Slow & Fast in the Traffic Pattern
How Do You Fly A Traffic Pattern With Fast And Slow Aircraft?
You’re entering the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport, and there’s an aircraft in front of you. It’s a J-3 Cub, and its pattern speed is 20 knots slower than yours. How are you going to manage your pattern to keep your spacing?
When non-towered airports get busy, it can be hard to keep everyone flowing smoothly in the pattern. And if you’re at an airport could have a J-3 Cub, a Cessna 172, a Cirrus SR-22, and a King Air, there’s quite a bit of coordination that needs to happen to keep everyone separated and sequenced.
The typical rule-of-thumb for flying traffic patterns is that you should let the aircraft you’re following pass behind your wing before you turn base. By doing that, you usually have enough room to let the aircraft in front of you land and exit the runway before you’re on short final.
But what should you do if the aircraft in front of you is significantly slower, like the Cub? (which we love, by the way) If slowing yourself down to match speeds isn’t an option, then you need to start adjusting your pattern.
EXTENDING YOUR DOWNWIND
One of the best ways to make sure you’ll have enough spacing between you and the aircraft in front of you is to extend your downwind.
But how far should you extend? There’s no playbook for that. You need to use your judgment, and let everyone around you know what you’re doing.
Extending your downwind by a mile or slightly more typically works out well, but the way you announce your downwind extension over the radios is important. Telling other people in the traffic pattern that you’re extending your downwind by a mile can be subjective. What “looks” like a mile to one pilot, might look like 3 miles to another.
And remember, while some pilots in the pattern might have 13,000 hours of flight time, others might only have 13. Being specific of where you are and where you’re going can really help everyone.
Instead of announcing how far you’re extending downwind, describe where you’re planning to turn your base. Is it over a major road or landmark? By describing where you’re going, instead of the distance alone, you’ll help everyone around you know where to look and find you.
LOOKING OUT FOR AIRCRAFT BEHIND YOU
When you extend your downwind, you open yourself up to the possibility of aircraft behind you not knowing where you are, and possibly turing base inside you.
If you do have to extend, make sure you’re keeping your eyes out for traffic behind you as you’re turing base and final. And keep announcing your position on the radios. The more you describe your position and intentions (within reason), the more likely everyone else is to know where you are, and how they can sequence themselves behind you.
S-TURNS ON FINAL
So what happens if you’ve tried to give yourself enough room, but the aircraft in front of you is still too close?
The next step you can try is s-turns on final. By executing gentle s-turns on your final approach, you give yourself more time spacing for the aircraft in front of you.
But while s-turns can be a good way to give you time and space, they can also destabilize your approach. And if you’re not careful, they could result in a bad landing or go-around. So if you do fly s-turns to give yourself more spacing on final, make sure you discontinue them early enough to re-stabilize your speed and descent rate on final.
So what happens if you’re on short final and you’re tried everything you can to give yourself enough space, but the aircraft in front of you is still on the runway? In most cases, it’s time for a go-around.
When should you go-around? Again, there’s no rule-of-thumb, but when you do, it’s extremely important to keep the aircraft in front of you in sight the entire time. If the aircraft in front of you is practicing in the pattern and taking off again, your chances of getting dangerously close start to increase.
When you go-around, you should fly slightly to the right of the runway, so that you can keep the other aircraft in sight throughout your go-around.
If you end up overtaking (passing) the other aircraft, you’re supposed to pass on the right anyway, so it gives you good positioning to do it.
As you go-around, you want to make sure you’re announcing your position, and and what you’re doing, to make sure everyone in the pattern is on the same page. It’s especially important for airports like the one above: Fort Collins/Loveland. At FNL, helicopters use the taxiway for hover practice and hover taxi, so you need to make sure that you’re clear of all traffic when you sidestep to the right on a go-around.
NOT EVERYONE IS FLYING THE SAME PATTERN ALTITUDE
The last thing you should consider when you have traffic in the pattern is what altitude everyone is at.
While most aircraft are flying at 1000′ AGL (unless TPA is specified otherwise), if there’s a jet in the pattern, they’re most likely flying at 1,500′ AGL. And on top of that, they’re usually flying a much wider pattern than you are.
So if you have a jet in the pattern, you need to coordinate and give them room to maneuver. Since they’re typically flying pattern speeds much faster than you, its usually best to sequence behind them.
When you’re following a jet on final, you also need to be aware of wake turbulence. Make sure you’re flying above their glide path, and landing beyond their touchdown point.
KEEPING EVERYONE ON THE SAME PAGE IN THE PATTERN
Keeping aircraft sequenced at a busy non-towered airport can be a challenge. But by giving slower aircraft plenty of room, and describing where you are and where you’re going, you can keep things flowing smoothly.