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How Two Pilots Nearly Collided In The Traffic Pattern, And What You Can Do To Prevent It

No where else in the sky has a concentration of airplanes as high as the traffic pattern. Whether you're at a towered or non-towered field, it can be difficult to spot the traffic you're following. Here's what you can do to keep a safe distance throughout the entire pattern.

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One Pilot's Near Midair Collision

The narrative below was pulled from a NASA ASRS report, and details one of the most common near mid-air collisions (NMAC) found at airports around the country.

I was on a solo flight doing touch and goes at my home airport, which is a busy general aviation airport. I was instructed to follow a Cessna and cleared to land. I must have missed that I was #3 cleared to land in the pattern rather than #2 and continued to follow a Cessna that I had in my line of site. There was an another Cessna in the pattern that I did not see. I turned final, then heard on the radio that I had cut off the aircraft that was cleared in front of me.

The aircraft that I had cut off went around. I then clarified whether I should go around or continue to land. I was cleared for touch and go's, and I continued in the pattern without further incident. After the incident, I was informed by my instructor, who was observing [from the ground], that there was roughly 100 feet of horizontal separation between my aircraft and the aircraft I had cut off.

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This pilot was extremely lucky. Mid-air collisions in the traffic pattern are often fatal, and their close proximity to the ground doesn't help.

Scan Traffic Pattern Entry And Exit Points

As you fly in the pattern, spend extra time scanning the common entry and exit points of the pattern. This includes looking for traffic flying a 45 degree entry to the downwind, traffic departing the runway on the departure leg, traffic overflying the field on a crosswind entry, and even traffic on a long straight-in final approach.

These aren't the only places to look for other aircraft, but they're certainly the hot spots.

If You Aren't Sure, Ask

If you're given instructions by the tower and don't understand, ask for clarification. Being cleared to land #3 or #4 makes things a little tough, because each pilot needs space themselves from the preceding aircraft, and keep that aircraft in sight. In order to ensure they won't have to go-around on short final due to another pilot not clearing the runway, many pilots will fly an extended downwind. When this happens, you might not realize the traffic you have in sight on base or final isn't actually the traffic you're following. This is called expectation bias, and it happens when you don't expect traffic to pop up in an unusual spot because it's abnormal.

If you're having trouble determining when to turn base behind traffic, use the diagram above as a good rule of thumb. And if you're still having problems getting a visual on the traffic you're supposed to follow, ask the tower before you make your next turn in the pattern.

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This same problem is equally noticeable at non-towered airports. The difference is that you're responsible for communicating and sequencing yourself with the other aircraft. Again, if you're not sure about another pilot's location, ask them to clarify before you make your next turn.

Fly The Standard Pattern

Another way to avoid increasing your risk for a collision is to fly a standard traffic pattern. Expectation bias is a real problem we all face as pilots. If you're flying at an altitude or location that no one would expect, it's much more likely you won't be seen.

If you fly standard entries, legs, and exits, it will be much easier for other pilots to spot you. And if you need a little help perfecting your traffic patterns, we have just what you need.

Fly a standard pattern, ask for clarification when you're unsure of other traffic, and scan entry/exit points. It's the best way to keep a safe distance from other aircraft, no matter what airport you're at.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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