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The Best Way To Fly A Traffic Pattern At A Non-Towered Airport

_Night Flier_

It might seem very basic, but having a good understanding of how to fly the traffic pattern and land at a non-towered airport is extremely important. Why? According to the NTSB, in 2012, over 41% of all general aviation accidents happened in the approach and landing phases of flight.

The Basics

At a tower-controlled airport, ATC is in charge of the flow of traffic. And while you're still responsible to "see and avoid" other aircraft, tower control does a good job of keeping airplanes at a safe distance from each other.

But when you're flying into a non-towered airport, it's up to you and other pilots to stay sequenced and remain at a safe distance from each other.

Before we go too far, let's take a quick look at the different legs of a traffic pattern:

Turning Left

Standard traffic pattern turns are always to the left, unless the airport specifies it otherwise.

How would you know if an airport or runway has right-turn patterns? It will be marked on the VFR sectional, the A/FD, and if the airport has it, the traffic pattern indicator located around the windsock.

Approaching A Non-Towered Airport

Let's start with the example of approaching a non-towered airport to land. According to the AIM, when you're 10 miles out from the airport, you should start monitoring the airport's CTAF frequency. This is also when you want to make your first radio call to let other airplanes know your intentions.

What Altitude Should You Fly At?

So what altitude should you be at as you approach the airport? It depends on what you plan to do.

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.

If you do overfly the airport, you'll want to do it at 500-1000 feet above the traffic pattern. And while you're overflying, you also want to make radio calls on CTAF, announcing your current position, as well as what you're planning to do.

45 Degree Traffic Pattern Entry

When you've decided which runway is the one you're going to land on, the next step is to position your airplane for a downwind leg entry, descend to traffic pattern altitude, and get ready to enter the pattern.

First though, you need to know what the traffic pattern altitude is for the airport your landing at. That's usually a pretty easy number to remember. The standard traffic pattern altitude is 1,000 feet above the airport elevation. However, that's not always the case. To be sure, you can find the traffic pattern altitude for most airports in the A/FD.

Once you're at the right altitude, how should you enter the pattern? By flying at a 45 degree angle to the downwind leg, while aiming for the mid-point of the runway. At the same time, you should make a radio call, letting other traffic in the area know where you are, and what you're doing.

So why do you fly a 45 degree angle to enter the downwind leg? By flying at an angle, it gives you (and others) good visibility to any other airplanes in the traffic pattern. And if you do see another airplane near you, it's easy to turn away from the airport, circle around, and make your 45 degree entry again.

Downwind Leg

When you get within 1/2 to 1 mile out from the runway you're planning to land on, it's time to turn downwind.

When you make the turn to downwind, there are a few things you need to do. First, you want to make sure you're flying at the right speed. This obviously depends on the aircraft you're in, but for example, if you're flying a Cessna 172, your downwind leg is generally flown at 90 knots (remember, check your POH!)

However, if there are other planes in the traffic pattern, you'll want to try to match their speed (if you safely can), so you aren't rapidly gaining or falling behind the other aircraft as you're flying your trip around the pattern.

Next up, you need to add wind correction if there's any crosswind. Your goal is to fly parallel to the runway, without getting any closer or further away, the entire time you're on downwind. If you can maintain a consistent distance from the runway every time, it makes flying the pattern, and nailing your landing, much easier.

Last, you want to make another radio call, letting anyone monitoring CTAF know that you're on the downwind leg, and what runway you're planning to land on. As you make radio calls in the traffic pattern, it's a good idea to state your specific location. Instead of saying "Boulder traffic, Cessna Skyhawk N9525V is on a downwind for runway 26," add that you're on a "left downwind for runway 26." If you're flying a right pattern, say that you're on a right downwind, right base, etc. This will better help pilots in the area visualize your location.

Abeam The Touchdown Point

When you're abeam the touchdown point on your downwind leg, it's time to start your descent to land.

You start your descent by reducing the throttle, adding flaps, and pitching down to maintain your airspeed. Again, all airplanes are different, but in a Cessna 172, this usually means reducing the throttle to roughly 1500-1600 RPMs, adding 10 degrees of flaps, and pitching for 90 knots.

Base Leg

When you're approximately 45 degrees from the touchdown point, it's time to make your base leg turn. You do it by entering a medium banked turn until you're flying a perpendicular track to the runway. Remember, you want your ground track to be perpendicular to the runway, so if there's wind, you'll need to add some crab angle to make sure you aren't drifting away from the runway.

The base leg is the transition part of the traffic pattern, and it helps you setup your approach so you hit your intended landing point. In most airplanes, you'll continue to slow the aircraft and add flaps on your base leg as well. For example, in a Cessna 172, you'll generally add your second notch of flaps, and slow down to 80 knots. You also want to make a radio call, letting everyone know you're on the base leg to your runway.

Your base leg is also your last chance to take a good look at the final approach leg, and make sure there's no traffic on final before you start your turn to the runway. And when you're looking at the final approach for traffic, make sure you look both ways (left and right), to make sure there aren't any aircraft on a long straight-in final.

Final Approach Leg

As you start to approach the extended centerline of the runway, you'll start your medium banked base-to-final turn toward the runway. If you time it right (this is one of the more challenging things in flying) you'll roll out of your turn perfectly on centerline.

As you roll out on final, you also continue to slow the aircraft and add flaps. Again, every aircraft is different, but in the Cessna 172S, the POH recommends slowing to 61 knots at 50 feet above the runway when you're using full flaps.

What if your airplane doesn't have a recommended final approach speed? The FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook recommends 1.3 X Vso, which in the Cessna 172S, turns out to be 52 knots (40 knots Vso X 1.3 = 52 knots).

Once you're established on final, you'll make your radio call letting everyone know you're on final. Then, simply bring the airplane all the way in to the runway, reduce the power, and with a little practice, grease the airplane onto the runway.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

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