5 Tips For Flying The Traffic Pattern

5 min read

Takeoff and landing are statistically the most critical phase of any flight. Slow speeds and a close proximity to the ground require the utmost diligence from any pilot. Compounding these factors is the higher concentration of aircraft that exist in the terminal area. Thus, an exacting knowledge of the traffic pattern, especially when flying at a pilot-controlled field, can greatly reduce the risk when operating close to the runway. Here are a few tips you need to know when arriving and departing the local area.

1. Runway Numbers

To begin, 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 are indicative of the runway’s magnetic direction rounded to the nearest 10 and then dropping the last zero. As an example, Runway 26 may have a magnetic direction of 264.

Runway Numbers Compass

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 an optimal approach based on the current winds. A well planned and stabilized approach will set you up for a smooth landing.Runway image compared with a heading indicator

2. Communicate

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 or 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.

Traffic Pattern Key Points for Radio Calls

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.Tower Controlled Traffic Pattern Options

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).

Standard Traffic Pattern Entry

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.

Standard Crosswind Pattern Entry

An alternate method, if the pattern is not busy, 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.

Alternate Crosswind Pattern Entry

4. Glidepath

Many runways have visual glide slope indicators to help pilots during landing approaches. VASI, or visual approach slope indicator, is a lighting system which 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 that is 3 degrees to the horizontal. The most commonly installed VASI consists of two bars, near and far, situated 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.

VASI Glidepath

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, what you’re shooting for is a combination of red and white. If both lights are white, you’re too high. If you see all red, you’re too low.PAPI tilt animated gif

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 climb and maintain 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.

For operations in the traffic pattern, begin the turn to crosswind leg at an altitude not less than 300’ below pattern altitude and at a point clear of the airport boundary, or as other traffic dictates.Standard Traffic Pattern Departure
Now that you’ve mastered flying the traffic pattern, now go ace our quiz on Flying The Traffic Pattern. For more great information on traffic patterns plus much more, try a free demo of Sporty’s Learn To Fly course.
9 replies
  1. Ken says:

    In the last paragraph referencing when to begin maneuvers in the pattern, is “not less than” correct? v/r. Ken

  2. David Smith says:

    I would also add that when flying into an unfamiliar airport that especially does not have a tower, I will use the Procedure option in ForeFlight (as long as the arrival airport in in your flight plan) to select the approach and runway with best wind. The traffic pattern options identified in this article are also a section that you can add to your route and see the GPS path in ForeFlight.

    • Some call me Tim says:

      To depart downwind, use the standard crosswind and downwind flow as if you were just staying in the pattern. Stay at pattern altitude until you are out of the pattern area. Always good to let folks know your intentions on CTAF just prior to take off.

  3. Shane Gorman says:

    Before the first call 10 miles out I recommend listening to the AWOS or whatever advisory freq is listed for the airport instead of asking traffic for same. You get better info and don’t needlessly use the CTAF which is being actively used by pattern traffic. I don’t respond to the request for info when flying at an uncontrolled airport with a published ATIS that I know is working. I think it’s a bad habit that should not be encouraged.

  4. sv says:

    “…determining the active runway, especially at a pilot-controlled field…”

    There is no such thing as an active runway at a non-towered field.

    • Shane says:

      Yes and a variation on that is at a field with a single runway I often also hear “clear of runway 27”. Well if there’s only one runway isn’t “clear of the runway” sufficient? I had a CFI early on who would never let me get away with incorrect terminology on the radio or unnecessary phrases. Early habits stick, good or bad.

      • Jeff G. says:

        Shane, I believe there are two runways…. 27 & 9…. By mentioning the runway number your clarifying which end you’re departing from….

    • Dragos Dorobantu says:

      Yes there is. If there’s already traffic, using a certain runway, you can’t go there and change the runway, or land wherever you want. If you’re the first one there, then sure, you pick a runway based on winds.

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