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Technique: Towered airport traffic pattern operationsTechnique: Towered airport traffic pattern operations

The most important thing is to listen closely

Flying out of a nontowered airport, you quickly get in the groove of a standard traffic pattern.
Click on image to enlarge.
Illustration by Charles Floyd

You’ll usually enter the pattern in the same way, from the same general area; normally fly a left traffic pattern, with all your turns to the left; and you’ll self-announce on the unicom or common traffic advisory frequency—looking, and listening, for other traffic all the while.

Operations at a towered airport can be quite different. FAR 91.123 requires you to follow all ATC clearances and instructions. The controller may assign you a left downwind entry, a right crosswind entry, or even a straight-in approach. During pattern work, one circuit might be to the left and the next to the right. The controller will compare your position, speed, and objectives with those of other nearby aircraft and sequence each of you to minimize delay.


  1. Contact ground control

    When you’re ready to leave, listen to the ATIS frequency again—there’s a good chance it’s changed—and call Ground: “Anytown Ground, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo at the FBO with November, westbound VFR departure.”

    “Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, Anytown Ground, taxi to Runway 27 via Alpha, cross Runway 18.” (“Hold short Runway 18” would mean taxi up to, but not cross any part of the runway holding markings. Do not cross a runway without clearance; if you’re not sure, hold short and ask.)

    “Anytown Ground, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, taxi to Runway 27 via Alpha, cross Runway 18.”

  2. At end of runway

    At the end of the runway, when you’ve completed your runup, call the Tower:

    “Anytown Tower, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, ready for takeoff, Runway 27.”

    “Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, Anytown Tower, line up and wait.”

  3. Departure

    Taxi onto the runway and be ready to begin your takeoff roll immediately. If you’ve been told to “line up and wait” and the controller doesn’t clear you to take off within 90 seconds, tactfully remind him or her you’re on the runway.

    “Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, Anytown Tower, cleared for takeoff. Straight-out departure approved.” (If you plan to operate in the pattern, tell the ground controller and the tower that you’re “closed traffic,” and your clearance will specify a left traffic or right traffic pattern.)

    “Anytown Tower, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, cleared for takeoff.”

  4. Departing Class D airspace

    “Anytown Tower, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, departing your airspace to the west. Good day.”

    “Cessna Zero-Six-Echo, Anytown Tower, have a good flight.”

    Contacting the tower when departing its airspace is not required. You can request flight following, continue listening, or change frequencies.


  1. Tune in ATIS

    Far from the airport, tune the automated terminal information system (ATIS) frequency to learn your destination airport’s current weather and runway(s) in use. Note the ATIS information identification letter—for example, Hotel—because it changes with each update.

  2. Initial call

    When 15 miles away from a tower in Class D airspace, make your initial call: “Anytown Tower, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, 15 miles west with Hotel, landing Anytown.” Make sure your landing, strobe, and nav lights are on, even if it’s daytime, to help other pilots and tower controllers see you.

  3. Tower response

    The tower might respond: “Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, Anytown Tower, report midfield right downwind to Runway 27.” Depending on winds and traffic you could be cleared for a left downwind to 27, a right base to 18, a left base to 36, or even straight-in to Runway 9.

  4. Right downwind

    “Anytown Tower, Cessna Three-Two-Zero-Six-Echo, midfield right downwind for 27.”

    “Cessna Zero-Six-Echo, Anytown Tower, cleared to land, Runway 27.”

    “Anytown Tower, Cessna Zero-Six-Echo, cleared to land, Runway 27.”

  5. Taxi clear of runway

    The tower may ask where on the airport you’re parking, and could issue taxi instructions at that time. If not, taxi completely clear of the hold-short line; run your after-landing checklist; call on the ground control frequency provided by the tower; and follow the controller’s directions to parking.
Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.

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