Chapter 10 — Airport Traffic Patterns
Standard Airport Traffic Patterns
The regulations require powered parachutes avoid the
flow of fixed-wing aircraft. This rule should be the
primary factor in deciding whether a standard airport
traffic pattern is appropriate for your operation.
To assure that air traffic flows into and out of an airport
in an orderly manner, an airport traffic pattern
is established appropriate to the local conditions, including
the direction and placement of the pattern, the
altitude to be flown, and the procedures for entering
and leaving the pattern. Unless the airport displays
approved visual markings indicating that turns should
be made to the right, you should make all turns in
the pattern to the left. Again, the airport may have
established a different pattern and altitude for LSA
operations; be sure to talk with the airport manager
and check the A/FD before heading to the airport.
When operating at an airport with an operating control
tower, you will receive by radio a clearance to
approach or depart, as well as pertinent information about the traffic pattern. If there is not a control tower,
it is your responsibility to determine the direction
of the traffic pattern, to comply with the appropriate
traffic rules, and to display common courtesy toward
other pilots operating in the area. The common traffic
advisory frequency (CTAF) is a good place to listen
for traffic at the airport. It is also important to listen
to the automatic terminal information service (ATIS)
if one is provided.
You are not expected to have extensive knowledge of
all traffic patterns at all airports, but if you are familiar
with the basic rectangular pattern, it will be easy
to make proper approaches and departures from most
airports, regardless of whether they have control towers.
Check the Airport/Facility Directory for airport
and traffic pattern information.
At airports with operating control towers, the tower
operator may instruct you to enter the traffic pattern
at any point or to make a straight-in approach without
flying the usual rectangular pattern. Many other
deviations are possible if the tower operator and the
pilot work together in an effort to keep traffic moving smoothly. Jets or heavy aircraft will frequently be flying
wider and/or higher patterns than lighter aircraft,
and in many cases will make a straight-in approach
The standard general aviation (GA) rectangular traffic
pattern is illustrated in Figure 10-1. Traffic pattern
altitude can vary by airport and should be checked in
the Airport/Facility Directory. The GA pattern altitude
is typically 800 – 1,000 feet. The PPC should NOT be
flown at the GA pattern altitude. In an effort to avoid
airplanes, the PPC pattern altitude should be one-half
the GA pattern altitude. Even after the airplane has
slowed to traffic pattern speed, it is still 2 to 3 times
the PPC speed.
When entering the traffic pattern at an airport without
an operating control tower, inbound pilots are expected
to observe other aircraft already in the pattern
and to conform to the traffic pattern in use. If other
aircraft are not in the pattern, then traffic indicators
on the ground and wind indicators must be checked to
determine which runway and traffic pattern direction
should be used. Many airports have L-shaped traffic pattern indicators displayed with a segmented circle
adjacent to the runway. [Figure 10-5] The short member
of the L shows the direction in which the traffic
pattern turns should be made when using the runway
parallel to the long member. Check these indicators
while at a distance well away from any pattern that
might be in use, or while at a safe height well above
airport pattern altitudes. Once the proper traffic pattern
direction has been determined, you should then
proceed to a point well clear of the pattern before descending
to the pattern altitude.
When approaching an airport for landing, the traffic
pattern should be entered at a 45° angle to the downwind
leg, headed toward a point abeam of the midpoint
of the runway to be used for landing. Arriving
aircraft should be at the proper traffic pattern altitude
before entering the pattern, and should stay clear of
the traffic flow until established on the entry leg. Entries
into traffic patterns while descending create specific
collision hazards and should always be avoided.
The entry leg should be of sufficient length to provide
a clear view of the entire traffic pattern, and to allow
you adequate time for planning the intended path in
the pattern and the landing approach.
The downwind leg is a course flown parallel to the
landing runway, but in a direction opposite to the intended
landing direction. This leg should be at onehalf
the specified traffic pattern altitude to alleviate
conflicts with faster aircraft. During this leg, the before
landing check should be completed. Maintain
pattern altitude until abeam the approach end of the
landing runway. At this point, reduce power and begin
a descent. The downwind leg continues past a point
abeam the approach end of the runway to a point approximately
45° from the approach end of the runway,
and a medium bank turn is made onto the base leg.
The base leg is the transitional part of the traffic pattern
between the downwind leg and the final approach leg.
Depending on the wind condition, it is established at a
sufficient distance from the approach end of the landing
runway to permit a gradual descent to the intended
touchdown point. The ground track of the powered
parachute while on the base leg should be perpendicular
to the extended centerline of the landing runway, although the longitudinal axis of the powered parachute
may not be aligned with the ground track when
it is necessary to turn into the wind to counteract drift.
While on the base leg, the pilot must ensure, before
turning onto the final approach, that there is no danger
of colliding with another aircraft that may already be
on the final approach.
The final approach leg is a descending flightpath starting
from the completion of the base-to-final turn and
extending to the point of touchdown. This is probably
the most important leg of the entire pattern, because
here the pilot’s judgment and procedures must
be the sharpest to accurately control the airspeed and
descent angle while approaching the intended touchdown
As stipulated in 14 CFR part 91, section 91.113, aircraft
while on final approach to land or while landing
have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or
operating on the surface. When two or more aircraft
are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing,
the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way.
Pilots should not take advantage of this rule to cut in
front of another aircraft that is on final approach to
land, or to overtake that aircraft.
The upwind leg is a course flown parallel and in the
same direction to the landing runway. The upwind leg continues past a point abeam the departure end of the
runway where a medium bank 90° turn is made onto
the crosswind leg.
The upwind leg is also the transitional part of the traffic
pattern: the final approach, when a go-around is
initiated, and where climb attitude is established after
lift-off. When a safe altitude is attained, the pilot
should commence a shallow bank turn to the crosswind
leg of the airport. The go-around is flown much
as you would overtake an aircraft by passing the overtaken
aircraft on their right. This will allow better visibility
of the runway for departing aircraft.
The departure leg of the rectangular pattern is a
straight course aligned with, and leading from, the
takeoff runway. This leg begins at the point the powered
parachute leaves the ground and continues until
the 90° turn onto the crosswind leg is started.
On the departure leg after takeoff, continue climbing
straight ahead, and, if remaining in the traffic pattern,
commence a turn to the crosswind leg. The published
airport traffic pattern may describe the turn to crosswind
by altitude or ground reference. Begin the turn
to crosswind after a positive rate of climb has been
established and sufficient altitude has been gained to
allow clearance from ground obstructions.
If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out
or exit with a 45° turn, to enter the upwind leg after a
positive rate of climb has been established and sufficient
altitude has been gained to allow clearance from
ground obstructions. Exit the upwind leg straight out.
Turning into the upwind leg allows the PPC to exit the
pattern and avoid airplanes in the traffic pattern. Care
should be taken not to turn into the path of an aircraft
in the upwind leg.
If parallel operations are in place (i.e., airplanes on
the hard surface, powered parachutes on the grass), fly
a pattern that stays within the pattern of the airplane
traffic and does not cross the airplanes’ active runway.
In all cases, the powered parachute should not make
any turns until the pilot is certain it will not obstruct
any aircraft operating in either pattern.
The crosswind leg is the part of the rectangular pattern
that is horizontally perpendicular to the extended centerline
of the takeoff runway and is entered by making
approximately a 90° turn from the upwind leg. On the
crosswind leg, the powered parachute proceeds to the
downwind leg position.
Since takeoffs are usually made into the wind, the
wind will now be approximately perpendicular to
the powered parachute’s flightpath. As a result, the
powered parachute will have to be turned or headed
slightly into the wind while on the crosswind leg to
maintain a ground track that is perpendicular to the
runway centerline extension.