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Here Are The Changes To The FAA's 25 Year Old Traffic Pattern Procedures

Most of America's 5,000 public airports don't have a control tower, and the FAA has just updated their guidance on how you should fly into them. Here's what you need to know about the changes...

An Update To 25 Year Old Procedures

The FAA recently released Advisory Circular (AC) 90-66B, Non-Towered Airport Flight Options, which replaces two previous advisories from the 1990s. The AC describes and provides examples for proper traffic pattern and communication procedures.

This particular release clarified a few important topics, including: traffic pattern altitudes, IFR right-of-way considerations, and traffic pattern entry procedures.

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Standardizing Traffic Pattern Altitudes

According to previous guidance from the 1990s, traffic patterns were to be flown between 800 and 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL). The new AC sets a clear standard of 1,000 feet AGL, eliminating 200 feet of confusion. Unless terrain or obstacles require another altitude, 1,000 feet AGL is now the standard for non-towered pattern altitudes.

The AC also clarifies that "large or turbine-powered airplanes" should enter the traffic pattern at an altitude of 1,500 feet AGL, or 500 feet above the established pattern altitude. Ultralight aircraft are to operate no higher than 500 feet below the powered aircraft pattern altitude. These standards were detailed in a recent change to the Aeronautical Information Manual, and are included in this AC.

IFR Traffic Does NOT Have Priority Over VFR Traffic

According to the AC, "pilots conducting instrument approaches should be particularly alert for other aircraft in the pattern so as to avoid interrupting the flow of traffic, and should bear in mind they do not have priority over other VFR traffic. Pilots are reminded that circling approaches require left-hand turns unless the approach procedure explicitly states otherwise."

Let's say there's a layer of overcast clouds above the airport at 2,000 feet AGL. There may be numerous VFR aircraft in the pattern flying well below the clouds. When an IFR aircraft on an instrument approach pops out of the clouds on final approach, they do not get automatic priority or right-of-way ahead of VFR traffic that might be on downwind, base, or final. Instead, they need to sequence themselves with the flow of other traffic.

Pattern Entry Clarification

Section 11.3 of the AC clarifies traffic pattern entry procedures. Unlike previous guidance, the FAA has expanded their guidance for entering the pattern when you're crossing over midfield. The preferred method is the "midfield overhead teardrop entry" (left diagram), and the second option is then "alternate midfield entry" (right diagram).

If you're crossing midfield to get to the downwind leg, the FAA recommends that you cross pattern altitude at 500+ above pattern, fly clear of the traffic pattern (approx 2 miles), and then descend to pattern altitude and make a teardrop entry to the midfield downwind.

FAA

There's a lot more guidance in the Advisory Circular as well. Read all the changes here.

What do you think of these changes? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He holds multi-engine and instrument ratings, and is an aviation student at the University of North Dakota. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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