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Round vs square patterns

Ed Cesnalis

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...I'm not here to start an argument on which to use, although I prefer the rounded ...


My personal preference is to keep my patterns tight and square. My main motivation is being compatible with much faster aircraft at uncontrolled fields.


I've never tried a round pattern in the CT because I quickly learned that even slight bank angles kill visibility so I bank more steeply and roll out level sooner so that I can see again. If I flew a bigger round pattern so I could see the runway I would be less able to see faster traffic cutting me off doing strait ins or entering on the base leg or whatever.


Lately there always seems to be a Q400 joining me in the pattern, first I call downwind for the active at 800' AGL and then the Q400 calls downwind for the active but at 5,000' AGL. I can never tell who is first when that happens.


When we fly the Europa the big rounder pattern makes sense, with the mono-gear a stabilized approach means a lot, in the CT not so much.

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I agree with Charlie Tango, a square pattern is in my view the best way. However, most times after making unicom call and then a traffic pattern call and if all seems clear, I personally like to do a straight in approach or entry on base. Flyiing aroung lots of smaller fields do not have a lot of traffic so making calls can expedite getting on the ground.


Enjoy, Dr. Ken Nolde, N840KN 500+ hours and still am hooked!

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However, most times after making unicom call and then a traffic pattern call and if all seems clear, I personally like to do a straight in approach or entry on base.

(italics mine)


A recurring topic, but the key word above is "seems". I'm sure the pattern often seems clear right before the two planes on straight-ins collide, usually the low wing descending onto the high wing, but not always. One may fly straight-ins, as opposed to the recommended pattern, for an entire lifetime without dire consequences, but lots of accidents have happened to pilots that said, "I've never had a problem up to now!"


Flying around lots of smaller fields do not have a lot of traffic so making calls can expedite getting on the ground.


What's the big rush? Really.


<<Enjoy, Dr. Ken Nolde, N840KN 500+ hours and still am hooked!>>


Enjoy, not-a-Dr. Fast Eddie Benson, N467SA 6,600+ hours and still am hooked as well.


(and I virtually NEVER fly a straight-in at a non-towered airport. NEVER.)

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Then count me in the squared (or cornered?) camp.


As soon as you bank, you will usually be blind in one direction or the other while in the bank, depending on high or low wing.


Shallow banks just extend the time of blindness. And at least one pilot here may just be coming straight in, and you don't want to be blind to that!


I think if you look at my videos, I probably use around 40° of bank or so - honk that puppy over and get the turn done. You should not be loading the wings in descending turns, so there should be no appreciable increase in stall speed to worry about.


I also have found thay pilots "nursing" shallow turns are more likely to skid those turns, which can set up a deadly stall/spin if the pilot is distracted.

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When I fly my glider, which has the cockpit ahead of the wings, I fly pretty much a semicircle starting abeam the end of the runway. Flying the CT, I fly more as Roger described, a series of turns starting after abeam the numbers but not at 45°. Kind of like an octagon or even with more sides. My pattern altitude is 800' AGL, more or less. I fly a tight pattern.


The lower plane has right of way on final, but you can't cut another aircraft off just because you're lower. 91.113


As has been said in another thread, the DPE will probably want a standard pattern. Better ask if you intend to fly something different.


I don't agree that a base leg turn should start at the 45° mark. That may be a good reference point, but in a strong wind I'd make the turn early. I don't agree with 90° corners. If you have a 45° crosswind from the downwind side (the notorius set up for a stall-spin), then you had better be crabbed out from the airport on downwind. Turning base, you will turn probably 110-120° to counter the wind which is now off your left rear. Turning final, you will turn about 90=100° or so because you have to crab to the left. This rigid adherence to pictures in a book is not the way to safely fly an airplane.


The question of visibility is brought up. I always see the same out of my CT. Sometimes I am looking more at the ground and sometimes more at the sky. Traffic (including birds, helicopters, gliders, crop dusters, etc.) can come from any direction. I see a dangerous assumption that traffic has to come from a certain place. We have a lot of things to look at in the pattern - the runway, the ground track, flap settings, tachometer, ASI, traffic, weather, wind sock, pitch attitude, VSI - and many distractions. We all devote some time at various stages to looking for traffic, especially traffic in or coming from a quarter that could interfere with us. There is plenty of time to take several looks at traffic on the runway, on climb out and on final without making a career out of it.


40° bank angle in the pattern is OK by me but more than a DPE would want to see. 30° would suit them better.


The documents on traffic patterns discuss different pattern sizes for different aircraft capabilities. Ultralights stay low and tight. Turbines and small jets are suggested to be at 1500' AGL and will of course have a bigger pattern. What seems like a straight-in to an LSA may simply be a 3 mile angled base to a Citation.


Different airplanes act differently in the pattern at an uncontrolled airport. If you fly where I do in the summer, you will see gliders taking off under tow, powered gliders in the pattern who like to fly their own departure procedure, crop dusters who will come in and go out without radio the most direct way including landing or taking off downwind, ultralights with no radio, piston twins that do 120 kias on short final, small jets that do maybe 95 kias on short final if light, twin turboprops that do 120 kias but go into beta immediately on touchdown and clear the runway at the first turnoff, light singles doing flight training in the pattern, tail wheel airplanes doing cross wind practice on a second runway, helicopters enroute to or from the hospital, a couple of L-29 jets doing flight research and probably some more I forgot.


The heavier aircraft that are on commercial operations tend to try to minimize costs. They will not go out of their way to enter a standard pattern if it will extend their flight time. If the ceiling is 1200' and you are doing some pattern work, the IFR traffic will be coming straight in from their approach. They will not do a circle to land in most cases. They are already on a stabilized descent and will not break it off to fly around the pattern.


The FAA has established some standard patterns, but they have not made them have the force of law. The bottom line is that we all need to integrate safely and smoothly into the landing sequence. Many pilots have what are to them good and sufficient reason to use the pattern configuration they do.


Whether we agree with them or not, it seems to me the danger is when one takes the attitude that some process is right and all others are wrong. (The FAA doesn't say that.) With that attitude, we are not flexible, we don't accommodate, we don't adapt. We try to force everyone into a rigid pattern. That leads to people not willing give way to the hospital helicopter, the crop duster, the air ambulance because they aren't flying "the right way".


When I was doing a lot of teaching, I taught the square pattern (modified for the wind). As I flew charter and gliders, I learned there are good reasons to use other patterns sometimes. My contention is we should all just fit in. If we know the capabilities of our aircraft and ourselves and have a general appreciation for what the Q400 or Citation or Cherokee 6 can do, we can merge with very little frustration and no danger.




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Many good points.


Wind always has to be figured in, so of course the degree of turn will often be more or less than 90°.


I think the goal, however, is to have the ground track end up rectangular. I do routinely, however, "play" with the base leg a bit. IOW, if I see I'm a bit high turning base, I can angle slightly away from the runway end to compensate and give me more time to get down. Or if I'm low, I can angle towards the runway a bit so as to not get or stay out of gliding range of the airport.


And the specific airport may call for modifications. When I was based at Blue Ridge Skyport, tall trees on final made an angled final approach much more practical - though I was always looking for pilots that might be flying a "normal" final as well. I'll post a link to a video of that approach in just a while for newbies.


In my Sky Arrow, I'm also way in front of the wing, which is a blessing. But I still try to get the turns out of the way as quickly as possible, and I DO look for traffic that might be flying any possible pattern, because from experience they sometimes do.

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By "round approach" do you mean the "Constant Aspect" method?


This I believe was developed by the RAF pre WW2 and taught by their central flying school - details here http://www.gremline.com/index_files/page0035.htm


I've tried it, but I find that the "standard" circuit pattern, putting me onto a nice straight final and having some time to judge the crosswind etc is less stressful. I think the method was primarily used when RAF fields were literally that - a big grass field in which you just aimed to land into wind!!

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Here's a screen shot from my most recent video:




Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 8.30.39 AM by fasteddieb, on Flickr


This is my "normal" turn to final.


Very hard to tell with the wide-angle distortion, but that looks like maybe 35º to me.


And, as far as angled finals, here's an older video of an approach into Blue Ridge Skyport:



(fast-forward to about 1:00 for the final)


Also shows my routine forward slip to that airport.

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The constant aspect looks similar to what I do in my glider and to some extent in the CT. I only took a cursory look at the link. I'd have to study it some more. I do know the rounded glider pattern came from England.

I went out for an hour and a half today making landings mostly into a crosswind. Most of my patterns were "rounded". I found that most of the time, I could see the end of the runway. It depended on the steepness of the turn and the distance from the runway end. Sometimes the runway end was slightly ahead of the wing (depends on where the wind was) and visible through the side window (I fly from the right seat). A couple of times the runway end was visible in the upper corner of the windshield. Your view will be different if you fly from the left seat. The few times the runway end was blanked by the wing I lifted the wing just a little to see the runway end.

Many of us like to slip to a landing in a crosswind. I know I do. Many of us like to crab to a landing. The FAA somewhat favors the slip, but both are acceptable. That's the way I see this pattern business. The FAA favors a traditional pattern. It has a number of strong points. The rounded pattern also has some advantages and I more or less prefer it. It seems to me this is an area where we can all do what we prefer without danger to others. Granted, we should all be taught and should teach the standard method.

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My landing technique seems to have been getting "sloppy" lately. The "sloppiness" comes from not paying attention to wind direction during pattern work which results in not flying parallel to the runway during the downwind leg and starting the turn to final too early or too late and ending up correcting to get into proper alignment to the runway on final. My normal approach is to use the rounded method and I normally fudge a little here or there to end up where I need to be. A little tighter or less banking here and there, etc. This technique works well but it seems to have the effect of allowing me to pay less attention to what's happening around me regarding other aircraft that might also be in the pattern. Thinking it would be best to get back to basics, I've been attempting to do the textbook rectangle pattern. In doing so, I seem to have more time to observe what's going on around me. When strong winds are prevalent it is also a challenge to keep aligned with the runway on downwind and allows a more stabilized final approach. I still enjoy rounding into an airport to land and will use this technique along with the rectangle.

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I wouldn't put it quite so stridently, but...


...pilots can be pretty strong willed.


Sometimes there seems to be a drive to do things differently, just for the sake of individuality, or something.


The airlines are much, much safer than GA. One reason is standardization. Professional pilots adhere to regulations and procedures - they don't just "roll their own".


"Yeah, I know that the FAA recommends a certain kind of traffic pattern, but since it's not the law, I'll do it my own way. No one can tell me I can't just fly straight in, or big round patterns, or whatever the hell I want. So there!"


We may each have individual preferences, but please have a VERY good reason before making stuff up on your own.



Preach mode> OFF.

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I started this discussion by suggesting that there are more ways to fly a pattern than the FAA suggested square version. I offered a number of real world examples of why one is likely to see airplanes doing just that. It seems everyone has expressed their opinion fully. There is nothing to be gained by repeating previous points. I'll conclude by recommending everyone to assume that there is someone out there flying a straight in approach with no radio. They are fully legal. The basic requirement of all of us is to see and avoid. The FARs give some guidance on who has right of way. I'll leave it at that.

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The important thing to remember is that every time you roll into a 90 degree turn in the pattern and loose sight of the runway that it will always still be there when you level out. It takes weeks to remove a runway and only seconds to do the 90 degree turn, you can trust me on this, I repeat it will still be there.


If you are mathematically challenged like me, use your heading bug. Set it on downwind or earlier so you know just where to level out on the base leg.


No more than 30 degrees of bank in the pattern seems off to me in my CT. I do keep my ball centered and I do not use any back-pressure and I am trimmed for 55kts. The quick/steep(ish) turns allow me to see all those individualist flying less of the pattern then me. If I was doing lazy turns my outside wing would block these guys for extended periods of time.


The other advantage is that the steeper/tighter turns allow a tighter pattern. The tight pattern allows you to fly with much faster aircraft.


Many have voted for round patterns but I still don't see the motivation. If carrier landings is your reason, please invite me I'd like to try.

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Sometimes there is a reason other than air safety for not flying, for example, straight in approaches or other patterns that are legal. That reason may be the non aviators living around the airport who don't like our "noisy, dangerous little rich kid toys" flying near their homes. Like it or not we would be wise not to anger them doing something just because we can.


I am sure none of us are guilty of such things but we have all seen it. Although I love watching a 200K low pass down the runway with a sharp pull up, it scares the hell out of many of our non aviator neighbors. Then we wonder why they want to close the airport, exercise curfews, etc, etc.

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Sometimes there is a reason other than air safety for not flying, for example, straight in approaches or other patterns that are legal. That reason may be the non aviators living around the airport who don't like our "noisy, dangerous little rich kid toys" flying near their homes. Like it or not we would be wise not to anger them doing something just because we can.


I am sure none of us are guilty of such things but we have all seen it. Although I love watching a 200K low pass down the runway with a sharp pull up, it scares the hell out of many of our non aviator neighbors. Then we wonder why they want to close the airport, exercise curfews, etc, etc.


I'm trying to envision this. I almost always have my power back on descent and landing. I'm not making very much noise at all, even when I flew jets. The turboprops were probably the loudest and they weren't bad. Straight in or tight pattern, neither is very noisy on a normal approach.


The overhead break is usually done pretty quickly and at altitude above the normal pattern. I grant that when you fly a formation of T6s or even Stearmans doing this it can be noisy. For most overhead break patterns I don't see it as all that noise intrusive.

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The point is simple. The FAA calls for square patterns. Its not about LAW, its about safety. If you decide to deviate then YOU are putting others at risk. In a unicom uncontrolled airport it is RUDE to fly straight in, not just unsafe. Sure there are no laws governing this, its about getting all air traffic to behave in a structured, organized, expected and safe way. If you want to deviate dont presume you are doing it because you CAN, presume you are doing it because you are lazy and dont care about others or yourself in regard to safety.


Do you have any experience flying bigger twin engine airplane?


Let's suppose you are on an IFR flight plan and the ceiling is 1100' AGL. You are on top of the overcast and decide to fly a classic GPS T approach to a non towered airport. You are legal but fairly heavy. Oh, you are a medical ambulance carrying a patient back to the VA hospital from a distant specialty clinic. The patient is doing well as far as you know, but that is not your concern - your concern is flying the airplane. You fly the approach and break out on final about 4 miles from the end of the runway. You're doing 120 knots until the field is made because that is blue line, so you're gong to cover that 4 nm in 2 minutes while you continue your 500 fpm descent rate.


At about the time you are between 10 and 5 nm out, ATC turns you over to CTAF and tells you to notify them when you cancel your clearance or are on the ground. You switch radios to CTAF and listen for a few seconds so you don't step on someone, then announce you are, say, 7 miles out landing straight in. You're still solid IMC.


At the same day, someone who has been trying to get some pattern work in finally found a day it would work. Ceiling was tight but legal, and they were just going to stay in the pattern. Not much other traffic up, anyway. This person is on crosswind when the twin starts the final let down at (normally) 5 nm out and calls in. The trainer knows the twin intends to land straight in, and thinks that if they could get around the pattern quickly, they could beat the twin to final and not destroy their rhythm, so the trainer turns and calls downwind. The twin is alert, but expects he can safely get in before the trainer, which can slow down, extend or otherwise adjust so there is no conflict.


So far, this is real world. I've been in the twin and been in the trainer. At the airport I fly at, pilots would make it work out. No one would insist on their presumed privileges to make it unnecessarily hard on the other. In this case, the trainer would extend and let the twin in.


On another day, it's bright and sunny, with a nice breeze right down the runway. It's football day at the U and the traffic is just starting to pick up. We have a Citation on short final, an Apache on downwind, a Bonanza 10 miles out and a King Air 5 miles back of him. Hmmm. Starting to get a little congested, but not bad. Now, we hear a call from a C182 five miles out right on line with the runway. The King Air is already worried about overtaking the Apache, and they will end up on downwind together. We can force the C182 to circle around so he is entering a 45 on downwind at the same time as the other two, or we can let him fly straight in behind the Apache and ahead of the Bo.


Finally, we are flying our Cherokee back from the lake. We're 8 miles out on base and call in. We hear another airplane calling 10 miles out on what would be an extended downwind. If we maintain our speed and rate of descent, we can land and clear the runway with no problem. If we deviate so as to enter a 45 deg downwind half way down the runway, the other plane will probably get there first and we'll have to maneuver to give him time. Oh, and the girl friend, even though we warned her, first date and all that, is starting to squirm in the seat and saying, "boy,l really need to get to the bathroom when we land." "Hmmm - how bad?" we ask, kind of uncomfortable. 'Pretty bad", she says,squirming some more and obviously embarrassed. Do we continue in on base or do we let the girl wet her pants in the airplane while we got maneuver to get behind the other one?


Those who say there is never a reason to fly other than an FAA recommended pattern have not been flying very long or in very many different circumstances. There are plenty of reasons, some better than others.


The main thing is that no matter what your beliefs and feelings, no matter how strong your feelings, one has to decide that one will act professionally even if they think the other pilot is not.


Many of the answers reflect a pilot's experience with one or one type of airplane. Every airplane has blind spots, but the blind spot for the pilot in the F15 is different than the CT is different than the Stearman is different than the AirCam is different than the Breezy. Don't assume that because you would not like to do something in one plane that someone in another plane wouldn't find it perfectly comfortable. Your wing down blocks you, my wing down is not a deal to me. So, if you don't like a patter don't do it but don't presume that some else won't.


The idea that a standard pattern promotes safety to the extent that it is paramount does not stand the test of logic. We all know that you don't go out and do air work over a VOR, right? Why? Because people practicing a VOR approach always congregate over VORs. Duh! Everyone joining a downwind at a 45 deg angle mid way down the runway creates another hot spot for traffic.


One main benefit of a pattern is that it gives the pilot cues to use in the approach and landing. You turn here, you reduce power there, you set flaps at this point, you crab according to the wind at such a place and so forth. It makes teaching landings much easier. Remember how out of touch you felt and uncomfortable the first time you flew into a towered airport and were directed to fly right base or straight in? All your reference points were moved. We start with ground reference maneuvers and go on to patterns. Easy. Saying that because there is a profile to the pattern does not make it safe. What we are seeking is not a profile but separation. When tower brings you in they don't care where you are, they care about how far you are from other airplanes. I'm sure you've all been in the position of tower saying, "Your traffic is a King Air on final. Do you see the traffic?" You reply you do. "Follow the King Air, you're number 2, cleared to land". Separation is what they are after. You could be on right base at the time.


The conflict in this thread seems to me to be:

1. There is an FAA recommended pattern which should be taught and must be followed except in emergency and anyone in the pattern has every right to refuse to cooperate with those who won't adhere.


2. There is an FAA recommended but not required pattern which is useful but not all pilots will always follow it so everyone should take that into consideration.


I'm firmly in the number two camp.

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Great post Jim.


The original conflict in this thread is about how to turn when you do fly the pattern.


The point that you so eloquently addressed is when to fly the pattern and where to enter and how to maintain separation.


I maintain that we really should do square turns that maximize our visibility and make us predictable. I also agree with you that common sense should prevail and your pattern entry as well as extending downwind should be done to provide separation as opposed to always entering on a 45.


I'm not sold on round patterns so that I can always see the runway because of visibility as well as meandering all over the place.

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Those who say there is never a reason to fly other than an FAA recommended pattern have not been flying very long or in very many different circumstances.


One should never, ever, use absolutes! :P


I nearly always qualify (see what I just did there?), as in, "I virtually always overfly the airport and then fly a standard pattern".


Thinking back on my 40 leg+ round trip to Page, I can recall twice when I didn't do a full pattern to a non-towered airport...


First, I believe our flight into Monument Valley did go in without a full pattern, though I don't recall the details of the arrival.


Second, on the way home I was coming into North Little Rock from the southwest. I had to pee so bad my eyeballs were floating, and a dry arrival was by no means a sure thing. In that case I flew a modified left base to the runway and landed. Whew!!!


Then again, flying into Bryce Canyon I think some in the flight did without a pattern, while I did overfly and fly a standard pattern, and I think someone followed my example.


There's a huge difference between forgoing a full pattern on rare occasion for good cause, and saying, "...most times after making unicom call and then a traffic pattern call and if all seems clear, I personally like to do a straight in approach or entry on base.", which was from earlier in this thread.

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I've landed at numerous airports where the windsock differed by as much as 180 degrees from forecast winds or even from one end of a runway to the opposite end. To me this is reason enough to do an overfly first; especially if your not a routine user of that particular airport. Safety first!

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Jim,My post has to do with only one thing. Don't irritate the surrounding populace if you can help it. A straight in approach over a town may not be noisy but some airports are posted against it because of those that do not like us.


All I am saying is consider all the potential results of our actions before we do them. I am not criticizing straight in approaches, overhead breaks, etc, etc. I love them all and more. But, it's about more than just those of us in the cockpit.


Our airport, for example, received strong support from the local populace when the FAA tried to take away our residential through the fence rights. I would like to think that is, at least partly, because we are good neighbors.

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