Pattern HogsThe Cherokee pilot waited for a break in the steady stream of trainers. He inched past the hold-short line, hoping for a small opening in the weekend touch-and-go traffic. Three minutes slipped past-the Hobbs meter ticked relentlessly. Finally, there was a space almost large enough to accommodate a departure. With a quick burst of throttle, the Cherokee lurched around the turn to begin a takeoff roll. A hasty "Middleburg traffic, Cherokee Seven-Two-Yankee departing Runway One-Eight, Middleburg" was answered with, "Hey, Seven-Two-Yankee, didn't you see the Cessna on final?" A Cessna 152 started a go-around to avoid the departing Cherokee.
Traffic patterns at many nontowered airports are saturated on evenings and weekends, and this scenario is played out dozens of times. Everybody is practicing those critical takeoff and landing skills with runway capacity stretched beyond the limits. Tempers flare, aircraft get too close to one another, and occasionally there is a collision.
There is a better, safer way to deal with the traffic jam. The gravel-voiced lady manager at our airport had an ironclad rule: No touch and goes on weekends or anytime when there were more than five aircraft in the pattern. She publicly berated more than a few pattern hogs. "Cessna Eight-Niner-Juliet, no touch and goes on weekends. If you don't like it, take a cross-country." It worked. The airport would sometimes have four in the departure lineup, but every pilot knew that his or her turn was coming. Nobody felt compelled to jump in front of an inbound aircraft, and the tension dissipated.
Sometimes a good Samaritan will extend downwind because of conscience or request. That solves one problem and creates another. When the pattern is strung out, it's more difficult to spot all of the players. It's easy to mistake a long downwind for a downwind departure, resulting in a cutoff or a potential collision. We encourage tight traffic patterns (a one-quarter to one-half mile final). Extending downwind expands the airport's noise footprint, along with making the aircraft more vulnerable to a low-altitude power failure-rare but not impossible.
A more orderly approach to the traffic pattern also should help to eliminate the dangerous practice of moving into position and holding with your back to the traffic. You'll sometimes hear a radio call that the pilot hopes will legitimize a bad procedure. "Middleburg traffic, Mooney Seven-Eight-Quebec taxiing into position and holding on Runway One-Eight, departing when clear." The intent is to be ready to roll as soon as landing traffic exits, but suppose the just-landed aircraft doesn't clear as quickly as you expected. You can no longer see any inbound aircraft, and they may not see you. You have cluttered the airwaves and are in violation of the right-of-way rules. But we'll talk about frequency hogs another time. Position-and-hold usually works at towered airports, but it is not appropriate at nontowered locations.
Many instructors don't allow students to make solo touch and goes because of all the configuration changes and the lack of opportunity to run a checklist. Yet they will put the student into the heaviest traffic imaginable to conduct dual touch and goes. Timing becomes critical when the pattern is jammed. An aircraft that delays on the runway or someone misjudging the entry to the downwind will blow the choreography. This results in disparaging comments and possibly a close en-counter, if not in the air then at the gas pumps. Are we teaching good airmanship, or creating bad habits and attitudes?
Eliminating touch and goes at peak times will slow traffic slightly, while increasing safety and decreasing animosity. Encourage students to fly at other than peak times or in less busy locations. They will get more landings per hour if that is important.
Is there a time and place for touch and goes? Yes. Should students learn how to operate in high-density traffic? Yes. Should we control pattern hogs during busy times? I think so. No touch and goes today, Ghostrider. The pattern is full.
Let us know what you think about controlling pattern saturation. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to AOPA Air Safety Foundation, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.
Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
By Bruce Landsberg