Adventures in the traffic pattern

Adventures in the traffic pattern

Steve Guetter, CFII


We entered downwind at pattern altitude, gear down which slowed us to 90 knots and communicating with the Archer who we had seen on crosswind, he did not have our Bonanza in sight. Somewhere around midfield downwind, still at 90 knots, I was dumbfounded to look up and out to see the  Archer 100 feet above us and to my amazement overtaking us. We radioed the pilot who maintained his altitude and extended his downwind, we landed without incident. On a hazy winter day while Kjersti and I were instructing in separate planes I watched a Bonanza, who was not making regular position reports, cut Kjersti and her student off as they were about the turn final. It does not take many hours of flight to have a few stories like this to tell.

Traffic has its greatest concentrations around airports, most of which are uncontrolled; it rests on all of our shoulders to maintain a safe airport environment. A safe environment relies upon the use of standard procedures, communication and teamwork.


Standard procedures

The FAA is clear in its guidance as to how we are to enter and leave the traffic pattern, we as pilots however readily modify these procedures.  Common modifications include how the pattern is entered, exited, and altitude it is flown.

Standardization of traffic patterns enhances our safety. By flying a common traffic pattern we know what to expect when other aircraft share the pattern with us. Common terminology and phraseology take the guess work out of interpreting what we are hearing on the radio. In cases where pilots are not announcing we know where to look for other planes that may get in our way.

When we choose to modify a standard pattern we reduce some of the safety margin that is afforded to us when expected procedures are followed, other planes do not know where to look for us. Kjersti was recently flying with a student, on short final for a touch and go another aircraft announced that they were going to enter the pattern on an upwind leg. When the student said they would be doing a touch and go, the other pilot seemed surprised. Entering the pattern in this manner resulted in reduced separation, reduced visibility and increased risk for both aircraft.

A pilot may choose to modify the traffic pattern for many reasons, they may do it reduce flight time by one tenth on the Hobbs meter, they may not fly into uncontrolled airports often and do not recall proper procedures others may simply not care. Whatever our reason for modifying the traffic pattern, if this choice is made we need to take time to analyze the choice and the risk we add for ourselves and others.


There is no legal requirement to self-announce at a non-controlled airport. Some aircraft are not equipped with an electrical system, let alone a radio. The traffic pattern is a busy place, we are configuring our aircraft for landing, running through pre landing checklists, communication is a necessity to augment see and avoid during this phase of flight.

Communication in the traffic pattern, along with scanning for traffic is a key to situational awareness. When announcing your position, a good practice is to do it while in a turn. The bank of the wings will make your aircraft easier to spot for other pilots. Radio calls should succinct; on busy days additional chatter can cause frequency congestion.  If your plane does not have a radio installed it is highly recommended to have a handheld to make announcements.



Aviation is a team activity, as much as we relish our freedom in the air, tell stories about our first solo, and embrace the responsibilities of being Pilot in Command, we depend on each other. Teamwork can be seen on a sunny day when pilots extend downwind to make room for a fellow pilot on an instrument approach, or two planes coordinating their pattern entries or departures. As with any team, there are times this comradery will break down and need to be dealt with.

Most pilots are team players when we are in the air working with each other to create a smooth traffic flow. Knowledge of other aircraft and operations can take time to develop. As we develop this knowledge there are some considerations to keep in mind. Some aircraft need extra space due to its speed, if a pilot is about to finish an instrument approach it is courteous to extend a downwind, you may have been in the pattern first, the other pilot spent up to the last 15 minutes setting up their approach. Give them some extra room; someday the favor will come back to you.

On Final

The traffic pattern is a high workload time for pilots, it can also have the highest traffic congestion that we are likely to experience during our flight. We can minimize the work load by flying the FAA prescribed traffic pattern, communicating with other pilots that are sharing the same airspace and working together so we can all smoothly get to our destination. Be safe out there!

Newly Found Web Links

We have two new web links that we want to share:

See the Wind on Windyty. This site lets you visualize the the wind from the surface up through the flight levels with models up to five days into the future.

See SkewT charts over the route of our flight to analyze where you may find the bases and tops of clouds. Learn the basic parts of a SkewT in this YouTube presentation, and some basic interpretation in this blog.

Penguin Flight: Find your wings!


Seaplane Cross Country Adventure

We are on the adventure of a lifetime…that we hope to repeat many more times. We have the privilege to fly with Adventure Seaplanes as they relocate planes from their winter location in Florida to their summer home in Minnesota. We are currently waiting for some weather to pass in Alabama, so thought we would post some pictures of the trip so far.


It is an exciting trip, with lots of planning and coordination that has been done to make it a success. The three planes in the caravan are on straight floats, they can only land in water. Yesterday we flew two legs, one let of two hours and one of an hour and a half. We stopped at a beach in Georgia to fill the tanks with fuel we were carrying in our floats.

We will post more pictures when we have some time.

Spring Flying Weather: Lessons Learned

As the spring approaches it is a good time to remind ourselves that spring weather can be very diverse. Those of us living in the northern part of the country know this can be a wide swing including high winds, icing, freezing rain and thunderstorms. Two years ago we had a flight that included all of these elements, and a great deal of learning. The mission was to fly from the Minneapolis area to attend a wedding being held In Custer State park near Rapid City, South Dakota. We were flying a Cessna 182RG, between the two CFI rated pilots we had over 450 hours in this particular plane. Our passengers on the flight were my significant others sister and three year old niece. We spend most of our flight time instructing and keeping our skills sharp, we were both excited about using the plane for a cross country flight and sharing the utility with our family.


Our flight plan was fairly straight forward, we would depart the Lakeville, MN airport, pick up our IFR clearance and fly direct to Rapid city. With luggage and the four of us the plane was below its max gross weight, we were able to depart with full tanks. The plane had 6.5 hours of fuel for a flight that would last around three hours. The weather upon our departure was VFR. We settled into cruise, enjoying the views, music from the ipod and the company. When Kjersti and I fly on cross country flights we typically use a crew concept with one of us flying and the other handling communication and navigation. We trade these roles every half hour. Shortly after our departure we encountered IMC, our controller advised us of a line of showers with a light to moderate precipitation ahead. The precipitation was a non-event, soon we were breaking out of clouds. The rolling hills and farm fields of central Minnesota had been replaced with the scenic South Dakota badlands. We were handed off to Ellsworth approach who was kind enough to provide vectors over Mt. Rushmore. We all enjoyed the unique view we had of the monument, one that only general aviation could bring. Kjersti then dawned a hood and shot a practice instrument approach into the Rapid City Airport.


The 182 had extended range tanks, we had not used close to half of the fuel available. As the fuel at Rapid city was more expensive than home I instructed the FBO not to top off the tanks, having them add back about half of what we burnt on the way out. Our trip home was eastbound, we would most likely have a tail wind, and there would be no way it could take five hours to get home. We enjoyed Rapid City, family, and the wedding.


The morning we were to depart the weather was not as nice as we would have liked. Winds were gusting to 40kts at Rapid City, there was about an inch of fresh snow on the rental car and temps in Custer were just below freezing. We ate breakfast, studied the weather on Foreflight and decided to launch. We would have a head wind on the way home, but should still have1.5 hours left in the tanks upon our arrival. The elevation of Custer state park is just over 6,000 feet, the Rapid City Airport is 3,204. As we descended the mountain to Rapid City we discussed the temperature change as we descended as well as the MEA’s in the area, this along with a conversation with a flight briefer reaffirmed our decision to launch.


We arrived at the FBO, paid for our fuel completed our preflight and packed the plane. During the preflight it was clear how windy it was low 30’s gusting to 40 and right down the runway. After start up we added our additional fuel into the totalizer, plenty of gas to get home. Kjersti performed an excellent take off and we were in IMC at about 400 feet AGL.


All was going well about 20 min into the flight as we discussed trying to get on top of the clouds, however we did not know where the tops were. We did not know if there would be any icing as we climbed, but if there was we knew there would be warm air to return to at our current altitude. Center cleared us to climb, when we reached 9,000 feet it was clear that we were picking up ice on the leading edges of the wings, we continued our climb hoping that the tops would reveal themselves soon. As ice continued to build we decided it would be best to return to the warm air we had left below and requested a descent back to 5,000. The controller was unable to get us back down, we were assigned 7,000 feet. Upon reaching 7,000 feet we began to be pelted by what sounded like very large drops of freezing rain. The windscreen became opaque, this was truly a new experience for each of us and not one we welcomed. The mention of freezing rain to the controller got us a descent to 5,000 feet. It was not much lower then 7,000 when the ice started shedding from the windscreen and the wings, it was a very welcome sight. That was certainly enough excitement for one flight, little did we know it would not be our last.


Ground speeds were lower than expected, we heard regional airliners diverting from Pier below us do to winds on the ground. Even with our slower than expected ground speeds the fuel totalizer showed plenty of fuel in the tanks to make the trip home, still over an hour of gas left in the tanks after we land. Our controller mentioned some light to moderate weather in front of us, we assumed it would be similar to what was encountered on the way out. After a brief discussion with the controller about turning a bit south to avoid it, we decided to stay on course.


We had been in IMC since takeoff, had switched pilots a couple times, Kjersti was again flying with me on the radio. The ride was not bad, with occasional light turbulence. That was when our world changed. Kjersti and I found ourselves coming off the ceiling of the plane, the sleeping passengers were jolted awake and the airplane was in a nose low unusual attitude with a 70 degree bank to the left. We had lost 700 feet of altitude. As we came back down in our seats Kjersti began the recovery from the unusual attitude as I started talking with the controller about a turn to the south. The controller approved any deviation as required, but maintain our previous altitude. Our controller indicated cells popping up all around us, a course to the south would be the best bet to get out of the area that now had building convective activity.


The ride was now rough, moderate to heavy turbulence. It was time to assess the situation. Anything in the cabin that had not been secured now had a new location. The fire extinguisher now resided between my feet next to the rudder peddles, the ipad was MIA, and the backseat passengers were covered in popcorn. We received a clearance to the Sioux Falls VOR and then direct home. We also climbed, broke out and were able to see and avoid other buildups. Our new flight plan was longer, we would land with just under an hour of fuel left in the tanks, certainly legal, but outside or comfort zone. We agreed that after the turn at the VOR if our ground speed did not increase we would land and take on additional fuel. The rest of the flight was in VMC, although with each area of turbulence we were reminded of our convective encounter.


Our turn toward home resulted in a groundspeed higher than what we agreed to continue the flight, we would have just under an hour of fuel when we landed. A visual approach and we were on the ground. We taxied to the pumps and started the process of fueling and cleaning out the plane, recall the popcorn. We were all thankful to be on the ground safely. As we fueled the plane it became evident that the fuel totalizer and the tanks did not agree. We had less than a half hour in the tanks when we landed.


We took away a lot of learning from this flight, we talk about it often with our students. There are things that we did right and things that we could have done better.  We were well prepared for the flight both being instrument current and actively flying. We looked at weather together, and got a preflight briefing. Through the flight we talked through risks, were quick to ask for help from our controllers when we needed it. When we encountered severe turbulence we did not hesitate to take action to get out of the area as quickly as possible. Knowing that our flight time was going to be longer than expected, we were very aware that fuel may be of concern and continued to calculate our remaining fuel through out the flight.


There are also things that we could have done better. We saw a trend in the weather being different from what was forecast. A call to flight watch when we started seeing things that did not match our briefing would have been a great start, we also now fly with a Stratus ADS-B receiver so we can maintain better situational awareness while in flight. Imagine our surprise if we would have ended up short of our destination after encounters with icing and severe turbulence due to fuel starvation. We took off with less fuel in the tanks due to the desire to save money, we did not dip the tanks prior to taking off, we trusted that the totalizer knew how much fuel was in the tanks when we refueled.


We returned home safely and as better pilots. We both came away from this fight with new experiences, new things to share with our students and new procedures that now keep us safer.