The great debate

April 1, 1997

Over the years I've learned that there are some topics that you really should avoid if you wish to maintain civility with your conversation partners. These include politics, religion, ethnic jokes, and — for many pilots — traffic patterns. There are few subjects that generate as much heat or difference of opinion as how to operate at nontowered airports.

The debate has been raging for years, and one of the key questions is where to enter a traffic pattern when a flight is approaching from the opposite side of the downwind leg. The passions run deep, as dozens of writers and literally thousands of pilots have found out. After Mark Twombly got caught between the dog and the fire hydrant, writing about upwind pattern entries ("Pilotage: Pattern Procedures," February 1996 Pilot), he called the Air Safety Foundation to ask what we thought.

To some pilots the pattern is sacred. The reason behind all the sound and the fury is minimizing the potential for midair and ground collisions at nontowered airports. The Quincy, Illinois, ground collision last year between a regional airliner and a Beech King Air was an unfortunate catalyst to this project.

The problem is a recurring one, but it doesn't happen often. In a typical year there will be approximately 20 midairs, which works out to just more than 1 percent of all accidents. According to preliminary data, last year there were seven midair accidents at or in the vicinity of nontowered airports. By contrast, there were four midairs at towered airports. These collisions are 1.4 times more likely to result in fatalities than are other GA accidents.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that many collisions occur on or near final approach where numerous aircraft are funneling toward the runway. The best defense is to fly defensively, look outside, listen, and broadcast intelligently.

To see how widespread the confusion was, we asked AOPA members and CFIs their thoughts on opposite-side pattern entry. The opinions were strong and varied, but two distinct categories emerged: There were the crossovers who crossed the runway at right angles, say 500 feet above pattern altitude; went several miles away from the airport; descended to pattern altitude; and turned onto the 45-degree entry leg to the downwind.

The other major group was the upwinders, who entered the pattern on the upwind leg at pattern altitude and turned crosswind somewhere near midfield to avoid arrivals and departures. If the description sounds somewhat muddy, the execution is relatively smooth. I have used this procedure at several airports where there was some restriction to the normal 45-degree downwind entry because of airspace, traffic, or noise abatement plans, and it works. One point for the crossover crowd to remember is that the standard pattern altitude is 1,000 feet agl for light aircraft and 1,500 feet agl for twins and turbine equipment. To avoid that rundown feeling, watch and listen carefully as you pick your altitude to get to the other side.

There were some variations on the theme — some quite ingenious —but every pattern we looked at had pros and cons. After gathering multiple viewpoints, we went to the FAA to get its thoughts on how this should be communicated to the pilot community more clearly than in the past. The FARs are silent on the topic, saying only that all turns should be made to the left except when they're not. There is an advisory circular (AC 91-66A) that spells it out in a bit more detail, but apparently this was not sufficient to dispel the confusion.

After months of discussion, surveys, and dozens of debates (some quite lively) with hundreds of pilots, a procedure evolved. The preferred operation is crossing over above pattern altitude, but there was consensus within the FAA to allow the upwind entry as an alternate way to get onto the downwind leg. The negotiated settlement was that upwinders should yield to aircraft on the downwind or about to enter downwind from the normal 45-degree entry point.

Before taking on this project, I thought that producing a Safety Advisor on nontowered airport operations would be a piece of cake. By the time we finished researching the many possibilities and attempted to convey our findings in an understandable fashion, it had grown into a lengthy and complex project. The topics include a description of the pattern itself, radio phraseology, right of way, etiquette, instrument procedures in VFR conditions, and some operational tips and guidance for the more cautious among us who believe that a large, wide pattern equates to safety. It does not.

Pilots of slower aircraft should understand why heavier and faster aircraft fly wider patterns. On a light traffic day, flight instructors might demonstrate to their students what a 120-knot pattern looks like. Granted, most trainers won't quite reach that number, but it shows how the other half lives. Conversely, those who fly at a more leisurely pace should keep patterns tight and well controlled.

Straight-in approaches are always a topic for discussion. Under VFR conditions they are acceptable only if there is no conflict with other traffic. Local VFR traffic should work with transient IFR and IFR practice traffic to allow a reasonable flow. An IFR inbound aircraft, real or practice, executing a straight-in into a jammed-up VFR pattern is not the most courteous approach. A retired airline captain allowed that he never made straight-ins at nontowered airports if the weather was decent. It gave him a chance to fly the aircraft and get a good look at the traffic.

Radios at busy nontowered airports are an essential piece of safety gear. Pilots of antiques and classics understandably may not want to modify their aircraft, but the use of a handheld transceiver will increase the safety margin at active locations. A radio does not replace an active scan, however.

What about enforcement? The standing defense of all pilots who have cheated in the pattern is that the directions are advisory only. While this is technically true, take the new guidance seriously. General aviation has everything to gain by avoiding the media and regulatory attention that nontowered airport collisions generate. Pattern entry shenanigans are for the comedy act during airshows.

The recommended standards may reduce midair collisions, but we won't know until they have been in use for a while; and since the numbers are small, this is difficult to prove statistically. As a closing thought, try a little tenderness and leave the incivility of the highways below. The busier the pattern, the cooler and more courteous we should become. If someone inadvertently cuts in line, be gracious about it; and if you're one of the righteous few who have never transgressed, be patient with the rest of us. Give offenders a copy of the Safety Advisor. By the way, if you have a difference of opinion regarding this column, please direct all fire to my good friend Mark Twombly, who started this whole process. I'm going on a 3-month vacation (just kidding).

View the Operations at Nontowered Airports Safety Advisor .


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.