Pattern Rage? Why Bother?


In the long sputtering arc of my life, I’ve never gotten around to suffering from road rage. Which is kind of surprising, given how much stuff gets up my nose on an average day before breakfast. I just don’t get annoyed at drivers who cut me off, drive at the speed of snail trails or fail to use signals. Similarly, I don’t snipe at people for flying traffic patterns like the morons many of them are nor do I respond if they snipe at me when I do something imbecilic. The best revenge is silence. That also allows deep contemplation with a like-minded simpleton.

So in this week’s video, I amused myself by regurgitating every traffic pattern sin I could think of. I wasn’t really trolling here … well, OK I was trolling. So sue me. To our collective credit as steely eyed airman, most saw the thing for what it was: just a silly rehash of all the infantile chaos that blooms when a non-towered airport gets really busy. Although some young instructors are too strait-laced to recognize it, an out-of-control pattern is a delicious opportunity to exercise resourcefulness and flexibility of thought, the very qualities that separate good pilots from mediocre ones.

By the way, I used the term “student” in the video, not the au courant  “learner.” I did this because learner is a stupid trendy word to replace a perfectly good one and this will figure in our narrative. I will never use learner. Add that to the plaintiff’s bill of complaints. And by the way, no sooner had the video been published, then a friend sent me this snippet of audio from a busy towered airport with the tower shut down. This is exactly the kind of thing I hope a humorous take on the subject would keep from happening. (I know it’s delusional, but that paragraph needed a denouement.)

I did cover straight-in approaches, which are a perfectly OK thing to do when you can make them work. I do them all the time. Why people lose their bowels over this has to do, I think, with a certain aspect of aeronautical decision making having to do with discomfort with structure or, more precisely, lack thereof. Other than the more or less universal need for masochism, people get into aviation for a variety of reasons. One is its tendency to encourage nerdiness because aeronautics is, after all, a science. So there must be an agreed upon theoretical framework for everything and all decision making should fit into neat little boxes. And if doesn’t, well, you’re just ^%$&&^ wrong, that’s all.

One of these is the straight-in. The AIM offers a certain emotional ambiguity about this; sort of like the lukewarm girlfriend who won’t go out Friday, but won’t dump you either. So the binary thinkers are just more comfortable interpreting it as straight-ins should be avoided. Look, I’m fine with this. Avoid them all you want. But if you bitch at me on Unicom when I fly one, I’ll ignore you.

Just as an additional thought, if you fly something that burns kerosene you will, from time to time, have to fit into a pattern and most likely, it will be a straight-in. Having said that, there’s a guy who flies a Citation into Venice, or used to, who rocks it into town with a downwind, base and final. It’s a thing of beauty. I wonder if he learned to fly at a grass field. The thing about the jet or turboprop on final into a busy field is that a little courtesy goes a long way into making sure no one dawdles on the runway so you get to go around. This has happened. Possibly to me. I just thought I would mention it to encourage a positive outlook between the haves and the have mores.

Also, an instrument approach in VMC affords no right of way over traffic flying the normal pattern. The circling Indians don’t care—nor should they—that you want to take it down to DA to make it a counter. You can always circle or otherwise find a way to fit in. Barging in isn’t especially polite. (But I will ignore you …)  

One commenter noted that the AIM recommends using the full N-number on CTAF so that’s what he does, presumably even when the frequency is wall to wall. I don’t do this. I can’t remember if I’ve ever done it, but probably some grizzled instructor said, “Why are you wasting your time with all those words?” So here’s where the flexibility and resourcefulness come in. There are strong arguments for doing something in a standard way, like pattern entries, instrument approaches, pre-takeoff flows and so forth. Departing from these may or may not produce any particular benefit at the expense of a minor oversight that could kill you.

Spewing out full N-numbers on a busy frequency is not one of these. So the flexibility part comes in understanding you can trim that verbiage down when necessary even if you otherwise use the entire number. Since I never use it, I don’t worry about this. But what about, points out the sharp-eyed skeptic, if you have three white Cessnas in the same pattern. Good point. But you’re most worried about where the white Cessna is that’s a factor for you, like the one on final while you’re turning base. If you’re really paying attention, just add two numbers to the white Cessna. We recently had three yellow Cubs in the pattern. I christened myself Cub 26 and the other two picked up on it and we saved a ton of frequency time so nobody was getting stepped on.

Of course, we were fortunate that day. There were no learners in the pattern. Just students.

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  1. Hurrah for Paul for identifying the “Pattern Police”–those that would insist that THEIR way is ALWAYS correct–regardless of the circumstances. These are the types that insist that THEIR type of flying is the only “true brother of aviation”–tailwheels, high performance, vintage, aerobatics, turbines, helicopters, gliders, ultralights, or (GASP!) skydivers. As a 59 year pilot and a 50 year flight instructor and airport manager, I’ve heard them all. The comments usually fall in with “Hey, we fly PATTERNS around here!” and “_______(fill in the type aircraft–helicopters, gliders, antiques, LSAs, ultralights, etc. SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED HERE!” HARUMPH! Every opinionated styles themselves as “The ONE TRUE BROTHER OF AVIATION.”

    It is NOT NEW–my +60 year old collection of aviation magazines shows that it has been going on for decades–probably from the time the first two airplanes tried flying from the same field. Of course, big government acolytes immediately call for a “referee” in the form of a “control” tower. In many of the countries I have visited around the world, the “controller” has no “big picture”–I’ve seen several that look out of their small office window and announce perhaps the only phrase they know in English–“The RONWAY–SHE IS CLEARED.” This is NO CONTROL at all–we are all better off looking out as best we can for ourselves, and if we find something we don’t like (runway incursion, minimal spacing, etc.) to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT OURSELVES. Never forget, the last words of a 747 Captain in the Tenerife crash were “The Runway is MINE!”

    This “I have the right away” is not unique to aviation, but it IS prevalent. If drivers approach a 4-way stop sign, they generally work it out for themselves as to who proceeds next–no anger–no need for “control.” Similarly, a crowd approaching an elevator doesn’t need a “controller” to see who is “next” in line–they usually work out the order of entrance–or who will wait for the next elevator.

    Unlike these aforementioned social situations, we DO have an “order of precedence” advised (but not mandated) by the FAA on who SHOULD be “next in line”–but that ought to be tempered by practicality. Perhaps the “pattern police” will advocate for the return of elevator operators (“controllers”) to decide on who is next in line. (sarcasm off).

    Overcrowding is reminiscent of Calhoun’s “Mouse Utopia”–where mice were housed in a confined space. As more and more mice were introduced into the space, they became more and more combative–even though they had all of the necessities of life–until the “utopia” became uninhabitable. Perhaps this explains the scene at our own “utopia”–airports–as they become more crowded, the “inhabitants” become more and more aggressive. Is it any wonder why many pilots pine for a simple grass strip to enjoy their aviation activity?

  2. Pupil please. Student implies university and the means and ability to do independent study. Not a good idea before your solo.

    • Why? When I hear ‘student pilot’ I know exactly what that means. So, I assume, does everyone else in aviation. Why change? As a disclaimer, I am a retired public school and university professor. I am also an active CFI and like Paul, I will ALWAYS use ‘student pilot’ to reference someone who is learning to fly. The current ‘change the pronoun/adjective’ culture is nutty.

      • Should I come upon the bad fortune to encounter a student who tells me to refer to it as we/they \ us/them, I shall decline to offer “them” instruction. I appreciate the reality of gender dysphoria. But in my old age, I find that one student at a time is ample challenge for me. Nutty, indeed.

    • Pupil?? You must be british…
      A “student” is just someone who is studying something, at least in the US.
      “Learner” implies one is actually learning something – not always the case with students…

  3. If a Student Pilot’s Certificate is a license to learn, is a Learner’s Permit a license to stud? Hmmm…

  4. Hi Paul
    Approaching a favorite grass strip (48X) awhile back I heard a Cub doing circuits calling out as “Yellow Cub” as I typically do. So flying my yellow cub, for the time we shared the pattern, I adopted the nom de plume “The Other Yellow Cub”. So long as it doesn’t impede safety no reason to not keep it fun also.
    Tom Charlton

  5. I rarely use my full N-number, mainly because it’s all numbers, and it’s tiring to continue saying “Cessna six three four two zero” on every leg of the pattern.

    I get a lot better response from other traffic at any un-towered airport when I abbreviate it “Cessna Four-twenty.”

  6. Thanks Brian, now I will spend all day wondering if “Cessna Four Twenty” is a Cessna 421 on which you never made the last payment.

  7. Wow, this brings me back to my first flying days, rental J3 ($4.00/hr wet, no checks, cash only), misty cool mornings, grass strip, no tower, no traffic, no radio, traffic pattern?, make up my own, low and close, paying by the Hobbs, more T&G’s that way.
    Great days!

  8. Also a (quasi) retired U professor and (former) CFII. I have encountered many learners (nearly all scientists, for example, but a lot of others) who are not students, and also the other way around, but I have met some students (pilot and otherwise) who don’t seem to be learners.

    I agree with Paul that “student pilot ” is a perfectly apt term and we all know what it means.

    And Paul, good advice on keeping our mouths shut when somebody behaves like an AH.

  9. “You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
    You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
    Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
    Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
    Except when you don’t.
    Because, sometimes, you won’t.

    That’s when you’ll say,
    ‘Your day’s like my day.’
    So, then, we can be together.
    And no matter the weather.
    We’ll be able to say,
    Let’s fly another day.”

    Was Dr. Seuss a pilot? Hmmm…

  10. Paul,

    One thing I wish you could have touched on was pattern altitudes for turbine aircraft. I fly them for a living and regularly get chided by well-intentioned, likely new CFIs who complain I’m at the incorrect altitude. It can also be a safety risk when said CFI or his student then do a crossing pattern at 500 feet over the piston engine altitude since this is the precise altitude the turbine aircraft flies the regular pattern.

    By the way, don’t hate on the overhead approach. In a truly high-performance aircraft that have high sink rates power-off (no, not your Bonanza or Mooney), they are a very safe and efficient pattern. I personally won’t do them when there is a lot of traffic around, however.

    • “By the way, don’t hate on the overhead approach. In a truly high-performance aircraft that have high sink rates power-off (no, not your Bonanza or Mooney), they are a very safe and efficient pattern. I personally won’t do them when there is a lot of traffic around, however.”

      Yes, as often as circumstances allow. Why waist time and fuel. The longer you’re in the air the greater the chances of hitting flying things.

  11. I never use the whole N number, and I appreciate it when in the pattern other pilots only use the last three plus aircraft type. Easier for this aging brain to remember if I need to “reach out.”

  12. Glad to see someone else that notices the idiocy of “reach out”. When did “reach out” become “a thing?” It’s another “virtue signaling” term–used instead of “I contacted” (or “sought out–asked–conferred with–or simply “asked”…..

    “Reach out” is an empty term, and without real meaning. Say what you mean. As parents have told kids for years “Use your words….”

  13. As I’ve mentioned before, I find descriptive announcements like “Blue and white Cessna” useless since it’s almost impossible to discern color unless you’re almost on top of the other aircraft. Maybe an all-yellow Cub or some other highly distinctive color, but not the typical “X and white” aircraft. Besides that, with many aircraft having ADS-B out, hearing the last 2 or 3 digits of the N-number helps me locate the aircraft on my traffic page, which then helps me better visually locate the aircraft out the window; are they on a tight downwind or a B52 wide downwind, for example.

    As for straight-ins, I’ve used them before. If I’m coming in from a direction that is aligned with a straight-in and there isn’t a lot of traffic, I don’t see any problem with it. Same thing when practicing an instrument approach, and if it looks like there will be a conflict, I’ll do a 360 or break off the approach and try again. And sometimes a straight-in might actually be the safest entry if the pattern is full of aircraft at different distances from the runway on the various legs of the pattern and there is a gap to safely enter on a straight-in. Sometimes flexibility is the key to safety.

  14. “What’s your Active? Traffic Please Advise” There is a circumstance where it might not be such a bad call – though it might be phrased better.

    Let’s start with a specific – my home airport. KUUU – Newport. Crossed runways 16/34 and 04/22. 34 is clearly favored in the prevailing NW wind. 04 is also a longer runway and the visiting corporate Pilatus are likely to want to use it rather than the shorter 34.

    Me – I want to practice X-Wind work. 04 would be good. So I wait till the pattern is empty and I can’t hear anyone calling an arrival. While flying the less favored runway – and in order to deal with the similar sounding runway numbers I emphasize in my CTAF calls “ZERO four”. Inevitably while practicing someone called “N1234, 10 to the SW to land 34”. I can assume they did listen to the AWOS first, then switched to CTAF, didn’t hear much going on and made their call. And then they hear me emphasizing “ZERO four”.

    Depending on who called last – I might expect “What’s the Active, Please Advise” – or I might modify my next call with something along the lines of “N5678 is practicing X-Wind work on ZERO four, 34 is favored and I will extend out the area while you get in”.

    Both 04 and 34 are “Active” if you like and the call by the vocabulary used by other plane might tick some folks off. But at the end of the day we achieve separation – that’s all that really matters.

    [rant follows]

    PS – if you are one of our Friday afternoon arrivals from the west when 22 is favored and insist on flying right base onto 22 when the airport is all left traffic – I won’t pick a fight with you on the radio. But I WILL have a firm and polite word with you on the ground after – assuming you survive the head to head with the traffic that was on left base. 🙂 Yes – much of the AIM is advisory in nature. But direction of turns at an airport is in the FAR’s as a regulation. Pattern Police? Me? Well I’ve met too many of you in that base head to head – especially those of you who choose not to use your radio to try and cover what you are up to. I know you need to pee and the baby’s diaper really needs changing – but really – a couple of minutes more to maneuver for a left pattern entry. Might save you and your family’s lives.

    [end of rant]

  15. Thought provoking as always, Paul. I’m of the same ilk as you, even to the point of well extending my downwind to allow a Citation room to execute a straight in at the Metro Jet Center I frequent in my seasoned Bonanza. (I would say ancient Bonanza, but its Airworthiness Certificate dates only a few weeks after my own birth, and who wants to be ancient?) My big ‘take away’ (Ha! Mildly old worthless term, no where near as interesting as ‘Reach Out’) is truncating my N-number, which I will do in the pattern rather than the way I was taught in 1976, which was the whole darn thing. “Bonanza Zero Eight Delta” will be a frequency saver, and we all thank you for that hint.

  16. Pupil, Student, Learner, Cockpit, Flightdeck…seems like some people just like to change things for the sake of change.
    As for non-towered airport straight-ins: Fine when the pattern is empty but selfish to say the least when there are planes in the pattern. I have always followed Paul’s advice and just extended my downwind when the “straight-in” is near, and I don’t call them out on the CTF (sometimes someone else does). Then there are the AHs who linger on the runway after a straight-in when the plane in the pattern is following them in after an extended downwind…double AH! By the way Paul, the FAA “encourages” pilots to fly the pattern, but my experience leads me to believe straight-ins are becoming more common. At Orange County (MGJ) last year an Albatross called a 7 mile straight-in when there were multiple aircraft in the pattern. Someone called him out on the CTAF. I’ve often wondered it that distraction lead to his gear-up!

    • I’m one that burns kerosene and autofuel.
      Been on both ends of this, in a turboprop I called a straight in 10mile, 5mile and three mile final with a Cherokee in the pattern.
      On my 10 mile, he calls crosswind. On my 5 mile he calls downwind. On 3 mile final with the gear and flaps out, he says “wow that thing has a lot of lights, Cherokee 34X turning left base”. I go around.
      After we land and he sees a bunch of transplant doctors get off and into a waiting ambulance, he comes over and says, “I guess I could’ve extended my down wind huh?”

  17. OK, so what do you do when the A/FD and airport signage specify a calm-wind runway but half the locals insist on using the reciprocal? Ex: Havasu, KHII. 32 is designated. When the sock is dead, there’s ALWAYS a furious argument raging on CTAF about whether we’re using 32 or 14.