Safety Pilot:

Pattern police

April 1, 2010

With apologies to my long-suffering blog readers, who have read much of this before, a topic that riles many pilots is the antics of others in nontowered-airport traffic patterns. There are times when patterns become saturated. This typically happens on a weekend during the flying season, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. in good VFR weather. That, not coincidentally, describes exactly when and where most midair collisions take place and final approach is where most final flights occur.

At busy road intersections, traffic control devices such as stoplights, stop signs, or traffic circles are used. Most air carrier airports get a control tower. But what about nontowered airports that have peak periods and don’t warrant a tower most of the time? Control towers are a great amenity, but very expensive to build and staff.

The Hudson River corridor went 45 years before a collision last summer between a helicopter and a Piper Saratoga. Was this accident a statistical oddity? Perhaps, but when you start connecting the dots (sorry), a different picture emerges. AOPA, the FAA, ATC, and the helicopter tour operators spent months delving into this accident and discovered a number of procedures that could be employed to significantly reduce the collision risk—with only minor impact on corridor users.

After a collision, or any other type of accident, pilots and politicians often comment that it was “only a matter of time.” It’s hindsight, of course, and a bit fatalistic. After the Cory Lidle accident on the East River in New York, there was a lot of “Heck, everybody knew that was a tough place to make a turn.” Well, if it was so obvious, why not do something about it before lives are lost and GA takes the heat?

Without regulation, could there be some sensible procedures employed to reduce collision potential? Back in my full-time CFI days, our airport manager had a rule of no touch and goes with more than four to five aircraft in the pattern or on weekends. This allowed transients to get in and out, and still enabled student landing practice. A pilot who broke the rules could expect an immediate tirade on the CTAF warning that they’d be “sent on down the road” if they didn’t abide. I should point out this was a privately owned, public-use facility. It was traffic control at its most basic and we never had a collision. This may or may not be a reasonable solution at your airport.

My blog readers, shy bunch that they are, had a few thoughts:

Paul M. noted, “Many times I have pulled out of the pattern to allow a faster airplane to move ahead or allow a slower airplane time to land in front of me. Even as a student, my instructor taught me that sometimes common sense and courtesy are required in the pattern. As a student doing touch and goes, I would often leave the pattern to allow someone to land or take off.”

According to Steve, “If you fly a classic airplane without a panel radio, get a handheld radio and use it. This is not a high-ticket item anymore; a couple of hundred bucks. There’s really no excuse to compromise safety in the pattern by flying without radio communications today. Added bonus: My handheld probably paid for itself in a few months of flying just by allowing me to get weather, ATIS, and IFR clearances before engine start.”

John W.’s observation: “While no level of collisions is acceptable, there are always going to be some as long as humans are flying. I have just seen too many cases of regulations and restrictions being put in place because of a very few idiots doing something stupid.”

My friend Avi W. had this comment: “CFIs ultimately have the greatest chance of ensuring pilots not only learn the proper techniques, but driving home the practical reasons for using them, and developing a sense of professionalism in one’s flying attitude. Unfortunately, many CFIs simply focus on the tactical part of training—as that is what is tested on checkrides—and come up woefully short on the strategic components, such as situational awareness for all situations (e.g., crowded nontowered airport).”

Most everyone agreed that the CTAF is not the place for etiquette lectures, but a little courtesy and patience would help tremendously.

There is always bad mojo in a community after a collision, and sometimes pressure to close the airport, not to mention lawsuits and other expensive ugliness. It reinforces the perception that GA is dangerous and doesn’t endear us to the locals. Should we consider voluntarily employing some sort of traffic management that would be used only on condition—say, when the pattern is full? Maybe there’s a better idea. At our airport, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation organized a local collision avoidance/pattern courtesy meeting with the flight school, airport manager, soaring club, and local pilots this spring to discuss these topics. At this writing, the meeting hasn’t occurred yet, but I’ll let you know how it turned out after I clean off the tar and feathers!

Another view is that there really are very few collisions annually (typically fewer than 10), and that may be an acceptable loss for the millions of flight operations at nontowered airports.

I’d like your thoughts on voluntary, proactive collision avoidance—either way. Please comment through our Web site.

Bruce Landsberg was named president of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation in 2009.