Everything You Should Know About the Airport Traffic Pattern

Airports · 5 min read · Sep 23, 2021
airport traffic pattern

Approaching, landing, and take-off procedures at non towered airports is one of the first things that most student pilots in every flight school should learn to perfection. It is somehow similar to flying in circles – but, in fact, at the minor airfields or any uncontrolled airport, anyone in the control of the aircraft is using a rectangle-shaped traffic pattern for a flight, which helps to maintain an organized takeoff and landing flow.

Components of a traffic Pattern. Fig. 4-3-1 for pilot from FAA AIM.
Standard traffic pattern. Fig. 4-3-2 from FAA AIM.
Image source: https://thereaderwiki.com/en/Airfield_traffic_pattern

Of course, this does not mean that such a flight traffic pattern does not exist at larger airports or virtually every controlled airport globally. At any airfield with a control tower, though, such order can be adjusted depending on weather conditions, other traffic intensity, or some extraordinary circumstances taking place there at the time.

Traffic patterns are here for a reason

However, without any special supervision from the air traffic controller, a steady flow of traffic in an orderly manner follows a set of established rules. Such rules help all the pilots in the traffic pattern to see each other’s aircraft, especially if there is a high wing airplane that is about to land. It is also a great help in organizing a safe flow of aircraft in the airport perimeter.

We will explain to you what these rules are and why they are so important. So, let’s move on to the next part, where we will tell you everything that is important about the airport traffic pattern.

Flying along with a standard traffic pattern. Fig. 4-3-2 for pilot from FAA AIM.
Components of a traffic Pattern. Fig. 4-3-1 from FAA AIM.
Image source:

So what’s there about the downwind leg?

Starting with the basics, it is worth mentioning that there is a golden rule for pilots for standard traffic pattern entry, which stretches far beyond theory. As the representative of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association David Sutton, who is also a pilot and an advisor for more than one flight school, puts it, ‘always enter the downwind leg on a 45-degree angle and at pattern altitude.’

According to Mr. Sutton, ‘This is the best and safest entry because it enables you to see other pilots in the pattern and enables those in the pattern to see you. It also allows you to establish yourself about a half-mile from the runway on a downwind ground track, which puts you in a familiar position from which to complete the pattern and your landing.’

So here we have got to the one of the main phases of a basic flying traffic pattern which usually consists of the departure leg or upwind leg, crosswind leg, downwind leg, the main leg, and final approach.

And what about the air traffic pattern altitude?

Maintaining the optimal air traffic pattern altitudes helps pilots who are flying and entering the pattern to conform to the precise traffic pattern in use. According to the FAA, the usual numbers for such altitude are 1,000 feet or about 305 meters above the elevation of the airport ground level.

In some cases, however, such numbers can vary between 600 (approx. 180 meters) feet and 1,500 feet (approx. 460 meters) above the surface. It is also worth noting that pattern altitudes for military turbojet planes, in some cases, can extend up to 2,500 feet (762 meters) above the runway surface even at the runway heading phase.

But can you always maintain 1,000 feet above ground level with a suitable plane?

Of course, a proper – especially, a bit higher altitude is not always possible to keep even with the right aircraft when flying – as it is obviously dependable on weather conditions, wind direction (that’s why there is a windsock), specifics of the terrain, and other elements. One of the most important of such aspects is the factor of airspace restrictions.

Here’s the advice

Here Mr. Sutton reminds that ‘flying 1,000 feet above pattern altitude is sometimes impossible because of overlying Class B or C airspace. Use the same procedure, but fly 500 feet above pattern altitude.’

‘The only change at this lower altitude is that you don’t begin your descent to pattern altitude until you are heading inbound to the pattern on the 45-degree angle entry. ‘ -explains the expert. According to him, this should keep the pilot from descending into the pattern head-on into the direct traffic flow.

And the so-called ‘main part’

After the downwind leg in most traffic patterns, there is a short transitional phase between the final approach, which is the last part before the completion of the landing. Such land-facing phase is called the base leg phase.

After considering the weather conditions, specifically the wind at a given moment, the person controlling the aircraft has to establish this leg at an adequate distance from the approach end of the runway to allow a moderate descent to the planned point of touchdown.

‘The short final’ or The Final Approach

According to airport advisories, when referring to a standard non-towered airport landing as a part of the traffic pattern we have just discussed, it is stated that the plane makes a transition from base leg to the final one within one-half to two miles (800 meters to 3.22 kilometers) of the airbase or the airport.

The path that an aircraft is designated to follow on its final approach leg while landing at the airport is called an approach slope.

Plane lands at Christmas Island Airport.
Image source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Final_approach_(aeronautics)
And why is that?

Such a name, often found in some chart supplement, is derived from the handy circumstance that this path is ideally a gentle downward slope which is headed to the very end of the runway. The most popular and widely used approach slope is 3 degrees from the horizontal.

Such an angle is chosen not only because it is highly convenient and allows for excellent visibility of the runway under suitable weather conditions. It is also considered the safest angle to perform the approach.

There are some exceptions through

Still, due to the high proximity of mountains, buildings, and residential areas, which sometimes even affects runway orientation, due to the threat of emergencies related to such circumstances, some airports have steeper approach paths and provide pilots with more specific instructions for landing. Some ought to have approach paths, the angle of which could be even lesser than three degrees. However, 3° is already a gentle approach angle considered universally safe for any flight path.

For example, Lugano airport in Switzerland, which also is known for relatively high field elevation and a short runway, has a 4-degree approach. At the same time, London City Airport even tends to have a 5.5-degree approach. Therefore, following the local procedures, no other aircraft than the one capable of maintaining such a high approach angle can land and take off at given airports – of course, using extreme caution.

Left hand and right-hand traffic patterns

All the turns there are in standard air traffic patterns, are usually done as the left turns because the left-hand traffic pattern is the most common one. That’s because planes with two seats in the cockpit for the pilots controlling the aircraft usually have dedicated seats for the captain on the left.

In addition, most planes, even the smallest ones, provide a better view out to the left. This rule not even depend on the direction of flight – it could be the departure leg, or it could be the approach – but the view is always better on the left side of the cockpit.

But not all airports are the same, right?

Yes, however, there are airports where some obstruction, such as mountains or high buildings, make it impossible to follow traffic patterns while turning left all the time – let alone at the departure end. Therefore, the right-hand airfield traffic pattern is used here instead. With another holding pattern, the principles remain the same, but every turn here is made to the right rather than to the left.

Left and right hand traffic depicted in the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge issued by the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States of America.
Image srouce: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airfield_traffic_pattern

Want to read more like this?

Enter your email and get curated content straight to your inbox!

Thank your for your subscription.

You are already subscribed to this newsletter.

Jet pilot @NASA

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent posts


Airport Runways: What do those big numbers mean?

Airports · 5 min read

To the aviation industry, these letters, numbers, and markings make complete sense and are fundamentally significant in order to carry out airport operations safely. Runway markings and runway numbers are one of them.

May 21, 2024

The Meaning of Airport Runway Lights

Airports · 5 min read

Nowadays, it is impossible to imagine a modern airport without one of its most notable attributes: the runway lights. Most of the passengers who are completely unrelated to aviation on a daily basis, often speculate about the purpose of these lights.

Apr 24, 2024
gate agent

What Does a Gate Agent Do?

Airports · 5 min read

Although a gate agent's job might seem like a self explanatory position, it entails a lot more than you can imagine.

Dec 20, 2022

Start learning from the best minds now

  • Check your knowledge with quizzes
  • Pre-recorded certified courses
  • Study on different devices
  • Virtual classes/Live sessions
  • Pre-recorded Aviation management courses
  • Obtain Aeroclass Certificate
Get Started Today