Ever found yourself confused about how to enter the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport? Of course — it's happened to all of us! In this article, an experienced CFI based at one of Florida's busiest uncontrolled fields describes a simple, safe, sure-fire transition technique that works every time.
February 29, 2000
How many times have you been approaching an unfamiliar uncontrolled
airport and had difficulty determining the landing runway and
how to enter the downwind leg? The decision as to which runway
to use is often made in a hurry while preparing to land.
I have seen some situations of pilots using left turns when right
turns are clearly depicted by the segmented circle. When these
pilots are queried on the ground the common reply is that they
thought all patterns are to the left at uncontrolled airports.
You could imagine the results of two pilots trying for the same
final approach from different directions. When was the last time
you looked for traffic on an opposite base?
Clearly a transition technique from en-route procedures to traffic
pattern procedures is needed.
By the book?
The Airman's Information Manual recommends that we enter the traffic
pattern at a 45° angle into the downwind leg. But which runway
is the best for the winds? Often an ATIS report from another close
airport does not completely portray the local surface winds. And
as Murphy's law has it, nobody is talking on the radio, and from
three or four miles out the wind sock is just a little orange
The procedure commonly taught has been to overfly the airport
between 500 to 1000 feet above the traffic pattern and look at
the wind sock or wind-tee to determine the correct runway for
the prevailing winds. The traffic pattern direction is also observed
from this glimpse of the segmented circle.
At this point we know what runway and which way our turns should
be, but now what? Some mental gymnastics are required as to which
way to turn. Do I make a U-turn, supposing my entry is behind
me, continue straight ahead and descend directly on the downwind,
or fly the long way around?
Without a unicom or other aircraft in the pattern, it is difficult
to ascertain the correct runway for the winds and any non-standard
Some pilots use a modified military overhead approach and may
descend onto traffic that might already be in the downwind leg
but not communicating. Or some pilots may fly away from the airport
after confirming the runway direction and risk flying into a departing
aircraft or noise sensitive areas.
Another scenario may entail being on the wrong side of the airport
to enter the downwind directly, and needing to circle the airport
some distance away at traffic pattern altitude. This may conflict
with other aircraft departing at the same altitude, or cause an
inadvertent excursion into controlled airspace.
A better technique
As pilots, we are always looking for procedures that are simple
and effective. I have used a "transitional pattern"
entry technique for many years with much success. This transition
procedure borrows a little from the IFR procedure turn and a little
the military overhead entry procedure. The result is a technique,
one that works every time and that doesn't require the usual mental
Here's the procedure, step by step:
Fly directly to the airport between 500' and 1000' above the
traffic pattern altitude.
While directly over the airport (or a little offset so you
can clearly see the windsock or wind-tee and segmented circle),
determine the intended runway of landing.
Turn to the upwind heading (i.e., runway heading) and fly
away from the airport a comfortable distance (less than 1 minute),
still above pattern altitude. To avoid very steep turns if a 180°
turn is needed away from the center of the airport, maintaining
runway centerline is not necessary.
Turn 45° in the direction of the traffic pattern (turn
left for a left pattern, right for a right pattern) and proceed
outbound a comfortable distance to maneuver (no more than a minute).
Hold altitude to avoid any departing aircraft beneath you.
Perform a 180° turn back towards the airport in the same
direction of the pattern turns (left for a left pattern, right
for a right pattern). This puts you on the correct 45° pattern
entry heading. Start descending to pattern altitude and slowing
to pattern speed while in the turn. This turning and descending
maneuver will expose more of your wings to any departing aircraft
thereby increasing your chances of being seen.
Level off at pattern altitude before entering the pattern.
Now you are on a 45° entry into the downwind, at the correct
altitude and airspeed. The rest is standard traffic pattern procedure,
always vigilant of any traffic on final.
Possible traffic pattern radio calls could be:
Overhead at two thousand for runway 27.
Upwind for runway 27 at two thousand.
Outbound on a 45 for runway 27.
Inbound on a 45 entry to the downwind for runway 27.
This technique is a good transition from enroute procedures to
traffic pattern procedures, and can be used for almost any situation.
Exceptions would be terrain or controlled airspace that may have
to be avoided.
This entry technique keeps you turning, which increases your chances
of being seen by other aircraft because of the large area of your
wings against the sky. The technique also keeps you close to the
airport in low visibility conditions or when unfamiliar with the
I know that the main reason to fly is to get from one place to
another quickly, and performing multiple turns takes more time.
Yes, the transitional pattern takes a few extra minutes, but it's
time well spent avoiding other aircraft. It offers one simple
and easy-to-remember procedure that works for almost all situations.
Statistics show that a good proportion of general aviation accidents
are in the landing phase.