Pattern Manners to the Test
Judging by the volume of mail we got on last week's article on non-towered operations, I know people are thinking about this issue. The first tower closures happen during early April and will continue until May, pending any action by congress and the administration to straighten out the mess they've made of budgeting. Watch for the crap to really hit the fan in May or June when summer air travel picks up and radar facilities start working short staffed due to furloughs. We'll soon see if the impacts are real or not.
Several readers wrote with suggestions that I didn't cover in the article. Mike Meador offered this: "One suggestion regarding your example: 'Sanford traffic, Cherokee entering the downwind for runway 6, full stop, Sanford traffic.' My current instructor is David St. George. He recommends dropping all unnecessary articles and prepositions, especially 'for' since it can be mistaken for '4'. Thus your example would become, 'Sanford traffic, Cherokee entering downwind runway 6, full stop, Sanford traffic.'" Good point. I never thought of that one.
"I would add only one thing: use your lights--all of them--in the pattern and on takeoff. You'll have a little trouble in the J-3 since the switch is hard to find. You'll just have to rely on the color," wrote Ron Robinson. This might just be a good time to add those recognition lights you've been considering or a landing light flasher. There are several good ones on the market, including LED technology.
David Faile asked about the specific reference in the AIM that authorizes straight-ins. Haste makes waste; I should have checked this. It's not in the AIM, it's in AC 90-66. But a version of it used to be in the AIM. Here's the passage: "The FAA encourages pilots to use the standard traffic pattern. However, those pilots who choose to execute a straight-in approach, maneuvering for and execution of the approach should be completed so as not to disrupt the flow of arriving and departing traffic. Therefore, pilots operating in the traffic pattern should be alert at all times to aircraft executing straight-in approaches."
And that gets us to pattern manners and straight-ins in the first place. This is like arguing religion or politics, for which there is no winner but an awful lot more heat than light. My view on straight-ins is do them, or don't do them—your choice. I fly them sparingly. In fact, the last one I did was in a TBM about a year ago.
It's not that I think they're unsafe, it's just that some pilots get so wrapped around the axle when they see one, the resultant radio litigation introduces a hazard where none existed before. For a couple of extra minutes of flying, it's just easier to appease those who don't like straight-ins by entering a conventional pattern. And it usually is more orderly. If there's little or no traffic, I'll consider them. I never fly them in the Cub. It's just too slow and tends to bollix up traffic that hasn't even arrived at the airport yet. Or maybe even taken off from the departure airport.
And that gets us to some basic manners. A few years ago, I got assaulted on a CTAF for landing behind another airplane still on the runway at a non-towered field. The offended pilot—who was actually an instructor—said the FARs say that an airplane on the runway owns it and anyone who lands on the same runway or taxis onto it is in violation. Pity how an instructor can be so misinformed about basic regulations.
Obviously, you can legally land on a runway behind another airplane. But should you? Yes, if you can do it safely and safely is in the eyes of the beholder. Much of the blather I've read about tower closings implies that visual towers have separation requirements. And they do, but only for the runway. Around the airport, they're on the hook for sequencing and advisories, but not separation. Runway separation at towered airports varies by aircraft type, but the minimum for small airplanes is 3000 feet. (Read more here.)
And if you've flown into AirVenture, you've probably seen as many as three airplanes landing on the same runway at once. It can be done safely by pilots who have a modicum of speed control and skill. If you don't, go around. But don't expect me to. As for the distance, 3000 feet is ATC's minimum, but it's otherwise not a regulatory minimum. Apply what you think is safe and get on with it. For slow airplanes, 2000 feet may be generous.
How about takeoffs with an airplane at the end of the runway, just exiting? It depends. If I can reasonably assess he'll be off the pavement before I rotate, I'll consider it. But I'm not willing to fly over or to jink to one side of airplane still on the runway. That would look just too stupid in the accident report, so I'd rather wait until the airplane clears. In a landing and rollout, the energy curve is diminishing; it's increasing in a takeoff, and that's not a good bet.
Over on the AOPA forum, I noticed some pilots discussing my favorite topic: unnecessarily large traffic patterns. More than any other, I predict this will become a source of irritation for pilots flying into semi-busy airports with closed towers. One commenter allowed as how if the finals get too long, he'll damn well turn inside them, land and clear the runway before the other airplane can become a factor. Sadly, I have to agree. I have done this and will again if pilots just can't make the pattern sizes reasonable. (My definition of reasonable is generous. A two-mile final is pushing it.) In the name of courtesy, I'll let the pilot know I'm turning inside and I'll do it only if extending to follow will aggravate the situation, as it almost always does. To me, the over large pattern is the height of discourtesy and shows a troubling lack of skill.
In desperation, another instructor showed me one way to deal with this. If you're in the downwind peering at an over-the-horizon airplane on final, throw out the flaps and slow as much as you can. (Why else practice slow flight?) When the airplane comes into view, don't wait for it to pass your wing before turning base, but start a slow turn to base, keeping the airplane on final on a line of constant bearing.
Because you're slow, your turn radius will be small and you won't be forced to extend your downwind for the poor sod behind you. And unless the airplane you're following is as slow as a slug—not too likely if it's flying a long final by choice—it will be opening up the interval because of your slow speed. You can then adjust your own final to build in adequate separation with the airplane ahead of you. You can also turn a tighter crosswind to take the telescoping out a pattern that other pilots are simply abusing.
Just let everyone know what you're up to on the CTAF. You can impose order on chaos without getting nasty about it.