There are over 20,000 airports in the United States, but only about 500 have a control tower. Think of it. 97% of the U S airports depend on smart, courteous pilots. Many of those uncontrolled airports are sleepy, but some are beehives of activity.
In addition, it is not unusual for several uncontrolled airports to share the same frequency. So, to make sure other pilots understand where you are, AIM 4-1-9 suggests that pilots state the airport name at the beginning and at the end of their transmission. For example, “Eloy traffic, Mooney 7KW turning right downwind Runway 20, Eloy.”
What You Shouldn’t Do
According to AIM 4-1-9, transmitting, “Traffic in the area, please advise”, is inappropriate and just plain stupid. Well, AIM didn’t quite word it like that, but you get the idea. So what should you do? If you want to know what runway the pilots are using, you should monitor the Common Taffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). If the pilots are starting and ending their transmission with the name of the airport, then you’ll get the idea.
The FAA’s Role
The FAA doesn’t regulate traffic pattern entry techniques, but they do insist that all turns at non-towered airports should be made to the left, unless of course, right turns are indicated, like Show Low’s runways 3 and 24.
Entry on the 45 to the downwind leg is considered a standard approach from the downwind side of the traffic pattern., but it’s not mandated.
If you are entering from the Downwind Side, enter the pattern at 45 degrees from the downwind heading at pattern altitude.
If You are Entering from the Upwind Side
You should first fly midfield over the airport at a minimum of 500 feet above the pattern altitude.
As you fly over the airport, pay special attention to any traffic in the airport pattern. Once clear of the pattern, you can begin your descent to pattern altitude, turn back towards the airport and enter the traffic pattern on the downwind leg at the 45 degree entry point.
Are Straight-In Approaches Legal?
In 1978, I flew for the State of Utah’s Division of Aeronautics. We flew a Baron and a King Air, so we considered ourselves bigger and badder than anything that might be in the pattern. Using our superior reasoning, we felt that if we wanted to fly a straight in approach, we would just do it, and if the local guys didn’t like it, that was just too bad. Most of the airports were a bit sleepy, so a straight-in approach didn’t bother anyone. Provo (KPVU) was the exception. It had two flight schools that kept the pattern pretty busy. It really should have had a control tower in those days, but the FAA didn’t see it that way. If we were flying to Provo (KPVU), we were not welcome because of our attitude.
We would make the obligatory radio calls on Provo’s Unicom frequency, announcing that we were on a ten mile final for landing. Hearing our voices made the Provo pilots bristle and I swear I heard a few guns cock. The Provo pilots would chastise us on the frequency, but we didn’t care. Hey, we were going to do what we were going to do. Besides, that traffic entry stuff is too hard and we’re much too important.
Straight-in approaches are perfectly legal, but only if they don’t interfere with other aircraft in the pattern.
If you want to know if a straight-in is safe, you should make your decision from a courteous and common sense angle. If there is little to no traffic, then it probably will pass the safe and courteous test. By all means have at it. Just broadcast your intentions well ahead of time and coordinate your entry with the other traffic in the pattern.
Pattern Radio Calls
To help avoid a conflict, announce your position just prior to beginning the turn from one pattern leg to another. Because of the “wing flash”, it is much easier to locate an aircraft in a turn.
Unless noise abatement procedures dictate otherwise, you should delay your crosswind turn until you have reached the departure end of the runway and you’re within 300 feet of the pattern altitude (AIM 4-3-3). Why? This prevents departing aircraft from climbing into the downwind traffic that may be flying at pattern altitude.
After takeoff, climb on the extended runway centerline beyond the departure end of the runway up to pattern altitude. At this point, you can continue straight ahead or make a 45-degree turn to the left (see Figure 8), or to the right if the airport has a right-hand pattern.
If you will be departing against the flow of the pattern, wait until you are at least at pattern altitude plus 500 feet before making a turn, and be sure to advise on the CTAF “Westco traffic, Arrow Four-Seven Romeo, departing the pattern Runway One-Eight, right turn westbound, Westco.”