The Pilot's Lounge #84: Arrogance, Etiquette And Big Fat Traffic Patterns

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'Are you going to land here or keep going on downwind into the next county?' It's painful to be in the pattern behind a pilot who thinks a stabilized final approach in a Cessna means a two-mile final. But just what are the rules and safe practices regarding the size of a traffic pattern? AVweb's Rick Durden looks into it this month in The Pilot's Lounge.

The Pilot's Lounge

Much of aviation involves black and white decision-making; we have to do many of the tasks we do in a closely prescribed way or risk dying. There is no appeal or plea bargain for violation of a law of aerodynamics. If we are in a single-engine airplane and the engine quits under about 500 feet on takeoff, an attempt to turn back to the airport is almost invariably fatal. Yet, in our world of so many absolutes and "standardized practices" it is always interesting to see how we handle those exercises that involve a healthy dose of opinion and judgment, such as traffic patterns.

I happened into the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport a few nights ago to find the overstuffed chairs empty. After noting that the magazines on the table were old enough to vote, I logged onto the Internet because I was curious as to what folks might be talking about on Avsig, the oldest of the aviation special interest groups on the Web. Those who post comments and observations are pretty experienced and thoughtful pilots, and I've found that it is a good place to go to learn.

Pattern Problems

One of the discussions I observed evolved from a situation most of us have had at some time or another. We are in the traffic pattern at a nontowered airport, following someone on the downwind. The pilot ahead is flying the downwind a bit farther from the runway than is comfortable for us, as we'd like to have a hope of making it to the runway should the engine wheeze its last, now that we've descended to pattern altitude and our forced landing choices are somewhat limited. The pilot we are following proceeds to extend his downwind, despite an absence of traffic, until we note that he is now a full mile beyond the approach end of the runway and exhibiting no signs of turning base or even descending.

Is this pilot ahead of us actually landing on this airport? We haven't heard a call on Unicom. We are well beyond where we would normally turn base, and we've descended a hundred feet or so as we've slowed, putting us below him; so should we turn now and land? He can't possibly catch us, as we'll be well established on base leg a lot closer to the runway, before he can complete his turn. Or, should we stay behind him, even if we are uncomfortable with being this far from the airport while flying slowly?

Do we stay behind him on this trip around the pattern, and then discover he's doing touch and goes? If so, are we now stuck behind a guy that can't complete more than three touch and goes in an hour, while the Hobbs meter whirls around in our rental airplane when we're trying to get in 8 or 10 landings efficiently so we can try to get our skill level back up without going broke?

What is the right thing to do? Are we justified in getting steamed? Are we being arrogant jerks for thinking that our nice, tight, hit-the-airport-if-the-engine-quits pattern is the ideal? What is the "right" size for a traffic pattern? Is there some "perfect-sized" pattern?

Check the Regs

The Aeronautical Information Manual and the FARs do not seem to be much help. We are supposed to fly a left-hand traffic pattern unless otherwise advised. It is recommended that we enter the pattern at a 45-degree angle, but that's certainly not hard-and-fast and occasionally is counterproductive to safety, despite what the traffic-pattern dictators claim. The airplane that is lower generally has the right of way (FAR 91.113), and one is not supposed to take advantage of that fact to cut off someone who is on final approach. While I haven't seen it interpreted in this fashion, does that mean that you, on downwind and having lost 100 feet, now have the right of way over the airplane ahead of you, still on downwind, flying away from the airport, who has not lost any altitude?

Many training manuals call for the turn to base leg to be commenced when the runway threshold is at a 45 degree angle from the airplane. That's not a bad rule of thumb, but it's often violated. The only pattern-size suggestion I could find in the AIM was that one should be on final no less than a quarter mile from the runway. For some operations, such as glider tow, aerial application and for advanced training, a quarter-mile final is too long, but for most ops it's pretty short. I expect my commercial students to be able to fly a pattern in which they turn all the way into the flare, at which point they kill any drift, complete the flare and touch down. However, that practice is not what we'd call "normal." Most pilots need a little time on final to sort out what is going to be needed in terns of wind drift and to get the speed set in anticipation of flare. A quarter mile is a pretty good distance for someone who is very current; a half mile is probably better, especially as the pilot might need a little more time to get things completely collected. Figuring a 10-knot wind, a half-mile final allows between 20 and 30 seconds in most GA airplanes, which should be plenty for the average pilot to figure out whether he or she can wrestle the airplane to the ground or is going to have to make a go-around.

Differences in Training

For pre-solo students, a longer final may be needed to give them time to make mistakes and correct them on their own. A mile may be about right, depending on the student. Going beyond a mile on final does not seem to make sense. A rule of thumb is to roll out on final at 400 feet above the ground and descending at about 600 to 800 fpm in a piston-engine airplane. That is steeper than the three-degree approach path, as is flown on an ILS, which is way too shallow for traffic pattern work in a piston-engine airplane, especially if one considers having a chance of making the airport if the engine quits. Four hundred feet worth of descent at 600 fpm is 40 seconds, and provides plenty of time on final approach. Depending on aircraft speed, that means a bit more than a half-mile final. Sounds reasonable.

What about some of the ab initio schools that are teaching pilots to fly as if they were operating turbine equipment? Those schools set those pilots up on long, shallow finals, with a lot of power and with the airplane configured for landing. They drive, not fly, the airplane to a point about 1,000 feet down the runway and impact the ground before even closing the throttle. Often those same schools teach students to fly downwind nearly a mile from the airport, where they have no hope of landing on the airport if the engine slips its mortal coil. I guess they assume that turbine engines rarely fail, so because they are training to fly turbine equipment, even though they are in piston airplanes, the engines won't dare fail in the pattern. Is that logical, Mr. Spock?

There is another, more nasty, little twist to the issue of the big pattern: On more than one airport where I've instructed, there has been a flight school where the owner or chief pilot insisted that the students make no steeper than standard rate turns in the pattern (sometimes even half-standard rate). They also had them fly at a much-reduced power setting on downwind and went out at least a mile before turning base. The rationale mentioned publicly was to give the students time to handle all of the sensory inputs that occurred in the pattern. Over beers with the instructors, it came out that management wanted max Hobbs times on the airplanes, so they darn well better fly gigantic patterns.

The Measure of Safety

Is a big pattern unsafe? One could start by saying that a "safe" size for the traffic pattern is one in which you can make it to the runway if the engine quits at any point. Unfortunately, that's not realistic. While we still hear from those who say "Yep, my instructor taught me to close the throttle opposite my touchdown point and I wasn't allowed to touch it again until rollout," that concept started to fade away 50 years ago; and even before that, it only applied to the very-low-horsepower trainers such as the Champ, Cub, and Luscombe. It certainly wasn't standard practice in Bonanzas, Navions and Cessna 180s. For most general aviation airplanes, the approach and landing consists of progressive power reduction. If done correctly, we generally fly downwind at cruise speed in slower airplanes and about 100-140 KIAS in faster singles and twins; opposite the point of touchdown we reduce power to a point where the airplane will begin to decelerate to its final approach speed while also losing altitude -- going down and slowing down -- as we make judgment calls regarding the power needed to reach flare height at the appropriate spot over the runway and at the appropriate speed. Power is reduced to idle just before or during the flare. And, no, power should not be carried until touchdown unless we've got ice on the airplane; it just uses up runway and brakes. As a couple of folks have said, power in the flare is a crutch for the incompetent, those who haven't figured out how to raise the nose prior to touchdown. After all, the majority of landing accidents occur from too much speed -- too much energy to manage -- on touchdown, rather than too little.

In a no-wind condition -- assuming a standard pattern altitude of 800 feet AGL (yes, some fly higher and burn the extra fuel) -- we generally make a power reduction to something below the green arc of manifold pressure or RPM (depending on the type of engine) opposite our intended point of touchdown and let the airplane lose about 100 feet as speed is reduced, and then start the turn to base. For most GA airplanes, our actions generate a base leg on the order of a half-mile from the end of the runway. Continuing the power reduction on base leg, confirming the gear is down and extending the flaps to just less than landing configuration, our speed drops to about 10 knots above that desired for short final, giving us time to look the pattern over again for other aircraft, and turn final, rolling out at about 400 feet AGL. If all has gone well, we drop the last few degrees of flap with a constant power setting while doing a final GUMP check, and those last 10 knots of speed bleed off as we descend toward the flare point. Once the runway is made and speed is about 1.30 Vso, the throttle is pulled back that last little bit to idle; a few moments later, we start the flare and, nose high, the wheels begin to roll (or in my case, there is a resounding thud).

Can we hit the runway from all points of that approach if the engine quits? On downwind, absolutely yes. On base, possibly. We are a little faster than best glide on base, so if the engine quits and we diagnose it immediately, turn for the runway without any delay and raise the flaps, we may make the runway. If not, we will probably land inside the airport fence, so the chances are we won't do much damage to anything. In any event, it's certainly better than landing off-airport.

How The Problem Develops

OK, let's take the, um, "obese" pattern flown by that certain percentage of us. Often, speed is reduced to some arbitrary number below 100 KIAS on downwind. Also, downwind is flown almost a mile from the runway. No, I don't know why, I just watch 'em do it. And, no, I don't think there is much chance of making it to the airport should the powerplant give up. (Yes, I've had an engine fail on downwind for real -- it does happen). Once passing the point abeam the runway threshold, the pilot notices it, but does nothing. Again, I don't know why. To me it would seem logical to make a further power reduction and start descending for the runway; but it's such a nice day, why cut this lovely flight short? Who cares if there is a line of airplanes behind? Our hero keeps on going, straight ahead, at reduced airspeed and a constant altitude. At something like a mile or more from the runway, he starts a turn to base leg. He may or may not start down. Once on base, the power finally comes back and speed starts to drop as the airplane heads toward the earth. Final is turned at least a mile from the airport, usually more, and maybe a hundred feet below pattern altitude. Can he make the runway if the engine quits? Not a chance. Plus, he's now got everyone behind him slowed way down and having to carry on even further before turning base -- the dominos are starting to fall, causing the pattern to get longer and longer. The pilot has time to write a postcard as he schleps down final and plops the airplane onto the runway ... usually at well above Vso because it just doesn't feel good to slow it down on final: He's afraid he's going to stall.

Is he "unsafe"? Probably not. Is a smaller pattern safer? Yes. Is his pattern "wrong"? No, he is probably doing as he was taught or his skill level is such that he needs to time to adjust to landing. It's his way of doing things. Asking him to change may be difficult -- just listen to Oshkosh tower during AirVenture as controllers demand, wheedle and sometimes almost seem to beg the wide-pattern types to fly closer to the airport, but they just can't seem to do it.

A Little Understanding

After all of that, what do we do when we are flying behind the guy making the gigantic pattern? It's time for a little consideration and understanding. The culprit is probably a low-time pilot, inexperienced or way out of practice. What does that mean? Don't scare him. I've watched low-time pilots hit the panic button if they see an airplane within a mile. The pilot is so stressed and loaded up just flying the airplane that he cannot spare the analytical brain cells to decide if the other airplane he sees in his sky is truly a threat. Therefore, to be on the safe side, he perceives it as a threat. Unfortunately, he may make abrupt control inputs or stop flying his airplane effectively while he stares at the other airplane. That being the case, doing a nice tight base and final in front of him without warning may trigger problems for our inexperienced friend, something to consider. For just once around the pattern (not doing repeated touch-and-goes), I'd suggest the default position is to simply follow him and grit our teeth. (OK, as a stress reliever we'll squeeze off a few rounds from the imaginary 20-mm cannon while we follow him.)

If our wide-pattern guy has made some radio calls, we might be able to raise him. If he's listening, a polite request to fly a tight base behind him might well result in an OK, so he won't be surprised when he turns final and sees us, even though we are way, way in front of him and he couldn't hit us in a full-power dive. If we can't reach him, I suggest we only do the close-in base and final bit if we've been following him for a few touch-and-goes, and really have his pattern habit nailed down and we can't reach him on the radio. Turning base when the guy ahead of us is still charging along on downwind does not appear to be a violation of the regs. An alternative is to make a full stop and taxi back landing to allow him to get far enough ahead of us that we can fly at least a couple smaller patterns before we catch up to him again. Unfortunately, that technique doesn't work all that well if the culprit is not the only airplane in the pattern; in that case we may be stuck with super-sized patterns until the guy finishes up for the day.

Overall, given that a big pattern is usually a strong indicator of a low-skill level, it's probably best to suck it up and stay behind the guy unless we can reach him on the radio and work out a way to do a tight base and final inside him. Because we don't know who is in the airplane making that wide pattern, and we don't know whether he has the skill level to handle suddenly spotting us ahead of him on a close-in turn from base to final, we'll practice civility and good etiquette and get three or four more minutes in our logbook and follow him around while we pat ourselves on the back for having tremendous patience and understanding for our fellow aviator. After all, we're getting to be an endangered species; we've got to be as kind to each other as we can.

Oh, yeah, if we are faced with the wide-pattern type at a controlled field, one technique that often works is to request one right hand pattern (if left traffic is being flown), which will allow the tower to get us around the pattern and in front of the guy with the slows.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.