Illustrated Traffic Pattern Concepts, Controlled and Uncontrolled

I prepared the following (draft perhaps) as I thought it might be useful in some situations to sort out contrasting concepts: Such as entry legs without towers, and flexibility of tower commands. Comments, criticisms etc.? Thanks in particular to @Skonert, @mcgregni and @Trio for giving me food for thought.


I think the reason the “entry leg” or position isn’t that well defined in documents is that you can be coming inbound from any possible direction, but if you’re entering the pattern on any leg except for final, you should enter at 45 degrees.

For example you could come from the North of that airport in the picture but still be able to enter left downwind. You don’t have to enter right downwind.


Would you disagree with the following?:

tower control:
IF - approach pattern area from any direction
Real life - approach pattern area from any direction

uncontrolled airport:
IF - straight in (if you arrive that direction),
or 45 degree downwind entry (recommended, for other arrival directions)
Real Life - Strictly enter as shown at A, B, C (anything else violates FAA document)

Remember that traffic pattern entry procedures as you’ve outlined are only recommendations, and absolutely not required in real life. They’re there to help standardize flow but are not enforceable regulations. It’s merely to increase safety and to encourage good practice. If you want to fly straight in, do so. If you want to enter on left base, you can do that too. The trust is in the PIC to make the safest and smartest decision given the situation.

See AC 90-66B for more detail.

Thank you, that’s a very helpful reference. I can see why you take exception to me saying “strictly…” Some overlapping issues in that I’m still looking at, such as IFR and VFR arrivals mixing. Still reading, thanks…

edit (a bit of a preliminary change):

So I think I would disagree to some extent. I admit my wording was not ideal, but it still appears the FAA very strongly endorses using patterns as they describe. And the FAA’s description explicitly gives options A and B for pattern entry on the upwind side (B entry has to yield to A entry aircraft). Option C is implied (intersecting the 45degree directly if arriving on the downwind side). Whether there has been legal action for incidents related to not following appropriate pattern procedure, I don’t know about yet.

But IRL one wouldn’t be allowed to ignore the VFR arrival pattern as a regular matter of practice.

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I 100% agree with this, and it is of course “good practice” to follow the recommended entry to the pattern. I was just trying to make the point that it’s not bound in regulation as something that must be done (take abiding by VFR cloud clearance minimums as an example).

Personally I make it a habit IRL to use the standard 45 degree downwind entry, but it’s important to be aware that other pilots might not be doing the same as me, whether it be a straight in arrival or someone joining on base. There are many old crusty pilots out there that like doing their own thing and stretching the regs.

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Yes but the FAA info document on patterns is written substantially with novice pilots in mind. I was confused in the past by them not showing the “entry-to-the-entry” scenarios. In other words, there are only 3 options (I am assuming?), so why not show the novice pilot those 3 options to clear up any ambiguity about how someone thinks about methodically entering the pattern from the range of directions?:

option 1)45 degree entry inbound from the upwind side
option 2)45 degree entry inbound form the downwind side
option 3)straight in

edit: I missed the “joining on base” kind of scenario. It’s like “follow the rules!,” except when you can’t.

Good points. I suppose there’s some practical reason why the FAA can’t more explicitly force pattern rules? It’s not as simple as “stop for red lights”: most of the time you want perhaps 90% compliance, but 10% of the time there is a valid exception (IFR training for example). Maybe it’s a category that might be called a “flexible regulation.”

Not all airports are created equal- some have terrain surrounding them that prevent a normal pattern entry, some have towns next to them that necessitate a right traffic pattern, some airports have more than one runway that could be in use at the same time, etc etc. I’ve always interpreted it as a measure of flexibility for the PIC so you’re not forced into an unsafe situation by a requirement, if that makes sense.

Yes, I think that’s an excellent point. The FAA can’t set hard and fast rules for everything. And where they cannot, they still have the role to inform on best practice airmanship, even where the techniques require a good deal of judgement on the part of the pilot as far as appropriate implementation. The best compliance is thoughtful compliance.


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