Pattern personalities

July 1, 1998

Some of us are fortunate to live close to a general aviation airport. I get to see what's flying and grade pilots' performance, but not all of my neighbors share that enthusiasm. Ours is a relatively new subdivision that is located under the traffic pattern because the local zoning board had terminal dementia and allowed residential housing where aircraft noise could become an issue. We also have a shooting range nearby, so the issues of noise and safety are periodically on the city's agenda.

As is usually the case, the airport preceded the subdivision not merely by years, but by decades. But as airports all over the country are finding out, being first doesn't solve the problem, regardless of how righteous you may feel. The subdivision is right off the end of a runway, so noise problems are not easily resolved — but in many other parts of the pattern, a sharp pilot can reduce the noise footprint significantly and keep the neighbors happy. These procedures can increase safety as well. Here is an abbreviated spotter's guide to personalities, based on observed traffic pattern behavior. You may have others to add to the list.

Downwindus infinitus. There are actually two subsets within this type. Members of Downwindus Infinitus Widestus (DIW) fly the downwind leg so wide that the runway is only occasionally in sight. Some of these pilots feel the need for a long base leg, to better observe potential traffic on final. DIWs are sometimes mistaken for transient traffic not in the pattern, and other aircraft — usually flown by golfers — may attempt to "play through." The other version is Downwindus Infinitus Extendicus (DIE), who may have proper lateral spacing but prefer the leisure of a long final approach. It's the best seat in the house, and a DIE will savor it for an extended period. Some would go into hover mode and get out to take pictures if that were an option. Their hang time is impressive, particularly if you are following in trail. An especially memorable experience can be had if the pilot suffers from widest and extended syndrome simultaneously (DIW/DIE). These pilots are sometimes cut off by golfer types mentioned earlier. This can result in a brief but intense radio discussion with terms not usually found in the pilot-controller glossary or the Bible. Fortunately, GPS receivers are helping DIW/DIEs estimate fuel reserves, and fewer are asking for vectors back to the airport while still in the pattern.

Low Altitude Voyeur (LAV). The LAV generally flies several hundred feet below pattern altitude, allowing an exceptional view of sunbathing, backyard cookouts, and other residential activities. LAVs tend to have a startling effect on neighbors and, if the maneuver is performed frequently enough, may result in an exchange of gestures usually seen only on our highways.

High Power Buzzofficus (HPB). HPBs announce their arrivals with the characteristic yoweeeeennnn warning call of a prop being slammed into maximum rpm. The checklists on most airplanes with controllable props call for the prop to be at high rpm prior to landing. A more neighborly place to move the prop control forward is once established on final when the rpm is below the governing range. Of course, on departure the HPB is recognized by eeeeeen only, since he or she frequently will not reduce the prop rpm until leveling off at cruise. The decibel level of propellers is usually less than that of a typical revving Harley or a local teen running glasspack mufflers on his muscle car, but aircraft are highly visible throughout the neighborhood.

Every pilot was introduced to the rectangular pattern early in flight training. The FAA's venerable Flight Training Handbook states that it is a "practice maneuver in which the ground track of the airplane is equidistant from all sides of a selected rectangular area on the ground.... Like those of other ground track maneuvers, one of the objectives is to develop division of attention between the flight path and ground references while controlling the airplane and watching for other aircraft in the vicinity.... This will be helpful in recognizing drift toward or away from an airport runway during the various legs of the airport traffic pattern." It appears that more than a few of us have forgotten the basics.

It was a windy day today, and the concept of wind correction eluded many pilots in the pattern — they became DIWs or DIEs, depending on the wind direction. Big patterns require additional power to keep the airplane aloft since descending into a headwind increases the descent rate. A tight pattern means reduced power and a narrower noise footprint. If you want to win an easy bet, fly with someone when a strong wind is blowing down the runway and cut the power when the aircraft is adjacent to the end of the runway. Most pilots will extend their downwind well beyond the point of power-off return to the threshold. Let me know how it comes out and we'll split the winnings. If you lose — well, you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you're with someone who's one with his aircraft.

A tighter pattern means a steeper bank angle, and at least some skill, is needed. Steep turns are not good form in the pattern because of the increased stalling speed, and a stalled aircraft can become very noisy at impact. However, look at the stall performance charts for a Cessna 172. From level flight there is an increase in stall speed of only two knots when increasing the bank to 30 degrees with approach flaps. Now consider that an aircraft will naturally descend in a turn, which unloads the wings and reduces the stalling speed. It's good airmanship to plan your pattern by allowing the aircraft to descend in the turns. A little practice will help immeasurably.

Benefits to the tighter pattern include less noise, ability to spot traffic sooner, and increased likelihood of making it to the airport if an engine quits. I'm showing age here, but the issue of engine failures was always a topic during my training. It doesn't happen often, admittedly — but when it does, a large open area on the airport is certainly preferable to a residential area for both the aircraft and the neighbors.

Every aircraft has a pattern power setting that allows the pilot to make a comfortable, stabilized approach; add flaps; lower the gear; and adjust the descent rate without adding power. Reducing power is OK. Adding power means that you didn't plan it just right. All engines respond well to a gentle touch, particularly when power reduction is needed. It keeps the temperature changes more gradual. I try to arrive in the VFR pattern at reduced power, on speed, and then fly it tight, traffic permitting. There is a real sense of satisfaction when one masters the art of the quiet, precise arrival. Windy days require more thought, as does heavy traffic. Good players can pull it off.

The best example of superb power and pattern management occurred while I was riding in the back of a Boeing 727 descending out of 31,000 feet for a landing in Wichita. There was not a lot of traffic and the weather was good VFR, so ATC wasn't a confounding factor. The captain knew his aircraft intimately and added drag just when needed. The power was constant from FL310 until he reduced it for touchdown. When I left the Boeing, I complimented him, and the smile was something to behold. "I didn't think anyone noticed," he said. But all pilots should so that people on the ground won't. That's the way it should be.


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