Confusion in the Pattern

Lately there have been some “lively” discussions regarding the lack of general aviation airmanship, on pilot blogs and local hangar flying sessions, but also from the FAA. The recent Nall Report on aviation safety does not paint a pretty picture with respect to accident statistics and clearly indicates that GA safety has a long way to go. 

One airmanship issue I see has to do with a lack of positional awareness and accurate reporting of one’s location while inbound to a non-towered airport. Inaccurate reporting of your position can cause unnecessary traffic conflicts, and potential mid-air collisions. Statistically, most “mid-airs” are in, or near, the traffic pattern of uncontrolled airports on nice, clear VFR days. Usually when the weekend flyers are out in force.

Unfortunately, it’s not just a non-towered field problem. Often I hear pilots call up the tower or enter the downwind at my home field from precisely the opposite direction of their reported position. This tends to frustrate the controllers, who find themselves looking out the wrong window to spot and sequence traffic. My home airport does not have a D-Brite radar feed, making it strictly a “VFR tower”. Their aircraft spacing and sequencing technology consists of a two-way VHF radio, a set of eyeballs, and binoculars. Just like during the 1940’s.

The conversation between the tower and the errant aircraft usually goes something like this:

TOWER: “umm, Cessna 1234, you said you were 5 miles west for the right downwind for RWY 13. Not in sight. Say position.”

CESSNA 1234: “We are just over the lake. We are joining the downwind now.”

TOWER: “Cessna 1234, this airport is SURROUNDED by lakes. Not in sight, continue.”

TOWER, (now just a bit testy): “Cessna 1234, still not in sight…oh wait…Cessna 1234, I have you on the LEFT downwind for RWY 13, ahead of the Grumman that you just cut off. You appear to have come in from the East. Cessna 1234, you are now number two behind a Cherokee, cleared to land. Grumman, extend your downwind for the Cessna.”

CESSNA 1234: “Uh, OK.”

At least this pilot bothered talking to the tower. I recently witnessed a transient Beech Bonanza pilot blast into the Airport Traffic Area and land without ever contacting the tower to get a Class D clearance. (A Bonanza pilot should know better.) It was a fairly busy day, and ATC was forced to clear the final approach to accommodate the clueless pilot’s unannounced approach.

Once on the ground, the pilot was contacted on UNICOM and given a phone number to call the tower from the FBO. After a thorough tongue-lashing (but apparently no violation) from the tower supe, the pilot’s indignant excuse was that “the last time he flew into Leesburg, there wasn’t a tower.” This excuse fell on deaf ears because Leesburg has had an operating control tower for about 5 years now. Sometimes it is better to act contrite and commit to doing a better job planning your flights in the future.

Maybe we are not emphasizing preflight planning, positional awareness or spatial visualization enough during the FAA training/testing process. You would think with all the cheap, portable GPS moving-map units on the market, it would not be an issue. Or, maybe GPS is causing our navigational skills to atrophy. It’s not like we are asking pilots to mentally calculate a Relative Bearing to a station using an ADF anymore; just be able to read a chart, electronic or otherwise. Here’s a hint: When inbound to a field, look at the BOTTOM of your DG to report your position FROM the airport.

(from google images)


No, you are not required to have a radio to operate at non-towered airports, and I have no issue with that. There are lots of fine aircraft out there flying without the benefit of an electrical system, and those pilots are experts at blending into traffic. But if you do have a radio, please use it correctly. The next time you find yourself approaching an airport and are about to report your position on the CTAF or tower frequency, stop and think a moment before you transmit. All aircraft are all responsible for “see and avoid” when in VFR flight conditions, but it would be really helpful if the rest of us if knew where to look for you.

Sorry if this sounds like a lecture; no one is perfect. Who hasn’t dialed in a wrong radio frequency, or transposed a squawk code? But safety is everyone’s concern, and a few of you are making the rest of us look not-so-good in the sensational media.  And the FAA has noticed. The important thing is to identify your mistakes and correct them quickly.


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