to a runway.
Two bar VASI’s can be seen from about 3 to 5 miles during the day and up to 20 miles at night. Unless required for obstruction clearance, all visual glide slope indicators are set to provide a visual glide path 3 degrees to the horizontal. The most commonly installed VASI comprises two near and far bars alongside the runway. The basis of VASI is simply identifying the color difference between red and white. You see either red or white from either bar, depending on height.
If you see white, you are above the glide path and will touch down after passing abeam of that bar. If you see red, you are below the glidepath and will touch down before passing abeam of that bar. Since the goal is to touch down between the near bar and the far bar, some pilots remember proper orientation with VASI by using the phrase, “If you see red over white, you are all right.” This means you are on the proper glide path.
A system with all light units installed in a single row is called a precision approach path indicator or PAPI for short. Just like the VASI, you’re shooting for a combination of red and white. If both lights are white, you’re too high. If you see all red, you’re too low.
Learn more about how VASI and PAPI light systems work with this interactive simulator, courtesy of Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course:
5. Departure Procedure
After takeoff and upon reaching pattern altitude at a point clear of the airport boundary, depart either straight out or on a 45° ground track in the direction of the traffic pattern, or as instructed by ATC. Continue to climb and maintain the ground track until well clear of the pattern traffic, at least 1.5 miles. Set pitch and power once established at pattern or cruise altitude, as appropriate.
Check out more great training content like this in Sporty’s 2023 Learn to Fly Course