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Archives for October 2012

Fundamentals: Airport Traffic Patterns

Highway Traffic ImageYou're in your car, getting ready to merge on to the freeway.  You accelerate, turn on your blinker, check your mirrors and blind spot, adjust your speed to fit in when someone makes a gap for you (if you're lucky), and merge.  Now on the freeway, you find yourself behind a slower-moving vehicle.  You merge left and pass on that side, and then back to the right lane when you are done.

Traffic patterns on the road are pretty predictable.  You might have one-way streets or two-way streets, probably speed limit signs and speed bumps, stop signs, stop lights, yield signs, construction barrels, lane markings, and on and on.  You know these rules because you studied them and have experience with them.

This is no different from the rules of flight, only there aren't lines painted in the sky (on the airport is a completely different story), nor are there speed limit signs or lights up there.

But there ARE rules to follow - and sometimes just "suggestions" (or what folks in the business world might call "best practices").

Let's discuss airport traffic patterns.  On the road, you know generally what to expect of other drivers - where they are apt to be, what speed they are probably going, and what they are most likely going to do next.  This is all good information to know, as you can base YOUR next move on what you know and expect others are doing.

The same thing applies in the air.

Did you know that most mid-air collisions occur in the vicinity of an airport?  It's true.  This is why it is critical to understand what is (or should be) happening around airports when you are arriving or departing from one.

Using the airport runway as a guide, there are six possible "legs" that planes might be flying around the runway.

"But wait!" you say, "How can there be six legs when a runway only has four sides?  Shouldn't there only be four legs around a runway?"  Correct you are; but part of a traffic pattern at an airport has to do with altitude (or at least how altitude is changing and what the pilot aims to do on that leg). Bear with me:

Chapter 4, section 3 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) discusses traffic patterns:

  • Upwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing.
  • Crosswind leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its takeoff end.
  • Downwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the opposite direction of landing.
  • Base leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its approach end and extending from the downwind leg to the intersection of the extended runway centerline.
  • Final approach. A flight path in the direction of landing along the extended runway centerline from the base leg to the runway.
  • Departure leg. The flight path which begins after takeoff and continues straight ahead along the extended runway centerline. The departure climb continues until reaching a point at least 1/2 mile beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet of the traffic pattern altitude.

Airport Traffic Pattern

In the image above, you can see a standard traffic pattern - which means the airplane is making left hand turns, and is landing (and taking off) from left to right as you see it here on the page.  The blue color lines mean the plane is at a constant altitude, green means the plane is climbing, and red means the plane is descending. The only exception to these color patterns would be if a plane went from upwind to crosswind (then all of the crosswind leg would be maintaining altitude), versus from departure to crosswind (in which case the aircraft would be climbing in crosswind).

You can see why upwind, downwind, and crosswind are named such, knowing that aircraft always take off and land into, or against, the wind (upwind).  I like to think that base leg is called "base" because it is really the foundation of your landing (the "base" of a house is its foundation - and if it isn't right, the whole house will never be right) - if the base leg isn't right, your whole landing will suffer for it.  Final approach is just that - final.  It's your last chance to get the approach together before you touch down.

If you use the same lines, but imagine the plane going the opposite direction, you can imagine a "right-hand" pattern.  This is technically "non-standard," but that does not mean that it happens less.  In fact, many airports use "right traffic" as their pattern (you might even see right traffic when taking off in one direction, and left traffic when taking off in the opposite direction) - so it pays to do your research before you go to a new airport!


Do you have anything to add to this discussion of airport traffic patterns? Take your turn in the comments!


Andrew Hartley is a Certificated Flight Instructor in Columbus, Ohio

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Making Mistakes in Flight

Mistakes ImageSome of you may know (or maybe not), that my "day job" is as a corporate trainer.  I love training, and I love flying, and that's why I enjoy spending my time flight instructing so much... I get to put two of my deepest passions together!

As a corporate trainer (and a nerd about education & learning in general), I know the difference real training (and education) can make - in the path of a company, or in the life of an individual - whether you are an adult learning new skills or improving on those you already have, or a child learning the basic three Rs (do those even still apply?), true learning and knowledge is incredibly important and can be life-changing!

But one of the problems in training, learning, and education, is that people learn from a young age that making mistakes is bad.  That you are no good if you can't do something perfectly, even if you've never done it before!  We are, I think, hardest on ourselves in this matter - how many times have you said to yourself, "I suck at this!  I don't know why I bother even trying!"  I know I have said this to myself many times (usually in the context of fixing some issue with our turn-of-the-century house).

But what do we usually learn the most from? Our mistakes!

As much as WANT to avoid making mistakes, we will do so.  And if we accept that it will happen and learn from those mistakes, we will all be better pilots (and people) in the long run.  Certainly, we should do our best to avoid mistakes, with the understanding that, whether from a lack of knowledge (we don't always know what we don't know), or from stress or fatigue or being in a hurry, we WILL make them.  And learning from our mistakes is really just a matter of changing our attitude toward mistakes themselves.

As a flight instructor, I find it useful to talk about mistakes that I have made in the past.  Flight students have a tendency to look at their flight instructor(s) as "perfect beings" - at least while in the cockpit.  But I think it is good for them to know that you can make a mistake while flying and not - at worst - die, or even have to worry about air traffic control calling you to the carpet or having the FAA waiting on the ramp when you land.

I once made the mistake of flying a long distance, to an unfamiliar airport, when I was not flying very much, making me not only barely current, but also not terribly proficient.  Everything actually went fairly well with that flight, but when tower told me to "enter right traffic" for the runway, I flew to the right of the runway, entering left traffic.  I was also following another plane on downwind, and I thought to myself "why is that guy left traffic if I was told right traffic?" I had him in sight, but it never occurred to me that *I* was the pilot making the mistake, until ATC asked me where I was and advised that I was LEFT traffic, not right (for those of you who are lost at this point, "right traffic" means that you are making right-hand turns in the traffic pattern, and "left traffic" means left-hand turns).  Left traffic is standard, so I believe that since I was not flying as much, I reverted back to my very basic training and entered a standard pattern - inspite of the fact that I had to fly PAST the airport to get there, which doesn't make much sense.

Anyway - ATC just had me continue left traffic and land, but, needless to say, it was embarrassing.  But I learned several things from that flight:

  • Don't take on a long cross-country if you aren't flying much otherwise and may not be proficient.
  • Revisit the basics on a regular basis, including reading through the AIM at least one per year (you *DO* buy a new FAR/AIM every year, don't you?)
  • Don't believe you are such a good pilot that you can't make mistakes yourself (if I had recognized that the plane ahead of me was RIGHT (meaning both correct, and RIGHT TRAFFIC), I might have avoided the situation)
  • Mistakes aren't as scary as they often seem

The reason I was taking this trip was that a good friend was having a landmark birthday, and I wanted to be there for his party.  The birthday boy is an accomplished pilot himself, and when I related the story to him, he laughed and started into some of the stories of mistakes HE had made... reminding me that no successful pilot (or successful PERSON) could get where they are without making some mistakes.

And now I'm reminding YOU.


Andrew Hartley is a Certificated Flight Instructor in Columbus, Ohio.

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