We’ve all heard it. Pilots who want to break ground in marginal weather, students anxious to maintain momentum, and instructors trying to balance unfavorable conditions with their students’ needs and their own, decide that instead of attempting anything ambitious, they’ll “just buzz around the pattern.” It certainly seems benign. You’ll remain within sight and ideally even gliding distance of the field, making it easy to get home ahead of advancing weather and providing realistic options for handling an engine failure. It turns out, though, that the traffic pattern isn’t quite the equivalent of rocking in the cradle.
After all, 80 percent of crashes on fixed-wing student solos happen while those students are trying to take off, land, or go around. It’s better during dual instruction, but only to a degree: Half of all accidents on dual flights took place during those same maneuvers, regardless of the experience level of the pilots being instructed. And a recent review of accidents involving stalls found that more than 70 percent of those not precipitated by some other emergency—icing, say, or loss of engine power—occurred while in or maneuvering to enter the traffic pattern. Intentional stalls, including spin training, led to only two percent.
It’s less surprising when you think about it—as we’ve observed before, it’s easier to hit something when there’s something close enough to hit. Pattern work not only occupies the bulk of the time we spend within 1,000 feet of the ground, but is the setting for most of the maneuvering we do at lower airspeeds and higher angles of attack. It’s a favorable set-up for unintended stalls in circumstances that look very little like deliberate stall training at altitude. The break will be unexpected and very possibly sharper, and the ground will be a whole lot closer and more threatening. The impulse to pull back when the nose drops can be overwhelming, and this only aggravates the stall. And of course pattern altitude is close to the minimum most light airplanes require to recover from an incipient spin—even before they begin descending to make the turn to base.
More surprising is that the base-to-final turn, long noted as the classic set-up for an unintended spin, isn’t actually the scene of the majority of pattern stalls. In fact, only a little more than 10 percent occurred while making turns, and that includes turning to crosswind, downwind, and base as well as final. Throw in those that happened on final—usually while making S-turns or otherwise trying to slow down for spacing—and you’ve still only accounted for about one in six.
Instead, far and away the largest share—nearly 40 percent—came while trying to get from the runway to the crosswind turn. So much for taking off being the easiest part of the flight! Worse, only a small share of departure stalls involve complicating factors like high density altitude, contaminated runways, or short, obstructed strips. Most appear to be caused by nothing more than failures to let the airplane accelerate to its proper climb speed, sometimes compounded by configuration errors (too much nose-up trim, too much or too little flap extension, and/or too rich a fuel mixture at high-elevation fields).
About half as many happen during go-arounds, making it the second largest category. While the go-around is one of the most fundamental maneuvers, one that’s supposed to have been mastered before the first solo, evidence suggests that they're not practiced nearly enough after the checkride. In faster, heavier, more complex airplanes, the combination of rapid changes in power, attitude, and configuration at low airspeed and close to the ground can quickly get out of control. Adding in lots of nose-up trim—say, enough to maintain approach speed hands-off—complicates things further by requiring lots of forward pressure on the yoke, plus some fast, rough retrimming, to prevent the airplane from pitching up precipitously when full power is applied.
We all need to get around the pattern, and practicing takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds is the best way to improve them. Just don’t get too comfortable—or think nothing bad can happen while you’re so close to the airport.