Every pilot owes their safety and security in some part to the predictable actions of their fellow pilots in flight.
If only for reasons of self-preservation, it is entirely reasonable to conduct yourself as expected.
Certainly, the FAA would like to believe your behavior is a reflection of your respect for its authority and wisdom. And that may be the case. But living to fly another day is an exceptional incentive, too.I mention this because all too often we encounter behavior in the air that is counter to what we expect, and that injects a level of risk into our aerial activities that is both unnecessary and unappreciated.
Case in point: While preparing to depart my home field to do some pattern work, I pressed the push-to-talk and announce my impending lift-off and my intention to remain in the pattern.
Another pilot called to say he was overflying the field and would enter a “right teardrop for a left downwind” to that same runway.
I didn’t see the other aircraft, but wasn’t particularly concerned as he would be overhead, above pattern altitude, and would depart the pattern to position himself for a 45° entry to a mid-field downwind. At least that was my assumption based on his radio call.
I was wrong.
With a light breeze almost directly on my nose, my lift-off was fine. While I know the numbers for Vy, I climbed at an airspeed slightly higher than best rate of climb. I don’t use that speed all that often, as I prefer a cruise climb when it’s appropriate for improved visibility over the raised nose of the airplane.
At 300 feet below pattern altitude I turned crosswind, then made a downwind turn when I’d moved a sufficient distance from the runway. This put me at pattern altitude flying parallel, but in the opposite direction of the runway in use.
I do these specific things for a very simple reason: The Aeronautical Information Manual tells me to. Specifically, it says: “If remaining in the traffic pattern, commence turn to crosswind leg beyond the departure end of the runway within 300 feet of pattern altitude.”
As for the definition of the downwind leg, the AIM has this to say: “A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the opposite direction of landing.”
And so it was that while I established myself on the downwind leg of the traffic pattern, things got interesting and considerably less enjoyable.
As I released the push-to-talk after announcing my downwind leg, the airplane that had called just as I began my takeoff roll announced he too was on downwind. That seemed odd. How could he have flown over the airport, left the traffic pattern, descended to pattern altitude, and entered the pattern ahead of me without me seeing him at all?
More curiously, how could he have done all that in the time it took me to climb to pattern altitude?
I called and asked if he had me in sight, thinking he might be behind me. He didn’t. I asked for his altitude and position relative to the airport, since I couldn’t pick him out on the downwind leg ahead of me. He responded that he was at 1,400 feet, descending to 1,000 feet, on the downwind.
Now I was getting worried. I’m flying a high wing airplane at 1,000 feet on downwind. His position report has him above me along the same line of flight, in a low-wing airplane, and he’s descending.
This is not good. My mind ran through a short series of options as I passed mid-field, and then I saw him. He was ahead of me, to my right, beyond the approach end of the runway, and slightly higher than I was. His nose was pointed right at me.
If we’d been landing on Runway 18, my heading would have been approximately 360, give or take a couple degrees for wind correction. That’s the downwind leg of the pattern. His heading was something in the neighborhood of 230°.
“I’ve got you,” I announced on the CTAF. “That’s not the downwind.”
It’s possible my tone of voice revealed my annoyance with the other pilot’s errant position report and remarkably unconventional pattern work.
The other pilot keyed his mike and chuckled in response, “Oh, this isn’t the downwind, huh?”
Then he turned onto a highly modified base leg and continued to land ahead of me.
The other pilot chose to stay in the pattern, so I terminated my flight after landing and watched his performance. His takeoffs were solid, but he turned crosswind at approximately 200 feet, well before reaching the departure end of the runway.
He controlled the airplane well, but he was pioneering a traffic pattern of his own design. That’s not good for any of us.
Downwind is not a state of mind. It’s a position report that indicates a specific location. Like a driver using turn signals to improve safety by communicating his or her intentions to other drivers, the position reports a pilot gives only improve safety if they’re accurate. If they’re not, they actually degrade safety.
This is a clear but unfortunate example of why flight reviews are so critical. Any one of us could fall prey to this same sort of sloppy flying if we let ourselves develop bad habits and continually reinforce them.
We all have lapses of memory and areas of operation we’ve become a little fuzzy about over the years. There is a remedy for that, however.
The AIM is there for any of us to read, anytime. There are CFIs who would be happy to fly with you and help you brush up on your skills and knowledge. That goes for the lowest time sport pilot as well as for the highest time ATP.
The pilot I encountered didn’t do what he’d indicated his intentions were. He wasn’t where he said he was. Worse, he didn’t really seem to care.
But he was flying in the pattern with other traffic. It doesn’t take a genius to see this scenario could easily lead to a very impressive but tragically posthumous ground school lesson in collision avoidance.
I’d prefer to avoid that outcome if at all possible.