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VFR Traffic Patterns at Uncontrolled Airfields (USA)

Joseph Pentz


Flying VFR can be one of the most freeing and rewarding experiences a pilot can have. There is no need to worry about making sure you are following your magenta line or tracking the correct radial inbound to a VOR. Can you see in front of you? Great! That's all that matters, for the most part.

Flying VFR is one of the first things you learn as a pilot; in fact, until you begin instrument training, the majority of your flights will be conducted under VFR or Visual Flight Rules. VFR does not require you to follow a route or fly an instrument approach to land. You can fly whatever direction you want, provided you are complying with all applicable rules. 

First and foremost, before you can fly under VFR, you need to have the correct tools at your disposal. The main tool you need is a sectional chart. These charts are issued as hard copy, large scale maps by the FAA every 6 months for less than $10 a print but with today's technology you can easily access a sectional chart online for free by clicking here. When you navigate to this website, you will see a large map; make sure to click on "World VFR" in the top right corner.


A sectional chart contains many different symbols, airspace boundaries, navigational aids, airways, and more. It can seem extremely overwhelming at first, but in time reading these charts will become completely natural. An easy way to quickly become familiar with how to read a sectional chart is to reference the legend which can tell you what all the symbols and colors mean. The expanded version of the legend contains a lot of great information for new pilots and you can find that here, but if you want the condensed legend you can find that here.

Traffic Pattern (2).jpgThe second major obstacle to flying VFR is learning how to properly fly the traffic pattern. The traffic pattern is the rectangular course that is used by aircraft that are flying within the vicinity of an airport for the purpose of completing a full stop landing, practice touch and goes, or departing the airport on a long cross country flight. There are 5 legs of a traffic pattern, Upwind (Departure), Crosswind, Downwind, Base, and Final. Another important factor pilots must consider is the direction of the traffic pattern; Left or Right. These 5 legs are extremely important to know because when you are flying on the POSCON Network at an uncontrolled field (an airport without a staffed tower), you will need to announce your location on the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency). This also applies to when you are flying inbound to a towered airport; however, the air traffic controller will give you a leg of the pattern to enter depending upon the configuration of the airport at the time. If you do not know your traffic pattern legs, you could easily cause conflicts with other planes operating in the same airspace.

Many new pilots get overwhelmed learning the traffic pattern. The specific factor that trips up many pilots is the left versus right traffic. An easy way to know if you are making left or right traffic is to determine where the runway is relative to your aircraft. If you are on a crosswind leg and you see the airport is to your left and slightly behind you, that means you are making left traffic.

Now, the obvious question, 'How do I know when to make left or right traffic?' For that, you would consult your sectional chart. If you take a look at the second image in this blog post, you will see 3 uncontrolled airports: Old Bridge (3N6), Trenton-Robbinsville (N87), and Monmouth Exec (BLM). Look at Trenton Robbinsville; you will see at the bottom of magenta text the letters RP 29. RP stands for Right Pattern. That indicates to pilots that if you plan on landing on Runway 29, it is a right-hand traffic pattern. Now look look at Monmouth Executive and notice there is nothing under all the magenta text. That is because the FAA made it a standard that if an airport does not specifically designate a runway as right pattern, it is assumed to be left hand traffic pattern.


Sectional.PNGWhen flying in the traffic pattern you should always maintain 1,000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) as a piston aircraft. If you are in a jet or turbo-prop aircraft, you should maintain 1,500 feet AGL as your TPA (Traffic Pattern Altitude). To determine your TPA, you would again refer to your sectional chart and look for a bold italic number. This number indicates the airport elevation in MSL (Mean Sea Level) i.e. above sea level. If you take a look at BLM, you'll see an airport elevation of 153' MSL. In this case the TPA for piston aircraft is 1,153' MSL and the TPA for jet/turboprop aircraft is 1,653' MSL. Remember your altimeter is always set to MSL not AGL.

When flying in the traffic pattern on the upwind or departure leg, you should always turn your crosswind 300 feet BELOW TPA. So, if we are flying a pattern in BLM in a Cessna 172, we should be turning crosswind at 853' which is 300' below our TPA of 1,153'

When entering the traffic pattern on the 45 degree to downwind entry (see first image), you should try to plan your descent to be level TPA upon reaching the downwind leg. If you need to enter the traffic pattern from the opposite side of the pattern, you will need to execute an overflight of the airport at 500' ABOVE TPA. Once you overfly the airfield, continue outbound and start your descending teardrop entry turn to enter the 45 degree to downwind entry leg of the pattern. You should practice the overflight teardrop pattern entries as they can be tricky when the winds aloft are strong. An example of an overflight teardrop entry can be seen here. This was a flight I did when MJX (Ocean County) winds favored runway 32 and a Piper Seminole was already in the pattern.

The third step, and arguably the most important, is your communication on CTAF. First, we need to know the frequency to use. If you look at the sectional chart again, the frequency that is left of the filled circled "C" is your CTAF frequency. On POSCON, the pilot must determine which frequency to broadcast on using the following order: 

  1. Refer to published charts for the CTAF frequency.
  2. If you are at a typically towered airport with no ATC online, and there is no published CTAF, then refer to the POSCON Airport Advisory chart for that airport. In most cases, we have specified a frequency for you to tune to.
  3. Use 122.95 if the previous 2 steps do not provide you a frequency.

Most uncontrolled airports have another frequency that is equally important to flying traffic patterns and that is the ASOS/AWOS frequency. ASOS is short for Automated Surface Observing System and AWOS is short for Automated Weather Observation System. For all intents and purposes, these two systems do the same thing - they give you an automated relay of the METAR (METeorological Aerodrome Report) for a particular airfield. POSCON plans on having ASOS/AWOS stations operational at all applicable airfields, so pilots should always tune into the ASOS/AWOS frequency and gather current weather conditions before conducting any air operations. These reports provide the wind conditions to select the correct runway in use, cloud layers, and the local altimeter setting.

Once you have found CTAF frequency and have gathered the weather report from the ASOS/AWOS frequency, you now ready to transmit to your intentions to the pilots in the vicinity of the airport. If you plan on remaining in the pattern, your transmission format will be:

(Airport Name) TRAFFIC, (Callsign/Type), Departing (Runway), (Direction of Traffic Pattern) Closed Traffic, (Airport Name).

An example for Monmouth Executive Airport would be:

Monmouth Traffic, N292SP Cessna 172, Departing Runway 14, Left Closed Traffic, Monmouth.

A valid question is, 'Why would you announce your callsign AND your type of aircraft?' The callsign is important because you are identifying yourself by your registration number, but the type is easier for other pilots to identify. The problem exists when you have multiple aircraft of the same type in the area. Adding your callsign helps everyone to understand who you are and it also important if an accident occurs within the vicinity of the airport.

Every leg of the traffic pattern should be announced. After you depart and you begin your left or right turn, you would say your position... in this case Crosswind. In the case of Monmouth, it would be:

Monmouth Traffic, N292SP Cessna 172, Left Crosswind, 14, Monmouth.

You can substitute the appropriate leg every time into that template. When you are departing the pattern and the airport vicinity, you would announce on frequency:

Monmouth Traffic, 2SP Cessna 172, departing the area to the North, Monmouth.

NOTE: Once you announce your full callsign once or twice, you can shorten it to the last 3 of the callsign.

When turning final in the pattern, it is useful to announce on frequency your intentions. Is this a full stop? Touch and Go? Stop and Go? Low Approach? Something like:

Monmouth Traffic, N292SP Cessna 172, turning Final 14, Touch and Go, Monmouth.

You are not held to this intention in any way if safety becomes a concern, e.g. you botched the landing and need to conduct a full stop instead of a touch and go. That is fine, just exit the runway and advise traffic:

Monmouth Traffic, 2SP Cessna 172, Clear of Runway 14, Monmouth.

This tells other pilots the runway is clear for takeoffs and landings again. Never ever use the phrase 'Clear of the Active.' This is bad phraseology and does not provide any useful information as all runways that are NOT CLOSED are considered 'Active.'

Last but not least we will discuss arrivals inbound to an uncontrolled field. The FAA regulations recommend that you begin your advisory announcements on CTAF no later than 10 miles from the airport. This gives plenty of time for pilots to plan and be aware of another aircraft inbound. You should always enter the traffic pattern at a 45 degree to downwind entry (see first image). If you need to overfly the field and make a teardrop turn that is fine, just do it at least 500' above pattern altitude and then begin your descending teardrop entry into the pattern while still advising traffic. Typically, pilots will monitor frequency before 10 miles out to see if anyone is in the pattern and that way they know what runway is being used and they can enter the pattern correctly. When you are 10 miles out from the airport, you can announce on frequency your locations and intentions, e.g. 'Monmouth Traffic, N292SP Cessna 172, 10 Miles to the South, entering the 45 Left Downwind for Runway 14, Monmouth.' Continue these updates at your discretion. Once established in the pattern, use your standard traffic pattern advisories as discussed earlier.

Understanding how to fly in the traffic pattern may seem like a lot, and eventually mundane once mastered, but it is what will begin your journey to flying under VFR as a safe and proficient pilot.

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