Pilot Preparation for Pattern Entry

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You should begin planning for your landing while you are still well away from the airport. In a controlled airport, you will need to listen to the approach and tower frequencies, normally at distances of 20 miles or greater, depending on the airspace around the airport. At uncontrolled fields you should begin listening to the Unicom frequency while you are at least 10 to 20 miles from the airport. However, in either case, you should develop a mental picture of the traffic, the runways in use, the flow of traffic pattern, and any other factors that can affect how you will fly in the pattern.

By planning ahead, you can increase the level of safety as you fly into the pattern. As you approach the airport, you should clearly state your intentions, altitude, and position from the airport. This is true whether you are flying into a controlled or uncontrolled field.

At controlled fields, the tower staff will direct you through the airspace, giving you headings and altitudes. You are not relieved of the need to look for other aircraft, though, so don’t become complacent and assume you do not need to keep looking outside the plane. At uncontrolled fields you may want to overfly the airport before you actually enter the pattern to get an idea of the runway layout, look at the windsock to determine wind direction, or observe for other aircraft in the pattern. There are times when pilots do not use their radio, or the plane they are flying is not equipped with a radio, so even though you may not hear any other traffic over the radio, make sure you are looking for other aircraft as you fly over the airport or prepare to enter the pattern.

Whether you are being directed by the tower at a controlled field or are flying the pattern at an uncontrolled airport, make sure you check the wind sock and compare the information you are getting from it with what the tower or Unicom staff is telling you. No one will purposely give you wrong information when you ask for weather information, but you want to use the wind sock to confirm the wind direction as you fly through the pattern. On some airports the wind sock may be difficult to find, but do your best to locate it prior to landing. Figure shows the typical wind direction indicators that may be at airports. Both the wind tetrahedron and landing tee are designed to point into the wind, or in the same direction you should land the plane. At some airports they may also be lighted, making it easier to locate them at night. Any of these devices can give you an idea of the actual direction of the wind near the ground and runway. This can be important if you are making any type of a crosswind landing for judging the amount of crab or slip you are going to need during the approach and landing.

Most airports have traffic patterns that are 800 to 1500 feet AGL in altitude. You will need to consult an Airport Facility Directory or other reference to find out what the pattern altitude is at the airports you plan to use. Being at the correct altitude for the pattern will make it easier for pilots to find you and maintain proper separation.

Before discussing the legs of the pattern and the entry points, you should be aware that while normal patterns at uncontrolled airports are flown using left turns, known as a left-hand pattern, there are some airports that use right-hand patterns. Residential areas, ground obstructions, and towers in the vicinity of a left-hand pattern may cause the airport to set up a right-hand pattern. You will need to consult airport reference guides, available at most Fixed Based Operators (FBOs), to find out if an airport has right or left traffic patterns. Depending on the layout, some airports have right-hand patterns for one runway and left hand for another, so if you are flying into a field you are unfamiliar with, check with Flight Service or consult the airport reference guide before you take off.

Figure shows the different legs of a pattern; you can see that they consist of the crosswind leg, the downwind leg, the base leg, and final approach. The figure also shows two runways and how the pattern is left hand in some cases, while right hand in others. Note the wind cone, which shows the direction that airplanes should land as a result of the wind direction.

The legs of the pattern are based on the direction of the wind. The crosswind leg is flown perpendicular to the active runway. The downwind leg is flown going with the direction of the wind, parallel to the runway. Realize that if the wind is not blowing directly down the runway, there will be a crosswind that will affect your ground track while flying the pattern. Separation from the runway while on downwind should in no case exceed the airplane’s ability to glide to the runway in the event of an engine failure. On average, this distance is about one-half mile, although the pattern may grow substantially to accommodate more airplanes on a busy day.

When flying at a controlled airport, tower personnel will direct you regarding the headings and altitudes they want you to fly. They will normally use a standard pattern consisting of a downwind, base, and final, but traffic considerations at the airport may cause them to issue instructions that have you fly an abbreviated pattern, or in some cases, an extended pattern. It is not uncommon for the tower to issue the instruction for a pilot to fly an extended downwind and the tower will call base. This is normally done for spacing between aircraft, but is an example of how flying at a controlled airport can change the normal pattern.

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