Pelican’s Perch #30:
The 45-Degree Zealots

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


Pelican's PerchFirst,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 availablepublications.

Also, I am often asked “When are you gonna do the the turbocolumn?” I’ve now got a turbonormalizer from TornadoAlley Turbo in Ada, Oklahoma, and as soon as I get some time in it, and cangather some of the data I need, I’ll be doing the column. Hey, how manycolumnists do you know that will go out and buy a turbonormalizer, just toplease his readers? There will probably be two columns, one on the hardware, andone on how the loose nut between the yoke and the pilot’s seat runs it. I’mhoping 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 abook, for the benefit of the three kind people who have asked for that. Workingtitle is “Modern Engine Management,” but I’m open to suggestions!

Those Deadly Traffic Patterns

The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.

– Bertrand Russell

That which is legal is not always safe, and that which is safe is not always legal.

– John Deakin

These two quotes are most appropriate when talking about traffic patternentries.

What IS a “traffic pattern,” anyway? The Pilot/Controller Glossarysays:

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 Pattern)

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 ifonly everyone would always make the 45-degree pattern entry to the midfielddownwind, there would be world peace, a fish on every plate, and an end to theozone hole over the South Pole. These same noisy people also seem to think thestraight-in approach is the worst sin a pilot can commit, some insisting that itshould NEVER be done.

Rubbish to both, I say. I say there is no good evidence either way that anyone type of pattern entry is any safer than any other. All have theiradvantages, and all have their disadvantages, and a large percentage of trafficpattern midair collisions occur at towered airports. If you want an absolutelysafe 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 toweredfield, do whatever they clear you to do, and report where they ask you toreport. How you get there is up to you. Remember, the job of the tower is toSEQUENCE you, and NOT to separate you! Whatever aid they give you to maintainseparation is above and beyond their charter. (My personal opinion is that wehave far too many expensive towers, and far too few uncontrolled fields. If theFAA shut down 50% of the existing control towers, I would applaud. That’s mygrumble for today!)

Now that we have that covered, the remainder of this column refers to trafficpatterns at airport without towers, or “uncontrolled fields,” and howto get into and out of them as safely as possible.

Traffic Pattern Nazis

Two incidents stand out in my memory, both at the Arlington, Washingtonairport. This is a neat general aviation airport north of Seattle, with aprimary 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 theairport.

For the first incident, I approached from the east in excellent VFRconditions, and was unable to raise anyone on the Unicom/CTAF frequency. Icrossed over the airport at about 2,200 feet agl to take a look at the windsockand 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 havejoined directly onto the downwind, but I was a bit high and fast, and going outto join the 45 was going to take care of that nicely. There appeared to be notraffic.

In this case, I maintain that if there is any difference in”safety” at all, the direct entry from the crosswind onto the downwindwould have been the “safest,” as that would have meant less timeflying in the airport area, thereby reducing the “total risk.” It’spossible that proceeding out to the entry area for the 45 would delay thelanding enough that all kinds of traffic might be there. But it really doesn’tmatter much.

Just after crossing overhead, still 2,000 feet or more above the airport, myears were assaulted by a truly nasty voice on the radio, “Bonanza overArlington, what kind of traffic pattern do you call that?”

Since there seemed to be no one else around, I said, “If you’re yellingat the Bonanza about a mile northwest, northwest bound, I’m not in the patternyet, I’m headed outbound for the 45, and I’m at 2,000 feet, what’s yourposition?”

“I’m on the ramp, and I’ve never seen anything like that, you’re bustingright 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 itlike a human being, I’ll be at “The Prop Stop” for lunch afterlanding.”

Of course, he didn’t show. Now, what is the matter with this creep? He’s onthe ground, so he’s not affected. There was NO traffic, unless a no-radioaircraft sneaked in while I was away from the airport getting on the 45. Wasthis a matter of safety? No. Was it regulations? No. It was some narrow-mindedjerk with a big mouth, and a small brain. I shudder at the thought he might bean examiner, or an FAA Inspector.

On another occasion, I made the LOC approach to 34, and broke out at about800′ with pretty poor visibility, perhaps a bit over a mile. I had called overthe 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 BravoEcho, 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 patternentry 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?”

“That’s affirmative.”

“Well, when you get on the ground, you might want to take a peek at theFARs on VFR ceiling and visibility requirements. And what was your N-number,please?”

Mercifully, there was only silence in response, and of course, I was at thegas 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 FARs

The authors of FAR Part 91 have wisely never made a big deal over patternentries. (That can always change, of course.) The FARs start out with Class Gairports (uncontrolled) and work “upwards” to Class B. In general,each “higher” class of airspace adopts all the regulations of thosebelow, and adds to them. I have extracted a few of the regulations below initalics, and added my own comments [within squarebrackets and in blue, like this].

91.126 Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace.

(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 section.

(b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in a Class G airspace area –

(1) Each 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

(2) Each 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 themajor 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 courtesywould dictate avoiding normal pattern traffic, residential areas, or hazards toflight in any way you can, and you should consider those factors while givingthem whatever priority you judge most appropriate. In the absence of any andthese factors, the usual drill is a 45-degree turn in the usual direction, or astraight-out.

91.127 Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class E airspace.

(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 G, above].

(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 about45-degree entries, or any other entry. All you have to do is make all turnsWHILE APPROACHING in the “established direction.” There is alsonothing that says you have to make ANY turns, which makes a straight-in approachquite legal.

In fact, I can make a very good case that the classic 45-degree entry isitself a violation of the FARs, since it is ALWAYS in the opposite direction tothe established flow of traffic. Since it is the final turn onto the downwindleg, it must certainly be in the “vicinity” of the airport, andtherefore covered by the above regs!


Paragraph 4-3-3 (d) of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) repeats theFAR 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 Section 91.113(f)).

Think about this. If you are on downwind, and you see an aircraft on finalthat 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 ofway, 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 frownedupon.

Common Sense

Bureaucrats, like those who write the FARs, just hate that term “commonsense” because it generally cannot be quantified, reduced to numbers, orstated 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 littlecommon sense and common courtesy!)

All a pilots needs to do is give a little thought to the type of trafficknown to exist (if any), and the type of traffic he is himself. Above all, thesingle 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, orturn 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 abusy 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-degreeentry breaks down, and that’s why you see the pattern in use at Oshkosh, duringthe big show there. They set up a point (RIPON) a LONG way away from theairport, and they ask everyone to first fly over that point, and then follow VFRlandmarks directly to the downwind. That gives everyone a lot of time anddistance 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 oneelse 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 the45-degree entry, and sometimes it is not.

Some Examples

Let us suppose you’re at the end of a long cross-country flight, and in orderto get down to the pattern altitude at your home airport (no tower), you shootsome sort of instrument approach, breaking out below a well-defined ceiling at1,000 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 busythe traffic pattern might be until you cancel IFR for a VFR landing. Knowing thetraffic pattern altitude (TPA) is 800 feet AGL, you carefully fly all the wayaround the airport well outside the “vicinity” of the airport, enterthe 45 at 800 feet, fly to the midfield downwind, fall into a gap between twoother VFR aircraft, and land. That “traffic pattern nazi” would bepleased with you, right?

Sorry, pal, you have just seriously violated an important FAR. When VFR, youare REQUIRED to maintain 500 feet below any cloud, and you should have flown the45 and the pattern at 500 feet AGL. Remember, the TPA is NOT regulatory, it isjust a guide to “normal operation.” In much the same way, the type ofentry is also just a guide to “normal operation,” which may bemodified by other factors.

Let us suppose you are approaching a strip in the bottom of a valley, withmountains so close on each side that you cannot do anything but a straight-inapproach? Obviously, it would be foolhardy to attempt anything else, and this,along with many other variations is good reason the FARs do not address thisissue in more detail, leaving it to pilot judgment.

Let us suppose you are approaching some nice uncontrolled airport in yourCessna 182, and I am approaching in the Constellation, with its 140-knot patternspeed? Seriously now, do you really WANT me to enter on the 45, mixing it upwith other aircraft trying to do so? Do you want me to leave the wake vorticesout there for other smaller aircraft to blunder into? Do you want me flailingaround out there with a large, not-very-maneuverable aircraft at much higherspeeds, 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 fromabove 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 Ijust made the straight-in approach, and got the heck out of the air, out of thetraffic pattern, and out of your hair? Even if I have to fly further to get tothe straight in, than I would the 45?

Speaking of the Connie, when we were doing closed traffic with it atCamarillo, we should have been at 1,500 feet on downwind, right? Well, thatwould have put us squarely on the ILS and Glide Slope for Oxnard, five milesaway, flying directly into descending traffic. I felt it was more prudent tojust use the normal TPA, and fly a wide pattern, and I would have done the sameeven 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 thedownwind. As you pass over the runway, you note there is no traffic in sight, soyou turn directly onto the downwind. Some will say you shouldn’t do that, butnow assume that instead, you had flown around the airport vicinity, and enteredthe 45 like a good little doobie. As you approach the turn to the downwind, youlook 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 ofmissing traffic is equal. In fact, in Canada, the crosswind entry is thepreferred method, and I’m not even sure the 45 entry is even mentioned!

Look Everywhere (Including Straight Up)

I know of one FAA inspector, a good man, very helpful, highly respected, putsout a dynamite newsletter, very active in the local aviation community. But heis absolutely monomaniacal about the 45-degree entry, and becomes quitebelligerent when talking about it. The last four times I’ve heard him address acrowd, 90% of his attention is on this item, and the clear implication is thatthe 45 is absolutely the only way to go. One group of examiners came away withthe clear impression that he absolutely wants any applicant busted for not doingthe 45. The entire group was literally cowed by his extraordinarily strongattitude 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 Inow have no idea where they might be coming from. I literally have to lookeverywhere, 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 ifwe did away with ALL “policies” for traffic patterns, and teach thatpeople MUST look everywhere, that anyone may come in from ANY direction oraltitude, we just might raise a crop of far more vigilant pilots than we havetoday. THAT is the real problem here, I think.

Courtesy and Kindness

Let us suppose you are on downwind, abeam the numbers, and someone calls on afinal approach, straight in. You spot him, and there appears a conflict whichrequires you to extend your downwind to fall in behind him. Are you upset? Somewill 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 theway around for the 45? Suppose you’ve been shooting circuits and touch and golandings for an hour, do you really feel you own the airport? Suppose half adozen of you are doing circuits, and have the spacing worked out so thateveryone is just “fitting in,” no “slots” left, and I comealong in my Bonanza? Do you feel that I should just go away because you guyswere there first, and that there’s no room for me? What’s the difference to youif 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 anypattern he pleases, regardless of courtesy, common sense, or traffic, but hewon’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 figureout 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 theairport traffic pattern it might mean giving way to the Learjet making astraight in. Then again, it could also mean going a bit out of your way to makethat 45-degree entry, and take your place in line.

When someone else does something you think a bit out of line, you’d also dowell to just figure he had a pressing need to do that, and someday you may needto do the same. There’s no sense yelling at someone unless they do somethingdownright dangerous, deliberately and knowingly. Even if someone does dosomething you perceive as dangerous, you’ll accomplish a lot more with a gentleapproach, something like “I was concerned about what you did, would youmind sharing your thoughts on it with me?”

The rude, obnoxious you-know-what will tell you where to go, and you’ve lostnothing. You MIGHT make him think about it later, and he MIGHT realize his erroron his own. Or he’ll brag to a buddy how he told you off, and his buddy mightjust say, “You know, I think you might think about that, the guy might havea point.”

With others, you will probably make a new friend, and you both might learnsomething.

An example of this sort of thing, and the way I try to look at it. AtCamarillo, we often do repetitive full-stop landings and taxi-back in theCurtiss-Wright C-46, since it is a tail-dragger, and most of the skill to bedeveloped is ground handling on the runway during takeoffs and landings. Touchand 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 therunup pad to our right. It’s a fairly small runup pad, and our wingtip overlapsit slightly. There are often small aircraft lined up there doing a runup and thetower often clears us onto the runway “If able to pass the runupaircraft.” The C-46 wingtip is some 14 feet off the ground, so there’splenty of clearance, even with larger twins parked there. We approach eachfairly 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 andhold a thumb up, showing “Plenty of clearance.” Some will even yieldthe 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 fewfeet further forward than usual. I judged we could still pass safely, and evenran my left wheel off in the dirt, both to give more lateral room, and to dropthe left wheel off the taxiway, and raise the right wingtip over his prop. Fromthe C-46 cockpit, we can also look out and right down the lower wing surface, sowe have an excellent view of the clearance on such things.

But the Bonanza pilot was obviously startled, and quickly shut down, thinkingit was too close. We got it sorted out, but he was obviously unhappy, and laterdropped by the CAF hangar, asking for me to come to his hangar for a chat afterI got back. I did, and the first words out of my mouth were “Hey, if Iscared you, or caused you concern, I sincerely apologize.” That cooledthings off, and eventually I laid a tape measure along his prop, showing that wehad about three feet of clearance. We agreed that maybe I had pushed it a littletoo much, and that maybe he hadn’t had a good angle to judge it, but I agreed hehad done precisely the right thing in shutting down. I didn’t mention hisparking too far forward, but he did! We then chatted briefly about other thingsas fellow Bonanza owners, and he indicated interest in my new turbo. He willprobably be a bit more careful not to intrude on the taxiway during runup, andI’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!


  1. Although I agree with much of what you have to say here, I must take exception to your statement “When VFR, you are REQUIRED to maintain 500 feet below any cloud…” Almost every airport I fly into, out of, and around in these parts are located in Class G airspace. One mile, Clear of Clouds. If you rarely leave the massive 700′ AGL Class E “ring” surrounding much of northwest Washington, it can become easy to forget that the majority of airports in this country are in Class G, not Class E, airspace.