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A Pilot’s Personal Pet Peeve: Pattern Practices

by Stephen Lewis

in Aviation Blog, Flight Safety

220px-Kool_Aid_ManToday’s post is coming to you from my perch atop a soapbox. The issue at hand has been a thorn in my side for years, but up until now I’ve refrained from launching into an all-out tirade on the matter. However, with the Sequester resulting in the furlough of nearly 15,000 air traffic controllers and the closure of 149 control towers, I’ve decided now is a better time than any to let America’s GA pilots know what many of them have been doing wrong for a loooooong time. Now more than ever, it’s crucial that the nation’s GAviators follow proper pattern procedures when operating at non-towered airports.

A Common Misconception

Don’t get me wrong. Most rogue pattern pilots commit this mistake unknowingly. I bring up the topic again and again during flight reviews, with the majority of guilty pilots completely unaware of their bad habit. In fact, some even want to argue with me on the matter; insistent that I’ve been drinking some wacky variety of Kool-Aid. With such pilots, it’s not until I point out the black-and-white facts of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that the truth of the matter hits home – they’ve been repeatedly violating at least one FAA regulation.

One-Way Traffic

Somewhere in the primary training process, it seems that 14 CFR 91.126 (b)1 slips through the cracks. This regulation states: Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right. That’s it – fly a left traffic pattern at all runways that aren’t specifically designated as right traffic runways. Plane and simple.

Despite the simplicity of the regulation, I’ve repeatedly encountered pilots operating opposite to the designated traffic pattern. At non-towered fields, such pilots will enter right downwind, right base, etc. at left traffic runways (and vice versa) even though other pilots (i.e. Me!) are flying the proper pattern and making appropriate radio calls. As I’m not one to crucify a fellow flyer over the frequency, I often try to bring up the matter with the offender in question once we’re both safely on the ground. Despite my intentions to educate said aviator, I often get responses like, “It’s an uncontrolled airport. I can do whatever I want.” Hey, nobody ever said being a CFI is easy!

Common Sources of Confusion

Although many pilots evidently don’t realize that 14 CFR 91.126 (b)1 is a regulatory requirement, most are aware that left traffic is standard fare. Why then do so many pilots operate contrary to established procedures? My guess is they confuse the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM)’s recommended pattern procedures with the FAR’s regulatory pattern procedures, which results in the prevalent violation of 14 CFR 91.126 (b)1.

If we look at AIM section 4-3-3, we see the FAA’s recommendations for traffic pattern operations. However, as the AIM is a non-regulatory document, its contents are merely advisory in nature – not hard-and-fast rules. Pilots are free to enter non-towered traffic patterns on any leg they choose – provided they comply with the specified direction of traffic. Instead, many pilots apparently misinterpret the freedom of entry choice to mean they can fly the pattern in either direction. Such is not the case. Pilots are still expected to follow the established direction of traffic, regardless of the pattern leg they choose for entry.

Tower in Operation

Some pilots are also apparently confused by the experiences they have at towered airports. If approaching a given runway from one direction, they’re usually told to make left traffic. When arriving from the opposite direction, they’re instructed to fly right traffic to that same runway. If air traffic control (ATC) allows them to fly right or left traffic for a given runway, why then can’t they do the same at a non-towered field?

With ATC involved, the system enjoys an added degree of flexibility. As trained professionals, air traffic controllers have the authority to adjust traffic pattern procedures in the interest of safety, efficiency, and airspace capacity. ATC personnel know where you and all other aircraft in their airspace are, and they’re very skilled at keeping everyone a safe distance apart. The FAA recognizes this ATC expertise and gives controllers the authority to operate contrary to the published traffic patterns (when necessary).

Very few GA pilots have professional ATC training, so it’s no surprise the FAA doesn’t allow us to adjust the pattern as we see fit. Besides, we’re also busy flying the plane, which commands a large degree of our attention. The feds recognize the increased risks of sans-controller ops, and thus require us to stay on the same side of the runway.

Reasons for Right Traffic

In the interest of standardization, you might wonder why the FAA allows right traffic patterns at all – at least in the non-towered environment. This is a great question, and one that has a variety of answers. In many cases, right traffic is necessary in consideration of the surrounding surface area. Many people don’t like constant engine noise over their homes, businesses, golf courses, and wilderness areas; so it often makes sense to shift pattern ops to the opposite side of the pavement. Additionally, certain obstacles like hills/mountains and antennas/towers necessitate moving the pattern in the interest of safety.

In terms of air traffic/airport layout, many larger airports feature parallel runways. In such cases, it’s necessary to have one right traffic runway and one left traffic runway in order to keep aircraft in the pattern sufficiently separated. I did most of my flight training at such an airport, and can attest that any other setup would not have been feasible.

For the reasons listed above, right traffic operations serve to increase safety and reduce noise complaints – and absence of such procedures could give GA a serious black eye. If you’ve previously doubted the importance of established pattern practices, know that approved operating procedures help keep you in the public’s (and the FAA’s) good graces.

Safety Issues

Speaking of safety, let’s look at a few more potential consequences of ignoring traffic pattern regulations. When two aircraft operate on opposite sides of the pattern, chances are good they’ll meet head-on when on opposing base legs or they’ll converge when turning base to final. In these instances, both aircraft will be low, slow, and with flaps (or other drag-producing devices) deployed. Such conditions make evasive maneuvers easier said than done. Additionally, abrupt control inputs under such conditions could easily lead to a low-altitude stall or spin.

While we’re at it, bear in mind that most aircraft collisions occur in day VFR conditions in the vicinity of airports. Need any more reasons not to fly the wrong pattern? Just as IFR pilots wouldn’t fly holding patterns on the unsafe side, VFR fliers shouldn’t conduct their traffic patterns in the wrong direction.

Where to Learn More

By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that adhering to 14 CFR 91.126 (b)1 is a big deal. If you’d like to verify the approved traffic direction for any of the nation’s airports, your first stop should be the FAA’s Airport/Facility Directory (AFD). This publication, which is updated every 56 days, is the official word on traffic pattern altitudes and approved traffic directions. AOPA’s online airport directory and sites like AirNav.com are also good sources for airport information. In addition, pay attention to the airport’s segmented circle or similar indicator to ensure it matches your preflight findings.

Not to sound like the regulatory police, but determining this info is also part of your responsibility as Pilot in Command (PIC). Take a gander at 14 CFR 91.103. Per this regulation, “Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight.” Don’t give the FAA any reason to investigate you. Take a few extra minutes to make sure you’ve covered all your bases.

Uncontrolled” Airport Defined

Uncontrolled airspace isn’t so labeled to indicate a lack of standardization or rules. Instead, the designation signifies that ATC services are not available in this airspace. The rules are still very much in effect and could land you in hot water (or worse) if you choose not to follow them. For good measure, here’s another applicable regulation: 14 CFR 91.13 (Careless or Reckless Operation). This is an FAA favorite when certificate action is taken, so don’t say you haven’t been forewarned.

Okay, I’m officially abdicating the soapbox. My two cents are on the table. While cutting off other pilots in the pattern is definitely not cool, the primary issue at hand is everyone’s safety. As the government shutters many of the nation’s control towers, it’s up to us more than ever to look out for ourselves – and each other. I encourage you all to share this message with your fellow fliers. The more pilots who understand the rules, the safer GA will be for everybody.

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