There's not a syllable in the FARs about 45-degree traffic pattern entries. Nor does the AIM require them. There exists, however, a small-but-vocal cadre of pilots — and even some FAA inspectors — who consider any other type of pattern entry (straight-in, crosswind, etc.) to be a felony. These
May 19, 2000
|About the Author ...
John Deakin is a 35,000-hour pilot who worked his way up the aviation food chain
via charter, corporate, and cargo flying; spent five years in Southeast Asia
with Air America; 33 years with Japan Airlines, mostly as a 747 captain; and
now flies the Gulfstream IV for a West Coast operator.
He also flies his own
V35 Bonanza (N1BE) and is very active in the warbird and vintage aircraft
scene, flying the C-46, M-404, DC-3, F8F Bearcat, Constellation, B-29, and
others. He is also a National Designated Pilot Examiner (NDPER), able to give
type ratings and check rides on 43 different aircraft types.
a little housekeeping. For those interested in some of the old books I reprint,
there have been several changes. Be sure to check out my list of available
Also, I am often asked "When are you gonna do the the turbo
column?" I've now got a turbonormalizer from Tornado
Alley Turbo in Ada, Oklahoma, and as soon as I get some time in it, and can
gather some of the data I need, I'll be doing the column. Hey, how many
columnists do you know that will go out and buy a turbonormalizer, just to
please his readers? There will probably be two columns, one on the hardware, and
one on how the loose nut between the yoke and the pilot's seat runs it. I'm
hoping the very next column will be on the hardware, but that's not a promise!
Once that's done, I'm hoping to publish the engine management columns in a
book, for the benefit of the three kind people who have asked for that. Working
title is "Modern Engine Management," but I'm open to suggestions!
|The most savage controversies are those about
matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.
That which is legal is not always safe, and that which is
safe is not always legal.
These two quotes are most appropriate when talking about traffic pattern
What IS a "traffic pattern," anyway? The Pilot/Controller Glossary
|Traffic Pattern - The traffic flow that is
prescribed for aircraft landing at, taxiing on, or taking off from an
airport. The components of a typical traffic pattern are upwind leg,
crosswind leg, downwind leg, base leg, and final approach.
a. Upwind Leg - A flight path parallel to the landing runway
in the direction of landing.
b. Crosswind Leg - A flight path at right angles to the
landing runway off its upwind end.
c. Downwind Leg - A flight path parallel to the landing
runway in the direction opposite to landing. The downwind leg normally
extends between the crosswind leg and the base leg.
d. Base Leg - A flight path at right angles to the landing
runway off its approach end. The base leg normally extends from the
downwind leg to the intersection of the extended runway centerline.
e. Final Approach - A flight path in the direction of
landing along the extended runway centerline. The final approach
normally extends from the base leg to the runway. An aircraft making a
straight-in approach VFR is also considered to be on final approach.
(See Straight-In Approach VFR, Taxi Patterns) (Refer to AIM, FAR Part
91) (See [ICAO] Aerodrome Traffic Circuit)
Straight-in Approach - VFR - Entry into the traffic pattern by
interception of the extended runway centerline (final approach course)
without executing any other portion of the traffic pattern. (See Traffic
Straight-in Landing - A landing made on a runway aligned
within 30 degrees of the final approach course following completion of
an instrument approach. (See Straight-in Approach - IFR)
Pretty simple, but the complexity seems to arise when entering the pattern.
There is a small, noisy group of people out there who seem to think that if
only everyone would always make the 45-degree pattern entry to the midfield
downwind, there would be world peace, a fish on every plate, and an end to the
ozone hole over the South Pole. These same noisy people also seem to think the
straight-in approach is the worst sin a pilot can commit, some insisting that it
should NEVER be done.
Rubbish to both, I say. I say there is no good evidence either way that any
one type of pattern entry is any safer than any other. All have their
advantages, and all have their disadvantages, and a large percentage of traffic
pattern midair collisions occur at towered airports. If you want an absolutely
safe way into the pattern, forget it, you might as well stay home.
First, let's get towered fields out of the way. When operating at a towered
field, do whatever they clear you to do, and report where they ask you to
report. How you get there is up to you. Remember, the job of the tower is to
SEQUENCE you, and NOT to separate you! Whatever aid they give you to maintain
separation is above and beyond their charter. (My personal opinion is that we
have far too many expensive towers, and far too few uncontrolled fields. If the
FAA shut down 50% of the existing control towers, I would applaud. That's my
grumble for today!)
Now that we have that covered, the remainder of this column refers to traffic
patterns at airport without towers, or "uncontrolled fields," and how
to get into and out of them as safely as possible.
Two incidents stand out in my memory, both at the Arlington, Washington
airport. This is a neat general aviation airport north of Seattle, with a
primary runway 16/34, an elevation of about 160 feet, a LOC-only approach to 34,
and blessedly, no tower. I hope they never put one in, for that would ruin the
For the first incident, I approached from the east in excellent VFR
conditions, and was unable to raise anyone on the Unicom/CTAF frequency. I
crossed over the airport at about 2,200 feet agl to take a look at the windsock
and traffic. It indicated that 34 would be most into the wind, and accordingly,
I proceeded to the northwest to join the 45 to the left downwind. I might have
joined directly onto the downwind, but I was a bit high and fast, and going out
to join the 45 was going to take care of that nicely. There appeared to be no
In this case, I maintain that if there is any difference in
"safety" at all, the direct entry from the crosswind onto the downwind
would have been the "safest," as that would have meant less time
flying in the airport area, thereby reducing the "total risk." It's
possible that proceeding out to the entry area for the 45 would delay the
landing enough that all kinds of traffic might be there. But it really doesn't
Just after crossing overhead, still 2,000 feet or more above the airport, my
ears were assaulted by a truly nasty voice on the radio, "Bonanza over
Arlington, what kind of traffic pattern do you call that?"
Since there seemed to be no one else around, I said, "If you're yelling
at the Bonanza about a mile northwest, northwest bound, I'm not in the pattern
yet, I'm headed outbound for the 45, and I'm at 2,000 feet, what's your
"I'm on the ramp, and I've never seen anything like that, you're busting
right through the traffic pattern, and that's no 2,000 feet!"
"Well, I'm showing 2,200 feet right now, and if you'd like to discuss it
like a human being, I'll be at "The Prop Stop" for lunch after
Of course, he didn't show. Now, what is the matter with this creep? He's on
the ground, so he's not affected. There was NO traffic, unless a no-radio
aircraft sneaked in while I was away from the airport getting on the 45. Was
this a matter of safety? No. Was it regulations? No. It was some narrow-minded
jerk with a big mouth, and a small brain. I shudder at the thought he might be
an examiner, or an FAA Inspector.
On another occasion, I made the LOC approach to 34, and broke out at about
800' with pretty poor visibility, perhaps a bit over a mile. I had called over
the FAF (WATON NDB) about five out, and again when I broke out, stating
"Bonanza One Bravo Echo, three out, landing straight in, three four."
It might have been the same traffic pattern nazi who snarled, "One Bravo
Echo, you ever think of making a 45?"
"No, not in this weather, what's your position?"
"We're on the crosswind, about to turn downwind, and the traffic pattern
entry here is a 45 to the midfield downwind."
"What would you estimate for the ceiling and visibility?"
"It's about 800 overcast, and a mile."
"And you're shooting VFR circuits?"
"Well, when you get on the ground, you might want to take a peek at the
FARs on VFR ceiling and visibility requirements. And what was your N-number,
Mercifully, there was only silence in response, and of course, I was at the
gas pumps before he could land. I didn't see him on the ground, either.
Let's note the difference between "regulations" (i.e., the FARs)
and "policy" (which includes everything else.)
The authors of FAR Part 91 have wisely never made a big deal over pattern
entries. (That can always change, of course.) The FARs start out with Class G
airports (uncontrolled) and work "upwards" to Class B. In general,
each "higher" class of airspace adopts all the regulations of those
below, and adds to them. I have extracted a few of the regulations below in
italics, and added my own comments [within square
brackets and in blue, like this].
§91.126 Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G
(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each
person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a
Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this
(b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an
airport without an operating control tower in a Class G airspace area
pilot of an airplane [NOTE: only
airplanes!] must make all turns of that airplane to the
left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual
markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which
case the pilot must make all turns to the right; and
pilot of a helicopter must avoid the flow of fixed wing aircraft.
It is worth repeating, with emphasis, that making "wrong way"
patterns while approaching to land is a violation of the FARs. It is the
major hard and fast rule about traffic patterns.
However, note there is nothing whatsoever about departures! You are legal
(and generally safe) to turn any way you want, though common sense and courtesy
would dictate avoiding normal pattern traffic, residential areas, or hazards to
flight in any way you can, and you should consider those factors while giving
them whatever priority you judge most appropriate. In the absence of any and
these factors, the usual drill is a 45-degree turn in the usual direction, or a
§ 91.127 Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class E
(a) Unless otherwise required by part 93 of this chapter or
unless otherwise authorized or required by the ATC facility having
jurisdiction over the Class E airspace area, each person operating an
aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class E airspace
area must comply with the requirements of 91.126 [Class
(b) Departures. Each pilot of an aircraft must comply with any
traffic patterns established for that airport in part 93 of this
chapter. [Part 93 contains a long laundry
list of "special" airports and areas, otherwise it's the
same as Class G.]
(c) Communications with control towers. [Deleted
here, not germane to this column.]
So much for the FARs on this subject. Note there is NOTHING in the FARs about
45-degree entries, or any other entry. All you have to do is make all turns
WHILE APPROACHING in the "established direction." There is also
nothing that says you have to make ANY turns, which makes a straight-in approach
In fact, I can make a very good case that the classic 45-degree entry is
itself a violation of the FARs, since it is ALWAYS in the opposite direction to
the established flow of traffic. Since it is the final turn onto the downwind
leg, it must certainly be in the "vicinity" of the airport, and
therefore covered by the above regs!
Paragraph 4-3-3 (d) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) repeats the
FAR about right of way:
When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose
of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right of way, but
it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another
which is on final approach to land, or to overtake that aircraft (14 CFR
Think about this. If you are on downwind, and you see an aircraft on final
that is below you, THAT AIRCRAFT HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY. To carry it even further,
even if the aircraft on final is HIGHER than you are, it STILL has the right of
way, since you may not cut in front of an aircraft on final!
This is hardly the language that would be used if straight-ins were frowned
Bureaucrats, like those who write the FARs, just hate that term "common
sense" because it generally cannot be quantified, reduced to numbers, or
stated clearly in modern FAA-speak. I submit to you that traffic pattern
"rules" can be reduced to simple common courtesy, and common sense,
and we can safely forget all those complicated diagrams. (To tell the truth,
almost all rules everywhere could be thrown out, if we'd all just show a little
common sense and common courtesy!)
All a pilots needs to do is give a little thought to the type of traffic
known to exist (if any), and the type of traffic he is himself. Above all, the
single most important question we should ask ourselves is this:
|"How can I do what I want to do (get from here to
the gas pump), with the absolute minimum impact on what others are
trying to do?"
I like to drive my car so that no other driver has to put on his brakes, or
turn his wheel because of something I do, and I try to fly the same way.
Do I use the 45-degree entry? Of course! It's very useful when there is a
busy pattern, and I can fit into that pattern with my speed and characteristics.
When it gets very busy, or dissimilar aircraft are involved, even the 45-degree
entry breaks down, and that's why you see the pattern in use at Oshkosh, during
the big show there. They set up a point (RIPON) a LONG way away from the
airport, and they ask everyone to first fly over that point, and then follow VFR
landmarks directly to the downwind. That gives everyone a lot of time and
distance to get sorted out, just as the usual 45 does at a normal airport.
At the other end of the scale, if I owned my own private strip that no one
else ever used, I'd make pattern entries any old way I wanted, all the time.
Between these two extremes, there are infinite variations, each with a
"best" way to enter. Sometimes that "best" way is the
45-degree entry, and sometimes it is not.
Let us suppose you're at the end of a long cross-country flight, and in order
to get down to the pattern altitude at your home airport (no tower), you shoot
some sort of instrument approach, breaking out below a well-defined ceiling at
1,000 feet AGL, with excellent visibility. Because you were very busy with ATC,
you were unable to listen to the CTAF frequency, so you have no idea how busy
the traffic pattern might be until you cancel IFR for a VFR landing. Knowing the
traffic pattern altitude (TPA) is 800 feet AGL, you carefully fly all the way
around the airport well outside the "vicinity" of the airport, enter
the 45 at 800 feet, fly to the midfield downwind, fall into a gap between two
other VFR aircraft, and land. That "traffic pattern nazi" would be
pleased with you, right?
Sorry, pal, you have just seriously violated an important FAR. When VFR, you
are REQUIRED to maintain 500 feet below any cloud, and you should have flown the
45 and the pattern at 500 feet AGL. Remember, the TPA is NOT regulatory, it is
just a guide to "normal operation." In much the same way, the type of
entry is also just a guide to "normal operation," which may be
modified by other factors.
Let us suppose you are approaching a strip in the bottom of a valley, with
mountains so close on each side that you cannot do anything but a straight-in
approach? Obviously, it would be foolhardy to attempt anything else, and this,
along with many other variations is good reason the FARs do not address this
issue in more detail, leaving it to pilot judgment.
Let us suppose you are approaching some nice uncontrolled airport in your
Cessna 182, and I am approaching in the Constellation, with its 140-knot pattern
speed? Seriously now, do you really WANT me to enter on the 45, mixing it up
with other aircraft trying to do so? Do you want me to leave the wake vortices
out there for other smaller aircraft to blunder into? Do you want me flailing
around out there with a large, not-very-maneuverable aircraft at much higher
speeds, and much poorer visibility? Yes, I can and should do that at 1,500 feet,
but how are we to get to the runway? I will be faster than you, approaching from
above and behind you, and descending at some point, with you in my blind spot,
and I in yours. Don't you think it just might be better for all concerned if I
just made the straight-in approach, and got the heck out of the air, out of the
traffic pattern, and out of your hair? Even if I have to fly further to get to
the straight in, than I would the 45?
Speaking of the Connie, when we were doing closed traffic with it at
Camarillo, we should have been at 1,500 feet on downwind, right? Well, that
would have put us squarely on the ILS and Glide Slope for Oxnard, five miles
away, flying directly into descending traffic. I felt it was more prudent to
just use the normal TPA, and fly a wide pattern, and I would have done the same
even if Camarillo didn't have a tower.
Suppose you approach some airport so that you cross overhead the airport,
aimed at the same point where the normal 45-degree entry would turn onto the
downwind. As you pass over the runway, you note there is no traffic in sight, so
you turn directly onto the downwind. Some will say you shouldn't do that, but
now assume that instead, you had flown around the airport vicinity, and entered
the 45 like a good little doobie. As you approach the turn to the downwind, you
look back along the downwind, and note there is no traffic, so you continue.
How is the one "safer" than the other? For either, the chance of
missing traffic is equal. In fact, in Canada, the crosswind entry is the
preferred method, and I'm not even sure the 45 entry is even mentioned!
I know of one FAA inspector, a good man, very helpful, highly respected, puts
out a dynamite newsletter, very active in the local aviation community. But he
is absolutely monomaniacal about the 45-degree entry, and becomes quite
belligerent when talking about it. The last four times I've heard him address a
crowd, 90% of his attention is on this item, and the clear implication is that
the 45 is absolutely the only way to go. One group of examiners came away with
the clear impression that he absolutely wants any applicant busted for not doing
the 45. The entire group was literally cowed by his extraordinarily strong
attitude on this. I hate to think of what the results will be.
Wrong message. BAD message, I say.
He bemoans the current "lack of discipline" in this matter with
"Where I used to know where to look for potentially conflicting traffic I
now have no idea where they might be coming from. I literally have to look
everywhere, including straight up!"
Poor baby. Have I got news for him? It has NEVER been safe NOT to look
"everywhere, including straight up!" In fact, I would suggest that if
we did away with ALL "policies" for traffic patterns, and teach that
people MUST look everywhere, that anyone may come in from ANY direction or
altitude, we just might raise a crop of far more vigilant pilots than we have
today. THAT is the real problem here, I think.
Let us suppose you are on downwind, abeam the numbers, and someone calls on a
final approach, straight in. You spot him, and there appears a conflict which
requires you to extend your downwind to fall in behind him. Are you upset? Some
will be, but suppose he's a bit marginal on fuel, or needs a bathroom really,
really badly? Would you really have him stop somewhere else first, or go all the
way around for the 45? Suppose you've been shooting circuits and touch and go
landings for an hour, do you really feel you own the airport? Suppose half a
dozen of you are doing circuits, and have the spacing worked out so that
everyone is just "fitting in," no "slots" left, and I come
along in my Bonanza? Do you feel that I should just go away because you guys
were there first, and that there's no room for me? What's the difference to you
if I make the straight in, forcing you to extend slightly, or if I make the 45,
break in, and force you (or someone else to circle, or even leave the pattern?
(All assuming decent communication and courtesy, of course.)
Of course, there's always the arrogant you-know-what who will make any
pattern he pleases, regardless of courtesy, common sense, or traffic, but he
won't read this column anyway, and it's not that type I'm addressing here.
I think it's best to look at each situation with a neutral eye, and figure
out what's best to make the whole system work the best. In Interstate traffic,
that might be slowing your car a bit to let merging traffic join, and in the
airport traffic pattern it might mean giving way to the Learjet making a
straight in. Then again, it could also mean going a bit out of your way to make
that 45-degree entry, and take your place in line.
When someone else does something you think a bit out of line, you'd also do
well to just figure he had a pressing need to do that, and someday you may need
to do the same. There's no sense yelling at someone unless they do something
downright dangerous, deliberately and knowingly. Even if someone does do
something you perceive as dangerous, you'll accomplish a lot more with a gentle
approach, something like "I was concerned about what you did, would you
mind sharing your thoughts on it with me?"
The rude, obnoxious you-know-what will tell you where to go, and you've lost
nothing. You MIGHT make him think about it later, and he MIGHT realize his error
on his own. Or he'll brag to a buddy how he told you off, and his buddy might
just say, "You know, I think you might think about that, the guy might have
With others, you will probably make a new friend, and you both might learn
An example of this sort of thing, and the way I try to look at it. At
Camarillo, we often do repetitive full-stop landings and taxi-back in the
Curtiss-Wright C-46, since it is a tail-dragger, and most of the skill to be
developed is ground handling on the runway during takeoffs and landings. Touch
and gos don't accomplish much in this airplane! When we taxi back for takeoff,
we approach the runway on a fairly narrow taxiway ("A"), with the
runup pad to our right. It's a fairly small runup pad, and our wingtip overlaps
it slightly. There are often small aircraft lined up there doing a runup and the
tower often clears us onto the runway "If able to pass the runup
aircraft." The C-46 wingtip is some 14 feet off the ground, so there's
plenty of clearance, even with larger twins parked there. We approach each
fairly slowly, and wait to catch the pilot's eye before moving in front of him,
and we've never had a problem. Most look carefully (some in awe), then smile and
hold a thumb up, showing "Plenty of clearance." Some will even yield
the right-of-way, saying "We'd like to watch that thing takeoff."
But the other day, a Bonanza was running up, and he had parked just a few
feet further forward than usual. I judged we could still pass safely, and even
ran my left wheel off in the dirt, both to give more lateral room, and to drop
the left wheel off the taxiway, and raise the right wingtip over his prop. From
the C-46 cockpit, we can also look out and right down the lower wing surface, so
we have an excellent view of the clearance on such things.
But the Bonanza pilot was obviously startled, and quickly shut down, thinking
it was too close. We got it sorted out, but he was obviously unhappy, and later
dropped by the CAF hangar, asking for me to come to his hangar for a chat after
I got back. I did, and the first words out of my mouth were "Hey, if I
scared you, or caused you concern, I sincerely apologize." That cooled
things off, and eventually I laid a tape measure along his prop, showing that we
had about three feet of clearance. We agreed that maybe I had pushed it a little
too much, and that maybe he hadn't had a good angle to judge it, but I agreed he
had done precisely the right thing in shutting down. I didn't mention his
parking too far forward, but he did! We then chatted briefly about other things
as fellow Bonanza owners, and he indicated interest in my new turbo. He will
probably be a bit more careful not to intrude on the taxiway during runup, and
I'll probably be a bit more careful about overlapping running props.
A little courtesy and kindness just works better than any rule or policy.
Be careful up there!