Pattern Entries and Tailwheel Pilots


Cast your bread upon troubled waters and inevitably someone tells you to knock it off, because you’re killing the ducks. In that spirit, we tossed a bonus two-part question into Brainteaser Quiz #197: “What’s the best way to enter a traffic pattern at an airport without an operating control tower? And, “Are tailwheel airplanes better than tricycles, making tailwheel pilots better pilots and way cooler than anyone?”

I received many spirited responses, including one reply from a reader in Colorado who opined that since the semi-legalization of pot in that state, pilots would be … would be … like … and then something about how airplanes resemble cosmic fireflies if you really think about it, which I didn’t. Needless to say, I’ve redacted all submitters’ names from the tally and changed my email address.

Here, now, are the pseudoscientific results, beginning with Part 1.

Never Say Never, Always Say Always

Most respondents favored the AIM’s recommendation that fixed-wing aircraft enter the pattern on a 45-degree angle in level flight, abeam the midpoint of the runway, at pattern altitude. Some pilots referred to The 45 as the “normal” way to enter the pattern, and one reader adhered to this practice with unshakeable zeal: “I always use the AIM-recommended approach and never saw a case where it wasn’t the best way to enter.” Perhaps this pilot needs to get out more. Another reader toes the AIM line but adds a caveat: “While the 45-degree entry to the downwind is desired, one must maintain one’s head on a swivel (a discomforting bobblehead image) and look for the non-conformist or helicopter arriving and attempting to ‘avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic.’ ” TSA has legions devoted to smoking out airport non-conformists. Still, keep looking.

But conformists didn’t pioneer aviation. The Wright Brothers didn’t enter on The 45 at Kitty Hawk! Lindbergh didn’t say, “Traffic in the area, please advise,” before crossing the Atlantic! No, indeed. And, as many pointed out, pattern entries depend on circumstances … or as this reader offered, “When other traffic is present, and the more crowded a pattern gets, pilots should use the local, standard (normally 45 to downwind) entry.” But: “With an empty pattern and good visibility, other ‘standard’ entries are appropriate, such as crosswind over the center of the runway when approaching the airport from the non-pattern side, or other methods with a goal of being in a correct position and stabilized when reaching the downwind-to-base turn point (unless doing an instrument approach).” Some might take that as “Enter any ol’ way you want.”

This reader expresses the go-it-alone approach even more clearly: “If not interfering with existing traffic, come in whatever direction is safely convenient, is my thought.”

This reader wastes no time getting to the point or the runway: “If no traffic is in the pattern, I enter the most efficient (fastest) way consistent with the designated pattern direction for the runway. If there’s traffic, I maneuver for a 45-degree entry into the downwind leg, taking into account the position of the other aircraft in the pattern.”

Several bolder readers take guidance from Hamlet: “Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: Suit the action to the word, the word to the action …” Meaning, if the AIM’s downwind entry word doesn’t fit the terrain, weather or traffic, then suit your entry to reality. No sense scud-running beneath a coastal marine layer on downwind, when you can make a straight-in or base leg entry in clear skies. Likewise, some hill-country airports won’t allow for neat downwind entries. Again, let discretion be your tutor as you depart from the norm, lest the terrain close your flight plan, leading accident investigators to massage another Shakespearean passage: “Had you been as wise as bold, young in limbs, in judgment old, your fate would not be inscrolled (on the accident form).” [Merchant of Venice]

Eschew The 45 Entry

Approaching the traffic pattern from the side on which the downwind is located makes for easy compliance with the 45-degree entry to that leg. But arriving from the opposite side of the field routinely ignites discussion over the issue of how to cross the field, get down, turn around and pick someone to follow on downwind. Many pilots said they simply enter on the crosswind, usually at midfield. A few comments on that: “Mid-field crosswind entry I think is the best. Best opportunity to spot traffic, avoid other possible traffic and also evaluate wind.” Others consider downwind and crosswind entries of equal merit: “Pattern entry should be made from 45 degrees to the downwind or on a crosswind.” And one reader promotes a third leg: “Downwind entry most often is best. If traffic permits, I often make a mid-field cross to enter downwind, or a straight-in.” Hey, it’s all good.

If 45 degrees is good, why not 90? Our cousins to the north shared their way to enter the circuit: “Try the Canadian 90-degree entry. To do this, join at 90 degrees at mid-downwind from either upwind or downwind sides. This is by far the safest and most logical way to do it.”

This easy going pilot favors “entering at pattern altitude on whichever leg I’m aligned with — crosswind, downwind, base, upwind, whatever — and then do what’s right depending on who is where in the pattern.” Or “Can’t we all just get along up there?”

Several said that it wasn’t terribly important how the pattern was approached provided everyone was nice about it. “In a crowded pattern,” a reader writes, “brief position reports are key. Then folks should give a little to help the fast movers get on the ground — and out of the way — as expeditiously as possible, even if this means a go-around for a slower airplane.”

Several pilots flying high-performance hardware might agree with the previous comment. This TBM (single-engine turboprop) pilot sums it up nicely: “If I fly into an uncontrolled field — other than my home airport — at night, it’s almost always an instrument approach, even if the weather is VFR. During the day, I try to accommodate the airport traffic. If there are a lot of airplanes flying around, then it’s a 45-degree downwind entry. If there’s only one other airplane, I do either a downwind entry or straight-in, depending on what’s more convenient. It’s not easy to do the same traffic pattern as a Skyhawk without running over one.”

This commenter disagrees with part of the previous approach: “The absolute worst possible entry? Straight-in!!” With two exclamation points!! And that goes for you instrument pilots, too!! Harrumph!!

And then there’s the pilot who promotes “entering on the upwind leg, which offers the pilot the best view of the activity in the traffic pattern as well as clues when and how to turn crosswind for best spacing as one enters the flow of traffic on the downwind leg.”

The 360 Arrival

Several readers with moxie expressed their love of the overhead approach: “What makes a good traffic pattern where ATC isn’t the referee?” one asked while clamping down on her cold cigar. “Enter on a three-mile initial for the overhead with a left break.”

Another pilot with Jake Hollow eyes said, “I was taught the teardrop overhead to the midfield downwind pattern entry for non-towered airports, and I’ve never had reason to think that wasn’t a terrific way to do it.”
“Why?” those of us sitting at his feet in the pilots lounge might ask.
“The overhead lets you look for yahoos exercising their ‘creativity’ and lets you look for a right-hand pattern marking, if you haven’t already figured that out during your flight planning.”

Part 2 – Enter the Taildraggers

The tailwheel-relevance question elicited a fair amount of misty-eyed support for taxiing with the nose in the air. “I learned to fly in a J-3 Cub with no electrical system when I was 16 in 1953 and weighed 30 pounds less,” a less-skinny pilot writes without betraying his BMI. “That was fun and educational … [nowadays] I occasionally enjoy flying a Champ and at some point will enjoy being a Sport pilot. Right now, I am really enjoying flying in almost all weather in my SR-22.”

Then there’s the Clutch Cargo no-nonsense take: “Real pilots fly airplanes from grass, with big round engines and the little wheel in back!”

Readers provided a thoughtful range of opinions on tailwheels, too many to reprint, so here’s a sampling beginning with this instrument instructor who tossed a bucket of cold reality by saying, “If a tailwheel is required for ‘real’ stick and rudder flying then ‘real’ instrument pilots would never stoop to cheating with those new fancy cheater tools (VORs, GPS) when all they really need is an ADF in the dash!” He then qualifies: “However, just like we practice partial panel, it is good to sharpen our stick-and-rudder skills in an airplane that likes to do loops on the ground.”
Personally, I like the ADF and would install one in my airplane if it had an electrical system.

This Cessna 170 (four-seat, tailwheel) instructor’s opinion found great worth in taildraggers: “I’m a firm believer that the conventionally geared airplane requires much more attention and precision for good landings and taxiing. In addition, an older airplane like mine does not have interconnected ailerons and rudders as some of the newer trainer models. It is much easier to demonstrate and understand the importance of coordinated turns using this vintage airplane.”

Similarly: “Tailwheel flying certainly adds another dimension and critical aspects to flying. Having 1200 hours flying Cessna 150s, 172s and 177s along with a scattering of Pipers and Bonanzas, I realize how much easier tricycles are to fly and how lazy you can get with the rudders.”

“Every student should solo in a tailwheel airplane. It just makes us better stick-and-rudder pilots.”

“Tailwheel aircraft provide a very good start for flight instruction. Having to fly the aircraft all the way to the tie downs requires you to be aware of all of the forces at work.”

“Aircraft with conventional gear fly exactly the same as tricycle-gear-equipped aircraft, with the exception that there is less built-in headwind when the nose gear is eliminated. It takes so precious little time and skill to operate conventional gear that I have never understood the need for nosegear on anything up through 12,500 pounds gross weight. If one lacks that capability, then that person’s landings in a tricycle-gear airplane will be somewhat sloppy anyway. Controlling a conventional-gear airplane is simply not that difficult.”

“As a long-time flight instructor and retired FAA inspector, I have given more evaluation rides and full rating checkrides than I can count. In far too many cases, the erstwhile pilot could not use the RUDDER! [All CAPS with an exclamation point!] It ought to be a requirement that first solo be in a taildragger. I have about 3000 hours of dual given in PA-28 Cherokees, and that airplane really lets pilots get away with absolute murder on the rudder pedals!” Wonder what his opinion is of Ercoupe pilots …

“Tailwheel aircraft are fun, and I have a couple thousand hours in them, but flying is flying and I’ll take about anything that’s fixed wing and airworthy.” Damn fine attitude.

And here’s a tailwheel reality check from a usually silent quarter: “Real flying is not done in tailwheel or tricycle airplanes but, instead, in gliders.” And, “Every new pilot should spend the first 25 hours in gliders and then the next 25 hours in taildraggers. After that, nothing they may fly will surprise them very much. When I become king, this will become the law!” No hot air balloonists submitted comments.

And The Winner Is/Are:

These two comments sum up the tailwheel v. nosewheel debate:

“Don’t call them ‘taildraggers’ unless they actually have a tail skid instead of a tailwheel!” an anonymous, but grumpy, conventional-geared flyer complained, no doubt from his cluttered hangar somewhere in southern Iowa.

And this captures the pure Zen of tailwheel ops: “Airplanes are like pizza. I love all pizza and all airplanes. However, tailwheel airplanes are like having both pizza and beer.”