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Operating in the Danger Zone
The Uncontrolled Airport Traffic Pattern

By Cordell Akin

Interesting things happen at all airports, even the controlled ones. At an international airport in Africa, a twin turbine high winged 44 passenger Fokker Friendship taxied to the ramp and cut the whole tail off a Twin Otter parked on the ramp. OOPS! Another Friendship landed short, bounced over a highway before arriving at, of all places, the runway. While taxiing to the ramp with damaged landing gear and wrinkled wing skin, the stewardess on the intercom made the usual arrival announcement as if nothing had happened – and invited them to fly the airline again! (The comment was later heard concerning this airline that they always landed near the airport.) I remember well three other incidents I participated in at an international airport not far away. I was cleared to land and on short final in a C-185 when the controller literally yelled at me to pull up and overshoot (meaning go around). I pulled up over the threshold and a DC-9 passed about 100 feet below me as it touched down. On another occasion at that same airport, I was cleared to land when a Lufthansa B-707 came along side me on the left, also on final. Of course, I pulled the power back on the 185 so he could pass me and land first. Another time I was on base about to turn final on runway 05 when four MIG-2’s departed on 23. Isn’t it fun to see flying fighters this close up?

Perhaps you are thinking, gee, I guess I would have to go to Africa to experience such things. Ladies and Gentlemen let me tell you that is not necessary. A simple trip around the traffic pattern at an uncontrolled airport on a busy day can often provide you with enough thrills to last a lifetime. Things happen around such airports that are truly amazing, and could almost be called funny if it were not for the fact that the actions are so dangerous. Flying in the pattern at an uncontrolled airport will help you understand why most midair collisions occur within ten miles of such establishments. It can be like a combat zone – with the enemy coming at you out of the sun, from behind (better check six), climbing into you, or descending on top of you. The only things missing are the machine guns. So let’s review some of the basics that will keep us all out of the crosshairs.

Arrival Procedures

This terminology is usually applied to controlled airports, but uncontrolled airports by definition require vigilance and adherence to somewhat standardized and predictable procedures on the part of all pilots. Certainly, an important part of the arrival procedure is to use the radio to clarify your position and intentions in as few words as possible. About ten miles out give a radio call with distance and intentions, so as to not pop into the pattern unexpectedly. Be sure you are flying the correct pattern. Check the Airport Facility Directory, over-fly the field and look at the segmented circle, call Unicom, or look at the latest sectional chart to see if a right traffic pattern is used. (The sectional charts now have RP by the runway to designate right pattern.)

According to the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), the recommended entry into the traffic pattern at an uncontrolled airport is a 45-degree to the downwind leg. If pattern altitude is established two miles from the airport, it will prevent aircraft from descending into each other. This, along with the 45-degree entry, will provide a good view of the traffic pattern.

There are other ways to enter the pattern that are safe if performed with proper spacing-

An entry can be made upwind by flying the same direction as the landing runway at pattern altitude, but slightly to the dead side (the side opposite the traffic pattern). Turn crosswind at the normal place and fly the pattern.

Another entry is midfield crosswind, or crosswind over the departure end of the runway, or crosswind at approximately the normal position for crosswind if you were taking off on the same runway. I prefer the latter, because traffic taking off will normally still be below pattern altitude at that point. With the other two crosswind entries, you will be heading 90 degrees at traffic that has reached pattern altitude.

Sometimes it is convenient to enter directly downwind. Caution should be exercised not to conflict with traffic on the 45-degree entry, or traffic on crosswind. If you are heading for a downwind entry report your position in miles from the airport, not as “extended downwind,” a term used at the opposite end of the downwind leg when extending beyond where you would normally turn base. For example, “Cessna 8854U is two miles north, for downwind entry 35.”

A direct base leg entry is an option if you are certain you will not conflict with pattern traffic. Don’t forget that there may be traffic in the pattern without a radio, so look carefully since you will be crossing the downwind leg at a 90-degree angle.

A straight-in landing is another choice if you can sequence without conflicting with traffic flying the pattern. Under the heading of RIGHT OF WAY RULES, FAR91.113 (g) states, “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, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach.” One inconsiderate and dangerous thing some pilots do after landing is to roll slowly the entire length of the runway, forcing the aircraft on final to go around. Assuming the landing aircraft left adequate spacing, the aircraft on the surface should be attempting to make way for the landing aircraft. Rolling all the way to the end does not fit that description. At tower controlled airports it means taking the first possible turnoff after landing, and the same should be done at uncontrolled airports. Equally inconsiderate and probably more dangerous are the impatient landers who do not wait for the aircraft on the runway to clear. If brakes fail or a go-around at the last moment is necessary, a collision might follow.

The rule continues, “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.” The question not answered is what constitutes a final approach. The AIM states that an aircraft should turn final at least 1/4 mile from the runway, but does not specify how far out a final approach begins. From time to time I hear pilots call a five mile final straight-in. Clearly this is too far out to claim the right of way granted to those on final approach, and traffic in the pattern is not required to yield to those who call such long finals. What is a reasonable final? Two miles seems like a reasonable distance. In other words, if an aircraft is about to turn base, and a second aircraft calls a two-mile final, the first aircraft should extend downwind. If the first aircraft turned base it would probably be lower, but should not take advantage of this to cut in front of the aircraft on final.

A possible exception to not giving way to those on a very long final is at uncontrolled airports where there is an ILS instrument approach. When flying an ILS one often flies 15-20 minutes to practice the precise final mile of the approach. If you extend your downwind to accommodate someone flying and ILS it is almost always appreciated, and it is a very little inconvenience to you.

Departure Procedures

Departing from an uncontrolled airport is less complicated than the arrival. Before takeoff, advise on the radio your direction of flight. After takeoff, climb straight-out to within 300 feet of pattern altitude before making a turn.

The AIM states that aircraft in the pattern should climb straight ahead to within 300 feet of pattern altitude before turning crosswind. At high altitude airports this is usually modified to 500 feet AGL, because of the poor climb rate of most light aircraft in a high density altitude condition. The extra 200 feet before turning crosswind could put slow climbing aircraft three to four miles from the airport on the upwind. According the AIM, the crosswind turn should be made at least 1/2 mile or more from the runway.

It is safer to keep the downwind leg fairly close in, about half a mile. A very big pattern opens the way for other aircraft to fly inside your pattern with conflict a possibility. The aircraft flying the wide pattern will cut across the path of the aircraft on the inside when turning base leg.
When flying in the traffic pattern, beware of those who do low passes and then pull up sharply into the downwind leg. Also, be on the look out for those who fly above the runway at pattern altitude and make a right or left break, a military maneuver meaning a sharp turn to downwind from over the runway. If you happen to be downwind, they could turn right into you. It almost happened to me one day, and I wasn’t even in Africa.

Flying around uncontrolled airports does require that rules and procedures be followed. But it is the unwritten rule of courtesy, consideration, and respect that will really promote safety at the local airport.

Cordell Akin is a CFII, MEI with a total of 10,000 hours, with 3,000 hours as a flight instructor. He spent 15 years in East Africa flying a C-185 and a P-210. He is now the owner of Akin Air (505-857-9173), a flight school located at Coronado Airport in Albuquerque, NM.
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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