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Incorrect Traffic Pattern Entry Leads To Mid-Air Conflict


Traffic patterns are designed with specific procedures for a reason. Here's what can happen when one pilot doesn't follow them and creates a conflict, risking a mid-air collision.

First, Let's Review Traffic Pattern Entries

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 Chart Supplement.


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.


There are a few reasons why flying a 45-degree entry matters so much, and we'll cover that below. Click here to learn how to fly a perfect traffic pattern.

If you're approaching the airport from the opposite side of the airport, the FAA-preferred method is the "midfield overhead entry" (left diagram), and the second option is the "alternate midfield entry" (right diagram).

While 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), descend to pattern altitude, and make a 45-degree entry to the midfield downwind.


Report: Incorrect Pattern Entry Leads To Conflict

The following report was written last year by a student training in a Cirrus SR20. They were flying the pattern at a busy training airport which had a nearly full traffic pattern...

I was practicing takeoffs and landings in the traffic pattern after returning from a solo cross-country flight. I was established on an initial climb immediately following a touch-and-go. I made my radio call on CTAF announcing that I would begin my turn to crosswind. After visually clearing the area and checking ADS-B, I made my left hand turn. As soon as I rolled level I saw a white Cessna at my 1 o'clock position slightly above my altitude (by about 20-50 ft).

I immediately rolled back to the North (while the Cessna continued South on an extended downwind). After resolving the situation I called the Cessna pilot on CTAF alerting him once again of my position, now at his 5 o'clock low. At this point the pilot acknowledged that he saw me at this moment following my evasive action. He took no evasive action and appeared unaware of the conflict until hearing my direct call informing him of the situation.

This pilot was unfamiliar with the area and made nonstandard radio calls. He entered the downwind from 4 miles North, which had him crossing the crosswind leg of the pattern at an altitude low enough to pose a conflict. The pattern was full with a high volume of both flight training and unaffiliated traffic. The Cessna was not visible on ADS-B. Despite my radio call prior to turning crosswind, there was no acknowledgment by this pilot. The small profile of his aircraft (from being at my altitude) reduced his visibility. The white paint further matched the sun-lit desert terrain below.


This Is Why Pattern Entries And Altitudes Matter

Traffic pattern entries are primarily designed for visibility and to de-conflict traffic, both for airplanes in the pattern and those approaching the pattern. Let's start by looking at the 45-degree entry.

By flying at a 45-degree angle, it gives you (and others) good visibility to any other airplanes in the traffic pattern. Primarily, it extends the amount of time you have to see other traffic. Approaching the pattern at an angle takes more time than flying directly into the pattern, allowing you more time to scan for traffic and to listen to the radio. 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.


The same goes for the "preferred" midfield pattern entry. By flying 500 feet above the pattern, you de-conflict yourself with other traffic. Then, you fly a maneuver to align yourself on a 45-degree entry. This has the same benefits as flying a standard 45-degree entry, as opposed to turning directly into the downwind.


Have You Experienced Something Like This?

If you fly GA regularly, you've probably seen your fair share of non-standard incidents in the traffic pattern. Share some of your experiences in the comments below.

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