Ask a CFI – do I have to fly a standard traffic pattern at non-towered airports?

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Do I have to fly a standard traffic pattern at non-towered airports?

Well, for a variety of reasons, yes, you should. But legally, it depends on the type of airspace.

§ 91.126 (Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace) requires that “each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right…”

Also worth mentioning is, if you choose to not follow the standard traffic pattern recommendations and conduct a straight-in approach to a runway, to be aware of the right-of-way rules outlined in § 91.113 (Right-of-way rules: Except water operations). “Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach. When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way, but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft.”

While the guidance provided in AIM paragraph 4-3-2 (Airports with an Operating Control Tower) for operating in a traffic pattern is not regulatory in nature, doing so creates a more orderly and controlled flow of traffic and decreases the likelihood of conflicts with all pilots participating in the standard traffic pattern recommendations.

Eric Radtke
35 replies
  1. Brian Martin says:

    So..I’m flying a standard traffic pattern about to turn base and another pilot announces a 2 mi straight in approach! Who has right of way? I’m “probably” lower but it’s not guaranteed he’s actually 2 miles out! Non-standard patterns, especially with other traffic in the pattern, make me nervous.

    • mike pilot says:

      Exactly, and this has also happened while I’m on the ground holding short for takeoff as well as when airborne in the pattern, guy/gal on final states that he/she is three miles out, but turns out he/she was lying to get in first and was actually much farther out. You can barely see a little speck out there and several more minutes go by before he/she actually arrives.
      Meanwhile, other aircraft stack up behind you on the taxiway or some other idiot decides to do an intersection departure to avoid waiting his turn. Or another hotshot calls in final behind the first guy/gal and you’ve now sat forever waiting while all these self-important pr*cks manipulate things because their time (and fuel) is more important than yours.
      I don’t mind being courteous and patient or taking the safe route, but at some point we all need to play by the same rules. I don’t care whether you’re in a Champ or Gulfstream, courtesy is courtesy. And your feigned priority doesn’t necessarily out-trump mine.

      • Pat says:

        If I’m waiting on the ground to takeoff and someone announces 3 miles final, even at 120 mph that’s a whole 1.5 minutes I have to line up and take off. I don’t wait for aircraft that announce final that far out. I’ve been in a busy pattern and heard a corporate call 5 mile final, that’s to be expected for those aircraft but with ADSB we had three aircraft take off and land before that corporate was even a priority on our sights.
        Finally, non towered airports do have those planes in remote areas without radios and transponders. Don’t count on a radio call and priority to land, count on seeing any traffic in the area visually keeping the respective separation.

    • Bruce Williams says:

      If someone is on a 2 mile final and you are on down wind they are on final and have the right of way. You would also be at pattern altitude and they would be below pattern altitude. Generally speaking on a straight in approach pattern altitude is at 3 miles or more.

      If making a straight in approach, intentions of doing so should start being announced from 10 miles out, then continued announcement at 5,3, and short final.

      If I hear someone announce final and I’m in downwind, I never turn base until I am abeam the traffic on final.

    • Richard G says:

      When someone announces ‘on final’… guess what, If you are not on final already in front of that aircraft, they have priority to land first, even if five miles out. It doesn’t matter where else you are in the pattern or what altitude you are above or below the landing aircraft. The aircraft on final has right of way regardless of altitude. Should you cut in front of them without arranging with them first, you could be charged with killing them should they crash.
      Yes, go to prison for many years, don’t pass GO.

  2. EHB says:

    Traffic pattern regulations also apply to those pilots who are “Cleared for a visual approach to xyz “AIRPORT.” There appears to be an increasingly dangerous practice whereby pilots on an IFR flight plan who are approaching to land at Class G/E airports decide that the rules don’t apply to them

    “XYZ traffic King Air Nxxxxx is 8 miles south on RIGHT BASE to runway 5.”

    No- you are cleared for a Visual approach to THE AIRPORT not the runway and are, by regulation, REQUIRED to fly left traffic to the runway in use. Just because someone is “On an IFR flight” does not mean that you can disregard the regulations.

    “Aircraft on right base, you realize we are left traffic at xyz correct?”
    “Yes we know that but we are on a IFR flight cleared for the visual approach.”
    “ That makes no difference sir but we’ll extend our downwind and follow you.”
    “Thanks for your indulgence”
    “It’s not indulgence sir we’re just trying to avoid you killing us.”

    • mike pilot says:

      Center or TRACON/RAPCON controller has no authority over who does what in traffic pattern at a non-towered field. He is sitting in a dark room likely hundreds of miles away and at best can advise of traffic he might see on his screen and barely guess about their intentions. None of that has any bearing on this conversation.

      • Richard G says:

        Correct, ATC usually can not see VFR traffic at an uncontrolled airport unless the uncontrolled airport is close to a radar site. The same is true for some controlled airports.

        • mike pilot says:

          Actually, I thought ADS-B changed some of that. I certainly hear Center calling out some traffic and picking me up on departure much lower than pre-ADS-B.

  3. JimFrederick says:

    Speaking as a CFI, it’s important to teach students how to fly right hand patterns, straight in approaches, and even different pattern entries that might be assigned by tower controllers. To do this a CFI can find a quiet airport, use the radio to announce important training events, find an airport having a published right pattern, and use creative ways to introduce these events. I’ve found (in over 50 years of teaching) that other pilots are usually understanding and willing to cooperate.

    • ROBERT W REDMOND says:

      Sir….RIGHT turns are safer???? I’m hoping that was a freudian slip. by FAR left turns are safer. Being able to keep the runway in sight with all traffic as possible is WAY better than trying to keep the threshold in sight while looking through window posts or as in MY case (CJ3) can’t see a thing behind the right window makes flying the pattern far more safer for all.

      • Victor says:

        Maybe from the cockpit seal one turn is safer than another, but I’m aware of right-hand fields and left-hand fields.
        you don’t want people turning either way out of the mountains to make final.
        Rules for every exception, I know.

    • Richard G says:

      The only time it is ‘safer’ to make a right turn than a left in a left traffic pattern is when side stepping during a go around to keep traffic on the runway in site, should they also decide to take off again.

  4. John says:

    They recently had a triple fatality at WVI with 152 turning left base when a faster twin showed up and announced a straight in. Twin was still going 180 kts at the crash. He was higher when he made his call.

    • Richard G says:

      The only question… did the Cessna know the other aircraft was straight in, before he turned base. The Cessna was the pilot talking… but the twin wasn’t required to listen. Yes, oddly enough, if the twin announced final, regardless of speed and altitude he was on final and had the right of way.
      The Cessna should have began a climb immediately once he heard or saw the plane was on final and he was on base.
      The speed of the twin actually didn’t matter, neither did the altitude. Once on final, they have right of way. Final should only be called inside 5 miles out, but large aircraft do call 10 mile final.

      • David McEntire says:

        Can you please quote the regulation that says final=right of way, or are you just stating your opinion?

  5. Nicholson Kent D says:

    As a CFII, I must train my students to complete flights in poor weather, which often means non-standard patterns (straight in approaches) to non-towered airports in VFR conditions. A little common sense, awareness, and courtesy is usually all it takes. First, IFR traffic has no priority – period. Second, if the airport is busy, be prepared to alter the intended plan – break off the approach early or proceed somewhere else for the practice. Finally, it has been my experience that 90% of the time, non-standard patterns will fit nicely into the traffic flow as long as clear communication is exercised (I realize there may be aircraft without radios). With just some simple communication, a little courtesy (slightly extended downwind, early approach break-off, etc.), everything can fit together nicely without too much trouble. Of course, traffic awareness is critical, and ads-b has gone a long way toward making this more fundamental.

  6. adam says:

    I’m concerned about pilots on an “r-nav” approach to a non-towered airport seemingly oblivious to the VFR traffic already in the pattern, even using the opposite direction on the runway in use. I experienced someone practicing IFR do a low approach head-on as I was on final.

    • Rick says:

      Here in the corridor, between PHX and TUS, there are a couple of airports (CGZ, P08, AVQ) where this goes on daily because there may not be an IFR approach into the wind. Large training schools dominate the traffic patterns. It is very unnerving for me as a pilot. You just have to keep your head up and eyes out looking for traffic, and communicate. Because they are training, I would advize doing whatever you have to; do a 360, extend downwind, whatever, in order to avoid an incident. Having the right of way means nothing if the other pilot doesn’t realize it.

    • Richard G. says:

      IFR practice (the legal problems of IFR training flights on an Instrument approach without ATC direction and control is a whole new discussion) or VFR on an instrument approach is just that… VFR on an approach to land straight in. (Or Straight in final)… when you hear ‘approach’ that is final to all VFR traffic. Can you land in front of them, yes, if you request and they agree you can cut in front of them.
      I kind of doubt you were on a regular pattern final when he announced his approach. Anyone on approach is on final, regardless of location on the approach. He had right of way.
      Yes, this does suck if you are at the airport on down wind and ready to land… but it is what it is… approach is a final approach.
      If they announce the approach, they have right of way and are on final regardless of location, altitude, and speed. If you want to land ahead of them, you must request to land first or circle. If you were landing another direction, it was even more dangerous on your part to continue in the pattern with an aircraft on final, regardless of wind direction.

        • Scott says:

          Mike I agree with you Richard is putting out terrible information. You don’t call a 10 mile final and expect right of way. You are only announcing your intent to land or at least “approach” which doesn’t always result in a landing especially in IFR training or proficiency. If you are in the pattern and lower you have the right of way.

  7. Phil says:

    I recently moved to a mountain airport which has no tower, regular airline service, and lots of private heavy iron traffic. Landing east the rwy is right traffic, and the runway is hidden behind a big hill on downwind. The big boys on an IFR flight plan call a straight in while 6 miles or more out on the approach. They may or may not announce they are on an approach, which is kind of irrelevant to VFR pilots who may or may not be aware of the intersections announced. After 30 years of flying into a private grass strip, I have become pretty picky about proper pattern procedures, keep all the lights on, waggle the wings a lot, and monitor Center to maybe get an early heads up on arriving traffic.

  8. Richard G says:

    Sometimes you must right side step on a go around to keep traffic in site. So… no right turns… maybe.

  9. Macon says:

    Wow..! As much as I miss it, I’m glad my flying days are over..!!! I’ll leave it to the victims to argue right-of-way. (I did have a close call back in the late ‘60’s… I’m taking off, non-controlled sod strip, J-3 no radio, and guy comes at very low altitude, wrong way, “dragging” the strip to check to see if it had dried sufficiently after rain. Taught me a lesson I never forgot… look both ways, expect the unexpected, and be prepared to react accordingly.)

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