Entering the Traffic Pattern

Five steps to the perfect perch position

By David Sutton

When I was a student, I learned the golden rule of standard traffic pattern entries: Always enter the downwind leg on a 45-degree angle and at pattern altitude. 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.

Everyone agrees that this is the way to do it, the question is how? How do you safely position yourself to make that 45-degree entry to the downwind leg at a nontowered airport, take the wind and terrain (airport advisories are not always available and you can only discern so much from a sectional) into account, and get a good look at an unfamiliar airport? Just use your heading indicator (HI), which some pilots call the directional gyro (DG), and think in three dimensions.

The preliminaries

To fly a specific heading, you turn the airplane until the desired heading is under the lubber line at the top of your heading indicator. You'll align it to the magnetic compass before flight (and periodically during flight). When you enter the runway and prepare to take off, the heading indicator should match the magnetic alignment of the runway you're using.

Most HIs also have tick marks every 45 degrees. They are used when intercepting VOR radials, for example. You can also use them to accurately fly 45 degrees away from the desired runway, and then to reverse your course to give a perfect pattern entry every time.

Five easy steps

Fly to a position that gives you a good look at the airport and the windsock. Since both are best seen from above, fly directly over the airport. To safely stay out of the pattern, fly over the airport at an altitude that is at least 1,000 feet above traffic pattern altitude (not field elevation). Since most traffic patterns are between 800 and 1,000 feet above ground level (agl) &mdash don't forget that faster, heavier, or turbine aircraft typically fly the traffic pattern at 1,500 agl &mdash this should put you around 2,000 feet agl or above. Your safety is assured by vertical rather than lateral separation. Remember, think in three dimensions.

While flying over the airport, look at the windsock, determine the wind direction, and select a runway on which to land that corresponds closest with the wind. Because runway numbers correspond to their magnetic directions, you will soon use your HI to set yourself up on a proper entry heading. While overhead, also look for aircraft in the pattern and on the ground ready to launch. (Don't forget to monitor and use the common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF.)

As you pass over the airport, look at your heading indicator. For a left-turning pattern, turn in the shortest direction that will place the selected runway's heading on the first 45-degree tick to the right of the lubber line. This sets you on a course away from the airport directly opposite from the heading on which you will enter the pattern.

Fly this outbound heading until you reach the outside limit of what you would consider to be a normal pattern. Begin a normal descent upon reaching this point; 500 feet per minute (fpm) works well. Maintain your heading away from the airport until you have descended 500 feet (1 minute).

Look at the tick mark at the bottom of your heading indicator to find the reciprocal of your current heading. This is the course you will use to enter the downwind leg. While continuing your descent, turn 180 degrees to the right (into the wind) until this heading is under the lubber line. (Don't forget to scan for traffic at all times.) Level off at pattern altitude. If you have done just right, you'll be on a perfect 45-degree entry to the downwind.

The one important thing to remember with this procedure is to turn into the wind when reversing your course for the pattern entry. Turning with the wind will bring you into the downwind leg closer to the approach end of the runway than you might like. Limit your bank angles to 30 degrees or so. Especially in a high-wing airplane, any steeper bank angle will cause the wing to block your view while turning. Remember, you should be flying with your head up and swiveling, looking for traffic.


Flying 1,000 feet above pattern altitude is sometimes not possible 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 entry. This will keep you from descending into the pattern head on into the traffic flow.

Remember, 500 feet above pattern altitude is a minimum altitude for crossing a traffic pattern &mdash 1,000 feet is preferred. If ceilings are less than 500 feet above the pattern altitude, you'll need to fly outside the pattern perimeter to enter it. Better yet, you should have stayed home or done some hangar flying that day.

If the pattern has right-hand traffic, use the same technique, but use the first 45-degree tick mark to the left of the heading indicator's lubber line. This will fly you over to the right-hand pattern, where the entry is flown the same way. Remember, everything is reversed, so turn left (into the wind) when making your course reversal.


Discuss this technique with your instructor. He (or she) may scratch his head for a while and then realize it is something like the procedure turn used to accurately make course reversals on instrument approaches. The primary difference between the two is the application. It takes a few minutes of thought (preferably on the ground), but it will save you time (and money) each time you enter a traffic pattern. It can be safer and more elegant than any other entry and will show that you are taking your airplane for a ride, not the other way around!