Pattern Wars: Part Deux


Sigh. They’re back. The modern resurrection of the pattern wars. As an inveterate FAA jailhouse lawyer, I already know the arguments.

“Discouraged doesn’t mean prohibited.”

“Advisory circulars aren’t regulatory, that’s why they’re called advisory.”

“The FAA has no clue what’s really going on in traffic patterns.”

And so on and on and on.

The occasion of this Phoenix rising from the dead is the FAA’s recent release of a revised AC-90-66, that little mundane pamphlet that deals with the details of flying into airports without control towers. The entire 9800 words of it could be distilled into, “Just play nice, willya?” But then how could we possibly entertain ourselves in the pilot lounge by arguing about—wait for it—the advisability of flying straight-in approaches?

This first erupted as a thing in the 1990s, when online chat and newsgroups appeared. Billions of pixels went to their untimely deaths in flame wars about as relevant as tastes great vs. less filling. I never understood why. You almost got the sense that some pilots lost their firstborn or had their houses burgled by a Cherokee owner who had the unmitigated gall to fly a straight-in, committing the unceremonious insult that was the equivalent of the empty glove slap.

In those days, the FAA’s advice actually was play nice. The recommended procedure allowed pilots to fly straight-in, but cautioned against using it to cut someone off or butt into the pattern. Of course, some of the more creative CTAF insults emerged from the fact that pilots did the cutoff anyway, hence the hot argument that smolders like those old coal mines in Pennsylvania.  

The new guidance says this: “The FAA discourages VFR straight-in approaches to landings due to increased risk of a midair collision. However, if a pilot chooses to execute a straight-in approach for landing without entering the airport traffic pattern, the pilot should self-announce their position on the designated CTAF between 8 and approximately 10 miles from the airport, and coordinate their straight-in approach and landing with other airport traffic.”

How’s that for a load of equivocation? And what rich fodder for more arguments now buttressed by being able to retrieve the text on an iPhone and brandish it in the miscreant’s face. Perhaps Garmin could work on an app to allow the cut-offee the ability to transmit the text directly to the cut-offer, for reading on the ADS-B display. Of course, I am exaggerating here as aviation writers named Paul sometimes do, mostly for effect and to get the MacGuffin kind of rolling along.

Yes, we embarrass ourselves with stupid little spats on CTAF, but by and large, we behave ourselves and extend courtesy when warranted. Which is why I think the FAA’s new guidance will probably be widely ignored. Pilots flying patterns know that straight-in approaches have their merits and the details can be worked out on the CTAF. Yeah, there are some Melvins and Karens* who won’t go along, but not enough to make life miserable for most of us.

Now the practicalities. I really want some airplanes to fly straight-ins, specifically the many bizjets that fly into our home drome. That includes a lot of Citations and Gulfstreams and when they occasionally try to mix into the pattern, the results can be more chaotic than a simple, well-announced straight-in approach would be. That’s where the wisdom of the AC bubbles to the surface. If concise announcing happens starting at 8 miles, that’s plenty of time for the FLIBs in the pattern to sort themselves out and plan a sequence. Maybe you have to extend a little for the faster traffic or maybe you can land ahead of it. If the straight-in has to go around, well, so it goes. That’s life in the world of aeronautical uncertainty.

I would hope that these jets have at least one pilot in the cockpit who’s familiar with the vagaries of non-towered airports. Three or four years ago, I was stooging around the pattern making my proper announcements when a Citation went whistling by on final while I was on base. No announcements. After he landed, I tried to raise him on the CTAF. No reply. A comm check with the FBO confirmed my radio was working. Maybe the crew was on the wrong frequency or switched off the audio. That’s a mistake not to make at a busy non-towered airport.

That gets me to radios where they aren’t required. Shortly after the horrific midair at Winter Haven between a seaplane and a Cherokee last March that killed four people, a reader wrote me and said radios ought to be required for ops at all airports. I have resisted this idea and I’m still not crazy about it. The seaplane in the midair did not have a radio. While there’s no guarantee the collision would have been avoided if it had been radio equipped, it’s also true that more information about traffic in the pattern is better than less.

Venice is busy enough that I wouldn’t even consider flying without a working radio. It’s hard to measure the real risk of NORDO pattern work, but it makes everyone tense and the required investment just isn’t so onerous that anyone who can operate or own an airplane can’t also afford to put in an inexpensive radio. Viewed in context with the advance ADS-B represents, I think it’s time to require all airplanes to have an operable radio for pattern flying, even those without electrical systems. It adds a measure of safety for everyone.

*This comment refers to no specific Karen, of whom I know many, but the generic Karen of the Meme thought to be a particularly prickly person. Any resemblance to a real Karen is coincidental and unintended.

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  1. What Paul just said. From someone who used to do the Gulfstream thing into a non-towered home base and also did and still does the Cessna 120 thing into a non-towered home base. Thanks Paul.

  2. Great article, Paul. You’ve hit the nail on the head with NORDOs and common-sense safety. If someone can splurge on an iPad for navigation, it’s safe to assume they can also afford a transceiver for communication.

    Now, on straight-ins—they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s important then, for everyone, especially at non-towered airports with IAPs to anticipate straight-in approaches as inbound IFR, or practice IFR traffic, slow or fast movers, usually with a higher workload, might not be able to transition in time with the VFR traffic the pattern. Protect yourself at all times!

    Thanks for shedding light on these important points, Paul!

    • Considering the potential hazards, is there a real need to practice IFR approaches/procedures at non-towered airports?

      • Considering the majority of GA approaches are made to non-towered fields with multiple methods of entry, holds, altitudes, distances, modifying conditions, and procedures, the more exposure you have to the multitude of variables, the better pilot you are.

        Keep your head in the game, LISTEN before pressing the mic PTT, develop situational awareness, and practice courtesy. The airspace (with exceptions) is open to everyone. And that includes students doing pattern work, transients stopping by for a fluid level adjustment, pilots working on their skills both VR and IR, and folks returning home from their burger runs.

  3. From a confused Canadian

    What is a “tear drop entry to the 45 “ ? And what is the point of the “last call” transmission?

    • What is a “tear drop entry to the 45 “ ? And what is the point of the “last call” transmission?

      1. Once you’ve crossed over midfield from the opposite side and perpendicular to the traffic pattern, maintain an altitude of at least 500 feet above the traffic pattern altitude (TPA) and scan for traffic from above.
      2. Continue level flight for approximately one mile or more away from the downwind leg.
      3. Carefully begin a descending right turn to enter the pattern using a “teardrop” maneuver.
      4. Join the 45-degree angle course to the downwind leg at pattern altitude, preferably one to two miles away from the downwind leg.
      5. Announce your position and intentions with clarity.
      Including “last calls” may be seen as redundant, but some pilots may find it reassuring or personally significant.

      • Raf Sierra, I am unsure where you get point 3) – “Carefully begin a descending right turn to enter the pattern using a “teardrop” maneuver.”

        I recall an FAA inspector at a Wings presentation, with the authentic accent and directness of a Dutchman, making reference to the PHAK figure 14-2 shared his opinion that the wording was poor and the diagram didn’t help. “People don’t know how to read”, he said.

        Indeed, the “descending 45 tear drop to the downwind” sometimes seems to resemble a WWII fighter formation break.

        Bullet 2 of figure 14-2 says “Fly clear of the traffic pattern (approximately 2 mi). His point, about people not knowing how to read (that means, read carefully) is with Bullet 3 – “Descent to pattern altitude (comma) THEN TURN”. It doesn’t say “carefully begin a descending right turn to enter the pattern when clear of the downwind leg”.

        He elaborated. Flying clear of the traffic pattern (approx. 2 mi) is not the same as “fly 2 miles from the airport”. It means 2 miles from the pattern that has been established by aircraft in the pattern. Assuming you are descending at 500 fpm and you are 500 feet above a 1000 foot pattern, and flying at, what, 90 knots, that will add another 1-1/2 miles, and maybe 3 miles if you are trying to clear the jets and turboprops doing a 1500 foot pattern. Following the procedure recommended in the PHAK will put you about 3-1/4 to 5 miles from the pattern, level, at TPA, and still flying away from the runway. THENCE, begin your turn for the 45. This allows you time to acquire and sequence yourself with traffic already in the pattern.

        “Last calls” seems, at least to me, to be a more economically-worded version of “any traffic in the area, please advise.” The FAA is clear on what they think of this verbiage in the note to 9.8.1 of the AC.

        • You are correct. Thanks!
          Chapter 14 Airport Operations. “There are several ways to enter the pattern if you’re coming from the upwind leg side of the airport. One method of entry from the opposite side of the pattern is to announce your intentions and cross over midfield at least 500 feet above pattern altitude (normally 1,500 feet AGL.) However, if large or turbine aircraft operate at your airport, it is best to remain 2,000 feet AGL so you are not in conflict with their traffic pattern.

          When well clear of the pattern—approximately 2 miles–scan carefully for traffic, descend to pattern altitude, then turn right to enter at 45° to the downwind leg at midfield. [Figure 14-2] “

          • Let’s just note “terrain permitting”. There are more than a few places where trying to fly at pattern altitude, 3-5 miles away from the field parallel to the runway, will put you inside the granite.

        • The ‘last call’ thing drives me nuts. Are you flying a plane or tending bar?

          Right up there with as using the color/type of your plane in place of the damned registration number.

          Either practice would be laughed out of the pattern at a towered airport, why use it for a non towered one?

          • The registration number tells me nothing about the characteristics of the airplane which I find more important than a tail number.

          • Bugs me too.

            White Cessna? Which one? 99% of them are white. How about Skyhawk 345? Well, that’s a bit more descriptive, since the registration number is a legal ID according to the FCC (which regulates the radio side of the house.) I know you’re probably a high wing and going about 90 kts. Same for “Cherokee 68W”. Low wing, can see me if you’re turning, and what your silhouette looks like. “Malibu 21TB?” Gotcha…

            Last call? Another affectation. Make the call leaving the pattern if you must “skyhawk 345 departing pattern northwest, east jabip”, but I really don’t give a fig that you’re not going to be clogging up the frequency (and probably made the ‘any traffic…” call earlier) anymore. You’re out of the pattern. Bye. Don’t need to hear from you anymore.

          • I’m that guy who always uses color and type in the pattern. I’ll even tell tower controllers color and type with my registration. Why not?

        • This is where I got my comment that includes “execute a descending teardrop” admittedly in conflict with FAA-H-8083-3C, Chapter 8: Airport Traffic Patterns, Note #3 “Descend to pattern altitude then turn”.
          By William E. Dubois
          November 15, 2022
          “If you’re arriving from the other side, there are two different entry methods. The preferred method is to cross the airport midfield, 500 feet above the highest pattern. Then fly two miles beyond the airport traffic pattern, execute a descending teardrop—which is always good fun—and join the standard 45-degree entry.” (”.)
          The alternate method is to enter the pattern from a midfield crosswind at pattern altitude and enter the downwind from the inside of the leg after crossing the field. Such a pattern entry is generally unexpected; if the pattern is busy, this is a hazardous approach, and I mean that literally.

    • “Last call”? No idea.

      I think the teardrop after you cross over the airport is extremely useful for safety. Your turn to the right, for a left downwind, gives you a comprehensive view of all the departing traffic & those staying in the pattern—departure, crosswind, & downwind—as you descend to pattern altitude.

      If you did a non-standard turn to the left after you cross the airport, you’d be turning your back to the traffic in the pattern & not give up a lot of situational awareness just when you need it the most.

      After all. You’ve got to get down to pattern altitude & reverse course into the pattern somehow.

  4. Regulations and recommendations always have to take into account and accommodate worst-case situations. If we set aside the non engine-driven electrical aircraft not having ADS-B or coms and then come to grips the fact any aircraft regardless of electrical system could be operated NORDO at non-towered airports, keep in mind a deaf pilot can obtain a student pilot certificate, recreational pilot certificate, private pilot certificate, and, on a limited basis, a commercial pilot certificate (i.e. ag operations, banner towing etc… outside of B or C). And on a similar note I have noticed that many non-towered airports have aircraft calling out every ground move on the CTAF tying up valuable time on frequency with nonsense calls like “N1234 taxiing to the fuel pumps from the T-hangars” or “engine start at the ramp”. The last thing I need when airborne and coordinating with other aircraft in flight in a dynamic 3D environment is having a student pilot and/or instructor blathering on about being stopped or driving at 5mph on the 2D surface of the ground.

  5. The single most insane thing I have read lately is the AirVenture approach NOTAM that still accommodates NORDO aircraft. I am sure there is a legal or technical reason they have to provide access to NORDO aircraft and reading the procedure discourages it and requires a phone call to the tower from an outlying airport prior to proceeding. But I think a pilot would have to be nuts and irresponsible to attempt it.

  6. I really hesitated to comment because I’ll earn some scorn here. I had a dangerous situation that would never have happened if the other guy had followed the traffic pattern recommendation. After a long winter and rainy Spring, it was the first good clear sunny day to fly. This non-towered local airport was busier than O’hare on Thanksgiving. The CTAF was clogged into a constant, mostly undiscernable stream of verbal CHAF. Notice that CTAF and CHAF are only one letter away from each other. Planes were everywhere as I entered the pattern mid field, probably #3 in line. Some of the chatter was from necessary back-taxiing, complicating the situation. It was chaos. As I turned final, the radio erupted into a stream of vile, lewd invectives from what turned out to be a local instructor and his student doing a straight-in landing. He claimed he announced his intent, but I never heard it. More importantly, given how busy it was, I never expected a straight-in approach. In my opinion, the instructor was trying to save time, while setting a poor example for his student. Everyone else was doing one thing, and this one guy was doing something different. Is that really wise?

    • As far as that CFI, it’s always been spelled out in AC 90-66. Straight-in traffic does not have priority over traffic established in the pattern and should coordinate. In many years, I can remember only one time where someone got annoyed with my practice instrument approach and I backed off at a safe distance. In a small airplane, it isn’t a big deal. But if I’m on the downwind and hear a jet call a straight-in, I will immediately let him know I will follow. There’s no sense in making a jet abandon a safe straight-in and make it join a traffic pattern with airplane’s half it’s groundspeed.

      • I disagree, I flew jets ranging from Lears to 747s out of non towered airports for years and never had a problem flying a pattern with slow airplanes.

        If the jet’s PIC can’t hack this he/she needs a different profession. Just because you burn kerosene doesn’t make you special. Don’t turn the US into Europe where those with the $$ get first dibs and everyone else can eat sh*t.

        • ETA: of course, there are sometimes damned good reasons for straight ins besides the convenience of the operator, and I will not argue with those.

        • When you’re on the downwind, and other aircraft below, how is the sequence decided? The first to have called? How do you descend safely through the lower traffic pattern considering blind spots? Does your wake ever cause issues for the smaller aircraft?

          • 91.113(g) – the lower aircraft has the right of way, so they should be ahead in sequence. And the aircraft at the higher pattern would likely also be flying a wider pattern.

          • Gary – what if it’s one of those busy patterns mentioned with one or more small aircraft on every leg. Where is the higher airplane going to fit in?

          • Common sense would seem to indicate that each leg is treated separately, so the lower aircraft on the base leg is ahead of the higher aircraft on the base leg, and both are ahead of aircraft on the downwind. And arriving traffic does their best to fit in to the traffic flow.

          • Gary – well realistically I hope it would never get that crowded with high and low traffic at a non-tower field. I think the low one on the downwind would still have to extend the downwind a good bit to follow the high one on the base. If more than one low and one high, I still see the vertical blind spots as a big hazard.

            A lot of times, there are comparisons made with the traffic pattern to automobile traffic, in a bad sense, which is fairly valid. But there’s one part of driving that is pretty good that should be followed in the traffic pattern, and that’s when someone needs to merge into the traffic flow. Nearly all drivers are pretty good with moving over a lane, or slowing to make space, or waving someone to enter. To the extent possible, it would be nice to have that sort of teamwork in the pattern.

    • It’s spelled “CHAFF,” which could be a fix in the busy pattern you’re talking about. “CHAOS” could be another fix, maybe the VFR entry point. A pilot could call out “Skyhawk 247K, CHAOS.” I was with a buddy, flying in the the airport with three names–“John Wayne / Orange County / Long Beach Airport”–on Thanksgiving day, 1990. We were the only aircraft in the pattern. At all. It was weird, totally dead, like we were the last pilots on earth. The tower got all chatty with us, since they had nothing to do up there, making comments about my “nice pull” when I pulled up hard into a closed pattern. Since the radios were so dead, my buddy helpfully made a bunch of fake radio calls to kind of “brighten up the airwaves.” No, he didn’t, but that would be fun. You know, use different voices, fake a female voice, etc. Then run like scalded cats when the black SUV rolls up to the ramp to our parking spot, shouting over our shoulders to the FAA “LAST CALL!,” always remembering to run away from the SUV at a 45-degree angle and clear.

  7. And yet, 91.113(g) remains unchanged, clearly not only anticipating that straight-ins will be flown, but prohibiting traffic already in the pattern from cutting in front of them so the straight-in is forced to go around. And case law tells us that knowingly cutting them off is an Emergency Revocation offense. So when you’re about to turn base, do take a look up final to see if anyone is there, especially if you don’t have a radio.

  8. My one request for pilots making IFR approaches to untowered airports is to use “VFR” terminology when announcing on the CTAF, as a lot of non-instrument-rated pilots don’t know the fixes, even at their home airports.

    For example:
    Bad: “Jet123 is at STANE, inbound on the ILS runway 6”
    Good: “Jet123 is 6 mile straight-in final, runway 6”

    • Better: “Jet123 is 6 mile straight-in final on the ILS runway 6”

      Now both the instrument-rated and non-rated pilots have a clear understanding of what’s going on.

  9. “coordinate their straight-in approach and landing with other airport traffic” by doing what, exactly? “I’m coming straight in, everyone else adjust your pattern to accommodate me”.

    • An unfortunately true interpretation. I’ll give jets a pass as I would rather not follow their likely extended pattern. My practice is to never fly a straight in if there is even one plane in the pattern. And like Paul say’s, bring a radio please. I owned a J-3 based at Winter Haven & would never consider pattern work without it.

    • By doing what exactly? That’s just it. There is no “exactly”. Way too many variables. What are you flying? What type of airport? Terrain considerations? Stall speed?

      It all seriously boils down to “playing nice”.

      If I call 10 miles out and a straight-in makes sense to me, I’ll wait and see what the activity is for both type of aircraft in the pattern and congestion level. If a 172 is on base and a Cherokee is on down wind then there might be time to slow down. In a Skywagon I can mix easily but do you really want me to enter a traffic pattern at a “recommended” 45 degrees in a 767 or A 330?

      I would never expect anyone to “accommodate me” but by communicating clearly as well as giving special consideration to other’s limitations, I’ve never seen a problem.

      • Where do 737s or a330 land at untowered airports. I don’t know of any, so they must be few.

    • I think it’s generally practical if there’s only one airplane that could be a conflict, and there’s no one close behind him. Normally when doing a practice approach, I advise the other pilot of that and ask him if he could follow (it would be a very short downwind extension). Have been accommodated every time (I would of course do the same thing) and give him my thanks. If he were unable or unwilling, no problem. I would reduce speed or start over.

  10. Thanks Paul. I agree, for the budget-minded (?) aviator a handheld radio is the best investment one could make in any gizmo that does not directly enhance the airplane’s ability to fly. And who knows – having and using one may allow one’s airplane to fly another day.

    Regarding your Karen/Karens disclaimer, I seem to sense a bit of “Melvins, you know who you are.” Or maybe not.

  11. Now add glider operations in the mix. For over twenty years at our airport gliders do right (tight) traffic, powered left (larger pattern) traffic to reduce the risk of midairs with no issue at all. Now the diagram in Appendix A throws all that out the window! Oh, and we also have medivac helicopter operations and skydivers, and we get along just fine without any “Advisories” from the Dark Side,

    • Well not really, at our field the A/FD lists glider and helo traffic patterns as non-standard, right hand.

      One thing would be people reading and understanding the A/FD prior to operating there.

    • That’s always good (and important) too, but flying some type of standard pattern and making useful radio calls is a big help in trying to find that little dot in the big sky. And I do prefer other (GA) planes to be a little dot rather than a big plane when looking out my window.

    • See and avoid has some inherent limitations, as anyone who has ever stepped in dogsh!t can attest. Like Paul said, more information about traffic in the pattern is better than less. Make the proper radio calls. And include the last three of your tail number so those with ADS-B “in” can “see” who is where when making that first call 10 miles out.

  12. Oh what the heck, I’ll throw mention of the military-style overhead pattern into the mix of this discussion.

    For a light GA airplane on a straight in or instrument approach it’s an easy transition to fly initial at pattern altitude straight overhead the landing runway and then time the break turn to fit into the flow of traffic already in the VFR pattern. If there isn’t a space for you, just carry straight through at pattern altitude and re-enter the pattern or set up for another approach. I use this technique often during instrument practice at my home drome to deconflict myself from the many unfamiliar transient aircraft and helicopter traffic from the on-field flight school.

    Take your time, LISTEN to the radio as well as self-announce to build a mental picture of the traffic flow, look out the window, and as Paul led with, PLAY NICE.

    • We were just talking about this recently. My proposal was to fly an upwind parallel to, but offset to the right of the runway so that the pilot, looking down, can see the runway and any departing traffic. Jets and some high-performance pistons can climb really steeply; on a longer runway they can get to pattern altitude before reaching the end of the runway. If you’re directly over the runway, you can’t see them; and they may not be expecting (or looking for) you.

      But, as others have pointed out, gliders, helicopters and ultralights often fly right-hand traffic, so now you’re flying upwind on the same side where they’re flying downwind. The helicopters and ultralights should be at 500′ AGL but the gliders start their downwind at 1,000′.

      And, as yet others have pointed out, the teardrop to the 45 has put me – and I’m sure many of us – nose-to-nose with aircraft that are either departing the pattern by turning crosswind and then 45 degrees left from there, or that are flying a wider than usual pattern.

  13. While I avoid straight in approaches, I do not have a problem with others doing them if they integrate with the established pattern traffic.

    But I do have a huge problem with straight in traffic incorrectly and dangerously reporting that they are on “final” when 10 miles out. While not specifically specified for VFR traffic (it is for IFR), this should be reserved for aircraft inside the final approach fix.

    So instead of saying “10 mile final”, say “10 mile straight in approach”.

    • Amen! A corollary to that; Actually get close to the correct distance. Far too often I’ve set up my pattern to allow plenty of time for that Jet who just called a 10 mile final – only to have to turn out of the pattern and fly away from the airport waiting for them to get there. If you’re 10 miles, that’s cool. If you’re 30 miles away just say so. It’s OK. I won’t think less of you. More to the point I know I will have plenty of time to land and get out of your way. I have to believe that the pilots who claim to be closer than they are , are doing so just to keep the flight path down final clear. They can’t be stupid enough to not know the effect. I want to work with you but I’d sure appreciate it if you’d help me out when I’m trying to do so. If you’re not going to give me the RIGHT information, please don’t give me any at all!

  14. I use to fly GA out of KDRO. Un-towered and served by Delta, United, American and Frontier. Those guys never try to fit into the pattern, nor would I expect them to, and would land with a tailwind up to a certain speed. GA folks in the pattern have to account for all of that and wake turbulence. The AC doesn’t address straight ins from opposite direction.

  15. Specifying when to announce in time rather than distance would seem to make more sense to me; “10 miles out” at 60kts is 10 mins, at 120kts, 5mins, and in a busy pattern everyone will have forgotten the announcement by then and the arrangement of traffic in the local pattern completely changed. May be “three minutes out”, which would be about right for a typical FAF at 90kts, and is probably enough time for the information to be actionable. I wonder why the FAA picked 10 miles?

    • I’m guessing the “10 miles” comes from a compromise distance for fast and slow planes. And if they were to use time-based calls instead, a typical 4-place GA trainer approaching from the opposite direction isn’t going to be listening 15+ miles out and might not ever know there was a turboprop approaching from the other end until they’re both already in the pattern.

  16. Funny how an article on pattern entry garnered so many comments bashing NORDO operations. I guess pilots aren’t happen even when they agree on something (pattern entry) so they find something else to argue about (NORDO OPS). Pilots gonna’ pilot.

  17. I don’t fly straight in approaches at uncontrolled airports…ever. I’ll fly a bit out of my way to either cross over for a teardrop entry to downwind or a 45deg to downwind entry, even if a straight in is more “convenient”. I do it for safety and situational awareness because I know there is the potential for a Nordo or “privileged” pilot (who thinks they own the airport) to be around and I want that extra time to look out the window before I land. Trust me I get ribbed when my buddies fly with me when I enter the pattern like this. But I always get them on the ground safely. After all, isn’t that the way we all want to end a flight!!!

    • Agreed. But sometimes it can hurt as much as it helps, such as reducing the tendency to look out the window, or reporting that one is N instead of the actual S of the airport, etc etc.

  18. Though I generally agree with Paul’s take on this, there is no longer any valid case to be made for NORDO, even in the case of a panel radio failure. With portable aviation radios costing less than the price of a single tank of fuel, if you can afford to fly, you can afford to have — and use — a radio to fly more safely.

    I fly a HondaJet now but when I was doing my instrument training 25 years ago in a 172, my instructor switched off the radio, turned to me and asked: “Now what?” I replied that it would never happen again because I was going to call Sporty’s Pilot shop as soon as I got home and order a portable Nav/Com. Then, during my check ride, the examiner asked about Lost Com procedures. I reached into my flight bag and pulled out my radio. He then asked what I’d do if the batteries were dead and I reached into my bag for the back-up battery pack. He wasn’t amused and still wanted me to recite the appropriate FAR language but having a radio is still far safer than not.

    I had 3 close calls around non-towered airports early in my flying and every one of them was both NORDO and failing to use proper pattern procedures. It’s unsafe and inexcusable.

    • I’ve had Crop Dusters show up on a head on coarse with me on Short Final. They have Radios but only want to talk to the people that are refilling the hopper. After all they are getting paid to by the Acre not the hour, so there time is way more important than safety.

      • You folks who are screaming for mandatory radios need to remember that not everyone flies out of the airports that you do. There are many many airports out here that see precious few operations in the average day. At those places a requirement to have and use a radio is pointless and only serves to further limit the pool of folks who actually fly. My take is we need more Controlled fields – because that’s what you’ve been saying. If you think everyone ought to have to talk – that airport needs a control tower. Perhaps a third category of semi controlled – would be in order. A semi controlled airport would require radios and their use, but other airfields could remain uncontrolled as they currently exist. This would be consistent with the recent airspace management program of placing additional requirements for entry into certain airspace (Mode C, ADSB etc) while still maintaining freedom. Just an idea. I just think calling for more regulation is always a bad idea.

  19. I learned to fly at an uncontrolled airport so those procedures just come natural to me. I fly jets now and it is amazing how many FO’s I have had who look at me funny when I brief a traffic pattern after a visual approach clearance. A lot of new jet pilots seem to think that a visual approach clearance overrides VFR traffic, it does not. One item I have not seen yet in any of the comments is that turbine equipment are supposed to fly a traffic pattern at 1500agl, which is usually higher than most piston equipment pattern heights. Obviously a plane with no radio could be an issue but I know of no owner of a J3 or a champ that flies 1500agl patterns with 2-5 mile final. I have had no problem mixing into a traffic pattern, communication is a wonderful thing. I also insist on my FO keep his/her eyes outside instead of playing with the FMS heads down. I usually like to keep my pattern within 2-3 miles of airport when possible. As long as I communicate my intentions within 20 miles out so my arrival is not a total surprise, never had anyone get PO’ed at me and a lot of times allow me to mix in without any issues. Now if there is no traffic in the pattern or if at night I will do straight in approaches as long as I can verify no one else is around (runway lights not on at night is an obvious giveaway). Biggest thing is to just get along and go with the flow. Blasting into a pattern at 200kts and cutting off someone else to do a straight in visual approach is not going to make you many friends and besides that is dangerous to both the offender and the offended.

    • Well said, Matt. And. I will add that no radio becomes much less of an issue if people endeavor to fly standardized patterns.

  20. Well, there’s HAVING a radio, and USING a radio.

    I’m based out of a uncontrolled airport nested within easy range of three controlled fields. Instructors often bring their students here because they can pack in more landings.

    And, in some cases, they turn down the radios because they find all the calls “distracting” for their students.

    I was president of the airport advisory council, and we sent a polite letter to one of the FBOs requesting they stop the practice. They responded with a refusal, saying use of radios wasn’t mandatory.

    • And nothing to prevent them using the wrong CTAF frequency, thus negating any of the advantages of the radio anyway.

      • Next month, my home airport is not only changing its CTAF frequency, but the runway numbering as well!

        This bodes to be a few interesting months…if not years.

        Radios are a tool; they should NEVER be a crutch. Mark I eyeball, please….

  21. Second closest call for a mid air was an aircraft doing a straight in talking on the old frequency, the one that had changed 3 years ago. I was a new Private Pilot and was on base looking at the runway trying to time the turn to final with the strong cross wind when a Piper Arrow flew right in front of me less than 100 feet away. After that I always do a check for unannounced straight in traffic on base and beat that habit into my students

    One thing that Paul alluded to but did not mention was courtesy on the ground. Sadly I see too many instances of airplanes blocking taxiways for long runups and actioning their 89 item pre takeoff checklist, oblivious to the aircraft around them or otherwise unnecessarily inconveniencing others.

    Finally if I am joining the pattern on the downwind I always look at the runway holding point. If it is busy and there is a long line of airplanes waiting to go I will make the call that I am extending my downwind to allow for aircraft to depart.

    A little bit of courtesy and consideration goes a long way to make uncontrolled aerodrome operations work smoothly

  22. As far as NORDO planes are concerned, some older aircraft do not have shielded ignitions. This makes handheld use problematic, as the ignition noise is like strapping two popcorn poppers to one’s ears. So it’s not just a matter of a $200 handheld; there’s $4000-$5000 worth of new magnetos and harnesses, too.

    Chump change in the Bonanza world, but far more critical for airplanes worth $10,000 (like mine is). Guess mine is probably worth more now, since I was forced to install a transponder and ADS-B Out in order to keep the plane based under the Sea-Tac Class B veil. Fortunately, my mags are already shielded.

  23. There was a time I was in the left pattern for rwy 34 with 5 or 6 airplanes. Everything is going smoothly and everyone is making good calls. Then some guy announces arriving from the west, shortly followed by “joining downwind midfield.” Since I’m past midfield on downwind, I expect he’s behind me. When I call base he jumps in “I’m turning base!” Since I was in a 172 I could look down and see that he was below me. I announced I was extending downwind and did so. Turns out the idiot decided to fly a practice VOR approach (VOR was about 4 miles west) that ends in a circle to land at 500 feet. Never bothered to mention it until he was called out on it.

    • That’s actually a good point that anyone flying a practice approach should probably also announce what altitude they’ll be at, if other than the standard pattern altitude.
      Technically, that lower aircraft would be the one with the right-of-way, but ROW rules are only so good if everyone knows where everyone is. You can’t yield a ROW to someone you don’t know isn’t there.

  24. Military Trainers do not follow FAR…. and do not care!

    On 13 February 2023 I was arriving at Bay Minnette Muni (1R8) within my Phase 1 test area for my Sonex experimental and announced on common traffic CTAF/UNICOM (122.8) that ‘EXPERIMENTAL N130FN was at 10 miles NE and would be entering the 45 for left downwind runway 26 – full stop’. Upon entering the pattern and announcing each leg location I observed that at least two T-6 military trainers (plus one on ADS-B at 3200ft) were in the right pattern appearing to be conducting Emergency Landing Pattern (ELP) or Precautionary Emergency Landing (PEL) practice and were forcing civilian left traffic on long extended downwind legs toward congested areas on the ground.

    As an experimental aircraft in Phase 1 testing 14 CFR 91.119, 91.305, 91.319 and limitations provided on the Special Airworthiness Certificate, flying extended downwind legs away from the airport area toward congested areas is not allowed but is patently unsafe for persons and property on the ground not to mention experimental crewmembers. So of course, I did not follow the extended civilian aircraft and executed a base at a point where “if power unit fails an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property” would occur, and a T-6 complained “Don’t cut me off”. I believe, and while I’ll admit my knowledge of military flight training is extremely limited, the T-6 is the burdened aircraft. Even at military outlying fields (OLF) with no Runway Duty Officer (RDO) normally only one T-6 is allowed to perform practice ELP’s at any one time. Bay Minette Muni does not have a RDO assigned.

    The question concerns military flight operations at Class G airspace airports (non-towered) and conflicts with civilian aircraft following 14 CFR 91.126. Unless authorized or required (A search of the FAA deviation site shows no approved exemption for military aircraft) pilots make turns to the left in the traffic pattern unless “RP” (Right Pattern) is indicated.

    I have copies of letters I sent to the FAA Chief Council, AOPA, Chief of Naval Air Training, and their responses. I’ve also included excerpts from the T-6 Flight Training Instruction and the Trawing Five Fixed-Wing Operating Procedures Manual (There may be a revised version not available to the public).

    This is not the first instance of an encounter like this, I remember a when a formation of two F-18’s came blasting through the Pensacola International Airport tower controlled (KPNS) traffic pattern while I was with a primary student in a C-172, without any notice or communication (fortunately they missed us). Remember, Look Outside!

    • And what were the responses? My understanding is that military aircraft operating in civilian airspace (i.e. virtually all US airspace, outside of active MTRs or MOAs) must still comply with all FAA regulations, unless authorized by ATC. I don’t know who one would have to contact to file a complain/violation with, though.

      • Chief of Naval Air Training: “We were unable to identify the training squadron, aviators, or event specifics involved..” FAA “14 CFR 91.126 (b)(1) is applicable to EACH Pilot of an airplane and does not differentiate between civilian or military operations, or between aircraft holding experimental certificates and aircraft holding any any other certificate…”

        Despite this the following civilian airports routinely see opposite traffic military training:
        South Alabama Regional – 79J
        Bay Minette – 1R8
        Monroe County – MVC
        Sonny Callahan – CQF
        to name a few,
        The following usually have a Runway Duty Officer & will put military traffic in a ‘Delta Pattern’ above the 14 CFR 91.126 or 91.127 civilian pattern:
        Brewton – 12J
        Evergreen-Middleton – GZH

        Bottom line… Commands will espouse in their instructions that FAA rules are followed, but here is a quote from one of their own training manuals:
        Adhering to standard procedures alleviates surprises and increases situational awareness and safety at non-towered fields. It is important to remember that the FAA has passed no direct regulatory requirements for traffic patterns at non-towered airports. The FAA has provided guidance, but it is important to stay alert.

        Which of course is not correct.

      • Chief of Naval Air Training: “We were unable to identify the training squadron, aviators, or event specifics involved..” FAA “14 CFR 91.126 (b)(1) is applicable to EACH Pilot of an airplane and does not differentiate between civilian or military operations, or between aircraft holding experimental certificates and aircraft holding any any other certificate…”

        Despite this the following civilian airports routinely see opposite traffic military training:
        South Alabama Regional – 79J
        Bay Minette – 1R8
        Monroe County – MVC
        Sonny Callahan – CQF
        to name a few,
        The following usually have a Runway Duty Officer & will put military traffic in a ‘Delta Pattern’ above the 14 CFR 91.126 or 91.127 civilian pattern:
        Brewton – 12J
        Evergreen-Middleton – GZH

        Bottom line… Commands will espouse in their instructions that FAA rules are followed, but here is a quote from one of their own training manuals:
        Adhering to standard procedures alleviates surprises and increases situational awareness and safety at non-towered fields. It is important to remember that the FAA has passed no direct regulatory requirements for traffic patterns at non-towered airports. The FAA has provided guidance, but it is important to stay alert.

        Which of course is not correct.
        [email protected] July 10, 2023 At 5:13 pm
        Commanders will obfuscate when ever possible?
        [email protected] July 10, 2023 At 5:21 pm
        Don’t do what I did by writing letters, NASA report etc. It will only stop if enough of us report directly to the FAA Safety Hotline:

  25. I think, Paul, you misread the complaints. I don’t suppose many have a problem with kero-burnering gods flying a straight-in , scattering us chicken in the pattern. But a lot of lesser mortals have taken to staking a claim on ROW over those of us plodding around the pattern by calling “straight-in on a 5 mile final” after their student XC in a 172. I called final: “negotiations over”

    Eventually, it seems, everyone has cottoned to the scam & on returning from a pancake breakfast or $100-hamburger is maneuvering for the VIP velvet rope 5 miles out.

    The point of this revision is to emphasize, “negotiations are not over” just because you’re called “straight-in.”

    • Let us all assume our Zen positions and contemplate 14CFR Part 91.113, “Right of Way Rules: Except Water Operations”

      …”(g) Landing. Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface…”

      Now: Consider WHEN that rule was written. Probably in the ’30s, or even the ’20s.

      BEFORE airplanes had radios.

      So punching the mike button and declaring yourself on final approach (ten miles out) is NOT like shouting “Shotgun!” when climbing into your friend’s ’57 Chevy. Too many folks assume if they make that call on the radio, that everyone has to yield to them…..

      Making radio calls is immaterial as far as 91.113 is concerned. What matters is your proximity to the airport, your position relative to the touchdown point, and the potentially conflicting traffic. Use the radio to maintain clearance from other airplanes, not to should “dibs” on the runway.

      • “Too many folks assume if they make that call on the radio, that everyone has to yield to them”

        Is that really the case, though, or is it just that too many pilots decide to yield their right-of-way when they hear someone else calling on the radio?

        I have found that a lot of pilots still fly as though the radio is in control. Both from what they hear on the radio, and from what they say on the radio. Part of that may be a result of most of the pilots in my area having trained at towered airports and never really feeling comfortable at non-towered airports.

    • I like ““negotiations are not over” just because you’re called “straight-in.””, Dave. Nice turn of phrase.

  26. Love these pattern “ discussions”! I use whatever entry is appropriate for my arrival angle, modified as needed to accommodate other traffic, if any. And in that connection, if I don’t hear anything when inbound, on my initial call I preface my statement of intent with “Traffic permitting”. My theory is that phrase will prompt anyone concerned about what I intend to speak up, and simultaneously assures them I am prepared to negotiate.

    • The practice of employing indirect or subtle insults instead of direct confrontations while entering or exiting the traffic pattern is now considered a finely honed art.

  27. What I got from AC 90-66 is that it is ok and even encouraged that pilots to talk to each other on the CTAF and coordinate their approaches rather than blindly announcing their intention and expect other pilots to know what they are doing. When I’m in the pattern and I hear another aircraft and I can’t see them and I don’t know exactly what he/she are going to do, I’ll politely ask. Just announcing intentions is not communication. Communication is a back and forth exchange of information.

    No one has mentioned mixing it up with ag aircraft yet. An airport that I used to be based at had ag aircraft operations. The name of the game for these folks is turn around as fast as possible. They approach low and from what ever direction gets them to the pumps the quickest. I when first starting flying at that airport I was talking with a couple of pilots and mentioned that the ag aircraft didn’t announce on CTAF. One of the pilots turned to me and said, “that’s because I don’t have a radio. When you are flying as low as I do, those things will kill you”.

  28. I’ll just put this out there: This AC is flat out terrible.

    It’s terrible because of the threatening language. (If the FAA wants to regulated this stuff, there is a process for that. This is an AC, so it’s advisory only. Threats about Careless and Reckless need to be removed.)

    It’s terrible because the procedures were written by people who know nothing of GA operations. (Do you really want a 65HP Champ to wait until it’s at pattern altitude to turn downwind? It will be in the next state by then!)

    It’s terrible because it’s contradictory. (Don’t make excessive radio calls, but be sure to make an announcement ten minutes prior to taxi… about twenty minutes before takeoff… so the airplanes that won’t be there when you launch know that you’re coming.)

    It’s terrible because it seems designed to cause confusion. (You need to coordinate with other aircraft, but don’t you dare tell others what you think your sequence is or what color your airplane is.)

    It’s terrible because the authors don’t know the legs of a pattern. (The Upwind and the Departure are NOT the same leg. If you’re one of the morons who keeps announcing that you’re on the Upwind when you’re actually on the Departure, you need to stop flying. It is confusing and hazardous… especially for those of us who actually use the Upwind.)

    Finally, it’s terrible because it’s just badly written.

    Hey, FAA. Rescind this “draft” and put out something that’s actually helpful.

  29. So where is the data that shows that a straight-in approach is at higher risk of a mid-air than flying some other sort of pattern? Studies? Numbers…?

  30. I am late to the party, but recently witnessed the “over the runway above pattern altitude 235 degree descending turn to the downwind” (described in the AC page A5 figure A) maneuver at a not-busy non-towered airport. I could not believe my eyes.

    Why on earth would anyone suggest spending more time getting into the pattern, spending more time low and slow, and putting themselves in a position that makes it harder to see and be seen?

    At a busy non-towered airport, especially one with lots of pattern work going on, this will only bring chaos. How on earth does a Baron or Pilatus or King Air fit into such a pattern without somebody getting run over?