Transitioning to the Pattern

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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.

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 speck.

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 patterns.

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 gymnastics.

Here's the procedure, step by step:

  1. Fly directly to the airport between 500' and 1000' above the traffic pattern altitude.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 airport.

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.