The Problem with Airport Traffic Patterns … Redux

Our flying club suffered a mid-air in mid August, 2015, and 5 people died. I’m not writing about the events – no one will know what really happened until many months have passed, and, even then, we may never know exactly what occurred. I’m writing about how casually we all fly airport traffic patterns.
I’ve sung this refrain before, but, apparently, no one likes the tune … or my voice … or the message. Let’s revisit the problem with patterns that most of us have.
Airport traffic patterns are imaginary rectangles in the sky, 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile in width and, generally, a thousand feet above ground level. Each leg of the pattern has a name (and one of them has two names): upwind, as you take off and climb into the sky above the runway; crosswind, generally commencing around 500′ AGL, and 90° to the runway; downwind, the highest part of the pattern, parallel the runway and “downwind” of it – that is, opposite the direction of the prevailing wind that, ideally, flows along the runway; base, 90° to the downwind and descending; and final, on the runway heading, which brings you back onto the runway, and our leg of the pattern with two names, “upwind” and “final”.
Generally speaking, FAA requests that you enter the pattern on a 45° angle, mid-field on the downwind leg, and at the pattern altitude. You never … NEVER … NOT ONCE … EVER … enter the traffic pattern from above. The reason for this is simple; if you enter from above, you may not be able to see the airplane on the downwind leg below you. And, I have it on good authority, if you descend into the pattern from above and cause a mid-air collision and you die – and you believe in a god and an afterlife – you will go directly to the hottest part of Hades, the region reserved for lawyers, politicians, mass murderers, child abusers, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Richard Milhous frkng Nixon … company I would rather avoid for eternity.
There are places and situations that allow for straight-in approaches, usually in conjunction with an instrument approach – although at Montgomery Field, virtually all approaches from the east end up being straight-in. Palomar, Gillespie and Ramona have provisions for straight-in approaches, as do many, many more.
Each local airport pattern has its own quirks. At Brown Field on arrivals from the north, we’re usually instructed to enter the pattern on an extended base leg, over the “prison” (the Richard J Donovan Correctional Facility), then turn about a 2 1/2 to 3 mile final approach. Sometimes arrivals from the east will fly straight-in descending to Brown above Otay Mountain. Gillespie Field’s north pattern takes you around a mountain, Rattlesnake Peak, and the south pattern demands that you fly to Fanita Drive before turning crosswind (to avoid overflying homes on higher terrain due west of the airport). Ramona and Palomar are fairly normal as airport traffic patterns go, but Oceanside requires you to follow the San Luis Rey River Valley on departure to avoid overflying noise sensitive neighborhoods to the west, and it prohibits touch and go’s for the same reason. In addition, Oceanside has a very specific pattern entry procedure for aircraft arriving from the north, south or west. On Runway 18, Fallbrook insists that you don’t initiate your crosswind turn until passing the water tank, and that, for either runway, you never overfly the High School.
Since I’m based at Montgomery, let’s include some of the peculiarities for pattern flying there. Ground controllers at MYF want to know where you’re going when you make your first call-up – which isn’t information that you’ll have to provide at most other airports. The reason is fairly straightforward. Montgomery is located under a 4800′ MSL floor of the San Diego Class Bravo – and it’s an exceptionally narrow airspace, bounded on the north (for the most part) by State Route 52 and on the south by the 084° radial from the Mission Bay VORTAC.
Montgomery’s ground controllers want to direct you to the proper runway for the type of departure you request. If you’re going west, they’ll usually send you to 28L; if you’re going east, they’ll usually send you to 28R – which is also where they’ll usually send you for pattern work because of the noise sensitive neighborhoods to the west and south of Montgomery. (Of course as I write this in August 2015, Runways 5/23 and 28L/10R are closed, the former for construction, the latter because of the stupidity of the city’s deputy airports director and the intransigence of the runway construction firm. So, this discussion is one that pertains to the airport’s past and future.)
As I wrote earlier, traffic patterns generally extend 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile from the runway – although you invariably turn crosswind (traffic permitting) near the airport boundary. One of the problems I’ve found at Montgomery, Brown, Ramona and other airports is the “747 Captain Trainee” pattern – flown by those bozos and their pinheaded instructors who invariably turn base leg a mile and a half or more from the runway.
Assuming normal traffic conditions, you reduce throttle to your landing power setting abeam the numbers – or abeam the “aiming point” those big white rectangles 1000′ from the runway’s end. If so equipped, you engage carburetor heat, add the first notch of flaps, and trim the airplane for a descent. At 45° from your point of intended landing – and after descending a few hundred feet, depending on the AGL height of the pattern – you turn base leg, which puts you about 1/2 – 1 mile from the approach end of the runway. You apply a second notch of flaps, trim, then adjust power depending on how high you are above the runway. When you turn final and apply that last notch of flaps, ideally you are 500′ above the runway, descending about 500′ fpm. Do the math. At 500 fpm, you’ll arrive at the runway threshold in one minute – which means, at most, you should be turning final at one mile at the farthest … not two miles, three miles, or the next bloody county as our bozo/pinheaded friends insist.
If you turn an extended final and you lose your engine, there’s a good chance that you’ll be dead in less than a minute. You might be able to make Admiral Baker Golf Course, east of Tierra Santa, you may be able to maneuver onto I-15 and, with lotsa luck, not get run down by a speeding tanker truck or smashed into by a soccer Mom’s van. The prospects are bleak, yet every day I get stuck in the pattern behind some aspiring 747 Captain who refuses to follow normal, sensible, time-proven procedures. I realize that there are flight schools that want extended patterns because it makes more money for them. Most responsible instructors try to fly patterns so that their students get more landing repetitions so that their students succeed quicker. Many flight schools don’t. Sigh.
The danger from flying extended patterns should be obvious. When you choose to fly an extended pattern (as opposed to being forced into one by numerous airplanes in the pattern), airplanes behind you may not see you. And if they don’t see you, they may turn base leg as for a normal pattern and descend into you on your extended final approach. The result is usually catastrophic.
Now, here comes a particularly favorite topic of mine. Arrivals to Montgomery from the north and west are always instructed to proceed south of Mount Soledad towards the northern boundaries of Mission Bay to avoid outbound VFR traffic – and all instrument traffic – which fly directly to Mount Soledad.
This is crucial. There are many pilots who feel that as soon as they cross the boundary of Miramar’s Class B (overlying Scripps Pier), they should fly directly to the left downwind – carelessly and directly opposite outbound traffic. The potential for mid-air collisions at Montgomery increases exponentially when pilots choose this short-sighted, lazy-loser’s approach from the west.
If you read the AIM, the general rule for entering a traffic pattern is to approach on a 45° angle to the mid-field, downwind of the runway of intended landing – and, at Montgomery, that is normally 28L. So coming from the west, you fly south of Mount Soledad towards Mission Bay, then parallel and south of the downwind until, say, over top of Mesa College, and then turn to the 45° entry to arrive mid-field, at the pattern altitude of 1000′ AGL, or 1427′ MSL.
There are other pilots who fly south of Soledad, and then immediately turn to enter on the 45, arriving at the traffic pattern on the upwind, where most people turn towards Soledad, or where people in the south traffic pattern turn crosswind. Either this method, or the lazy-loser fly-directly-to-the-downwind, has the potential to kill people. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to aggressively maneuver to avoid aircraft as I turned crosswind for 28L. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to aggressively maneuver to avoid being hit on westbound departures from Montgomery. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve wished evil on the lazy, self-important, boneheaded bozos who continue to arrive at Montgomery directly to the downwind, or the upwind, of 28L. A pox upon them all, a pox upon their families and all of their friends.
A word to the wise is superfluous, they say (look it up). Let’s all try to be a little wiser, a little more alert, and a little more considerate in our traffic pattern flying. Lives may well depend on it.

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