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Don't Make These 12 Mistakes In The Traffic Pattern

There's a lot that goes into flying a perfect traffic pattern. Don't make these 12 mistakes...

The following tips are based upon traffic patterns at uncontrolled fields. Slight differences might occur at towered airports.

1) Don't Enter The Pattern Without A Plan

As you approach an airport for landing, always plan out how you want to enter and fly the traffic pattern. Don't forget to check NOTAMs and the chart supplement to see which runways are open and if they have right-hand patterns.

2) Don't Fly Heads-Down

Dozens of pilots are killed each year by collisions in the traffic pattern. Avoid flying-heads down in the cockpit. Get your checklists done quickly and always maintain a constant scan outside of the cockpit to see and avoid other aircraft.

Swayne Martin

3) Don't Overfly The Airport At TPA

In some cases, may want to overfly the airport before you enter the traffic pattern. Why would want to do that? It's a good way to check the airport and runway conditions, and to see if other airplanes are operating at the airport (they may not be using the CTAF frequency). Finally, if the airport doesn't have an automated weather reporting station (like ASOS), overflying is a good way to check out the wind sock and make sure you're choosing the best runway to land on.

Don't enter the downwind by crossing over the airport at traffic pattern altitude (TPA). All you're doing is putting yourself at risk for colliding with other traffic in the downwind or upwind, traffic which may be headed in another direction.

Instead, fly 500 feet or 1000 feet above TPA to remain clear of other aircraft. Check out the chart supplement to see if there's a higher pattern altitude for jet/turboprop aircraft. Since patterns for faster aircraft are usually 500 feet above the lowest pattern altitude, many pilots choose to overfly airport traffic patterns by 1,000 feet and subsequently descend into the pattern. This keeps everyone well clear of each other.

4) Don't Forget To Verify The Runway

Have you ever mixed up runways? It's happened to most of us, especially on opposing runways with the same numbers like Runway 13 and Runway 31.

An easy fix for this is to bug the runway heading on your heading indicator. This ensures you're not confused about which direction you should be flying on final.

5) Don't Fly A Bomber Pattern

There's nothing that annoys pilots in the pattern more than following a plane that's flying a "bomber pattern." A bomber pattern is when someone flies a pattern unusually far from the runway, or extends their downwind for miles without turning base. It can really mess up the traffic flow in to an airport and make it difficult for other pilots to spot you.

The Airplane Flying Handbook (AFH) recommends flying a pattern between 1/2 mile and 1 mile away from the runway. Here's what this sarcastic instructor had to say:

6) Don't Forget Where The Wind Is Coming From

Before you enter the pattern, get a good sense for wind direction and speed. That'll help you make good wind drift corrections throughout the pattern so you don't find yourself consistently overshooting final approach.

7) Don't Forget Radio Calls

Use radio calls to announce your position as you approach, enter, and fly throughout the pattern.

8) Don't Forget To Brief Your Passengers

Let them know that you're about to start your descent into the airport and need to focus on flying the airplane and making radio calls. This is a great example of sterile cockpit procedures, avoiding unnecessary conversation during critical flight situations like takeoff and landing.

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9) Don't Fly Silent

While radio calls aren't required for operations at most uncontrolled fields, it's an unsafe and poor technique to fly silently throughout the pattern. Using a radio will help other pilots spot you to avoid potential conflicts.

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10) Don't Cut People Off

Use the right of way rules as published in the FARs for operations around the traffic pattern. Just because you might fly a faster final approach than the plane ahead of you doesn't give you the right to cut them off. Quiz your knowledge here.

11) Don't Have A Conversation On-Frequency

As we landed this King Air in Arkansas, chatter created a pretty distracting situation. Worse yet, anyone else in the pattern couldn't have spoken up when they needed to. Keep radio chatter to a minimum, especially on airport frequencies.

12) Don't Ignore Noise-Abatement Procedures

Following those noise-abatement procedures keep people happy on the ground and result in less noise complaints. That's good for them and it's even better for you. If the public doesn't see your plane or airport as a nuisance, there's not a reason to lobby against it. So next time you're flying low or near an airport, take those on the ground into consideration.

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Flying a full traffic pattern instead of entering on a long final approach has a number of benefits. First of all, it allows better sequencing of aircraft for landing, making yourself more visible to other airplanes in the pattern with you. Additionally, it's a good way to refine your speeds and power settings, making each approach more and more stabilized with practice.

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What else should pilots avoid doing in the pattern? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, commercially licensed pilot with multi-engine and instrument ratings, and a commercial aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. Swayne's experience ranges from international flights in a King Air F90 to ferrying a 1943 Grumman Widgeon across the country. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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