Pattern Precision

#FlySafe GA Safety Enhancement Topic

We know that regular, structured, proficiency training is perhaps the most effective means of reducing general aviation accidents. Because the traffic pattern involves nearly all piloting tasks, it is a logical choice for a proficiency training environment. Commitment to precision and consistency in pattern operations will yield operational safety benefits throughout the flight task spectrum. Let’s have a closer look.

Illustration showing two aircraft in the pattern.
Pattern Precision is Essential for Collision Avoidance and Airspeed Control

Predictable Patterns

How many times have you been on approach where you get behind the aircraft a little or are not set up properly, and wind up landing a little long? Does it matter? Yes, it does. Airport traffic pattern operations are an essential part of every flight. But sometimes we take those routine movements for granted, and we can get a little sloppy.

In addition to helping you execute a safe and stable approach, precise pattern flying makes you sharper in other flight procedures. It can also improve your confidence and reassure your passengers. Let’s go back to our example. You may think it doesn’t matter if you land long, but what if your runway is compromised and your landing distance is much shorter? What if your aircraft has a problem and you need to carry out a forced landing?

Aerial view of airport.

Preparing for Pattern Precision

It all starts with knowing your aircraft, its performance parameters, and the required research to determine what sort of takeoff and landing performance you will get.

By documenting these numbers and then comparing them with your actual performance, you will be able to create predictable expectations. Don’t forget to calculate performance based off of your predicted flying weight.

How to Establish Your Baseline

To establish your baseline performance figures, we suggest loading your aircraft with a typical mix of fuel, cargo, and passengers (including your flight instructor, because it’s always good to practice).

Calculate your test weight and note the following:

  • Runway condition
  • Elevation
  • Density altitude
  • Wind direction/speed
  • What rotation and climb speeds you intend to use

Next, practice. Fly several takeoffs and landings. Note your performance after each trial and average your performance figures to complete your baseline.

Here’s a sample baseline calculation sheet extracted from the Alaskan Off-Airport Operations Guide available on FAASafety.gov.

Here are some rules of thumb to consider when computing your takeoff calculations:

  • If you have a fixed pitch prop, add 15% to your calculated takeoff distance for each 1,000 foot increase in density altitude, up to 8,000 feet.
  • For constant speed props, add 12% per 1,000 feet of density altitude, up to 6,000 feet.
  • (50/70 Rule) — When planning a takeoff from short unobstructed runways, establish a landmark at 50% of your calculated takeoff distance. When reaching that landmark, you should be at 70% of your rotation speed. If not, abort the takeoff and reduce weight or wait for more favorable wind and temperature conditions.
  • (30/70 Rule) — If you must clear obstructions on takeoff, you’ll need to have 70% of your rotation speed by the time you’ve traveled 30% of your available takeoff distance.

It’s All Part of the Pattern

Now that we’ve covered some takeoff tips, let’s shift to some pattern practices.

Pattern Entry:

  • If you enter on the downwind side, join the downwind leg at a 45-degree angle at pattern altitude (PA).
Graphic displaying preferred entry from upwind leg side of airport.
Graphic displaying preferred entry from upwind leg side of airport.
Preferred entry from upwind leg side of airport.
  • If you enter on the upwind side, you generally have two options, both of which require you to yield to established traffic:

→ Cross midfield at 500 feet above PA, fly clear of the pattern and descend to PA, then turn to join midfield downwind at a 45-degree angle.

→ You can also cross midfield at PA and then turn to join to the downwind leg.

Straight In Approach:

  • Be conspicuous — use landing lights and strobes.
  • Announce your positions and intentions on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF).
  • Be aware of possible no-radio aircraft.
  • Don’t assert right-of-way if it will result in a collision hazard.
  • If there’s an unresolved conflict, break off the approach and go around to the non-pattern side of the runway.

Establish Key Positions:

A graphic displaying key positions in an airport traffic pattern
A graphic displaying key positions in an airport traffic pattern
Establish key position points in the traffic pattern.
  • During descent, maintain pattern altitude on downwind until abeam the approach end of the landing runway. From this key position you’ll be in a constant descent to the runway.
  • Adjust power to maintain target approach airspeed, flaps to control approach angle, and flight path to compensate for wind.
  • Once established on final approach, it’s essential that you maintain speed and glide path. You should maintain a glide path that will result in touching down in the first third of any runway. It’s helpful to pick a runway stripe and try to land on it every time without adding power. VASI and PAPI approach path indicator lights can help keep you at the right glide path, but practice with and without them since not all runways have them.
  • Once you master hitting your landing target, practicing power-off landings can be excellent preparation for off-airport forced landings.
  • Also aim to expand your horizons with more difficult landing strips. Just be sure to ask your flight instructor before operating at any unfamiliar or challenging destinations!

Collision Avoidance

Did you know the majority of mid-air collisions occur at or near non-towered airports in daylight with good visibility?

Graph showing Distribution of Mid-air Collisions in the Airport Traffic Pattern
Graph showing Distribution of Mid-air Collisions in the Airport Traffic Pattern
Location distribution of mid-air collisions in the airport traffic pattern.

Collisions usually occur below 1,000 feet above ground level and with aircraft traveling the same direction. Although many GA aircraft are now equipped with ADS-B systems that provide additional situational awareness for surrounding traffic, pilots must still look and listen for traffic.

Do your part to keep the pattern safe:

Be predictable — Fly published patterns and use standard pattern entry/exit procedures.

Be aware — Look and listen for traffic in and near the airport.

Be proactive — Announce your position and intentions in the pattern.

Watch ‘Pattern Precision in 57 Seconds’

Practice Makes Perfect

Can you imagine how your favorite professional athlete would perform if they didn’t practice and train between games or during their off season? Or how a professional flight crew might respond in an emergency if they never practiced emergency training? The same goes for you! Regular training ensures you keep at your peak performance every time you take to the air.

WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program:

To help ensure GA pilots maintain their peak performance, the FAA offers the WINGS Pilot Proficiency Program to instill confidence in participating pilots. This type of training expands GA pilot horizons by exploring the operational capabilities in their current aircraft and introduces new capable planes with more complex operational qualities. WINGS also assists pilots in exploring more exciting and challenging destinations. See this story below for more on WINGS.

Resources

Consider attending a live FAA Safety Team webinar on this topic!

There is the Airport Traffic Patterns Flown Safely webinar on July 27, 2020 starting at 13:00 Eastern Daylight Time.

There is also a Runway Precision webinar on Jul 28, 2020 7:00 PM EDT or on July 29, 2020 12:00 PM EDT (noon).

→ Learn more about airport traffic patterns in Chapter 7 of the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook.

Chapter 4 of the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook covers approaches.

Section 3 of the FAA Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) covers airport operations.

→ The FAA’s Air Traffic Plans and Publications page has a wealth of good information.

Download this story as a printable PDF. For more GAJSC safety enhancement topics, click the FlySafe image.

Click to explore more topics on Medium.

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