The Great Debate: are straight-in approaches OK?

Standard airport traffic pattern

Is this the law, or just a suggestion?

The vast majority of airports in the United States (some 20,000) have no control tower, a fact that shocks many non-pilots. But the traffic pattern at these airports usually operates quite smoothly, with pilots flying prescribed routes and announcing their positions on CTAF.

But do you have to fly the classic four leg pattern? Surprisingly, the regulations do not offer a clear cut answer. FAR 91.113 offers a few words about right-of-way rules in the pattern; FAR 91.126 tells us to make left-hand turns unless otherwise noted; and FAR 91.127 doesn’t have much to say other than read 91.126. The Aeronautical Information Manual, while not necessarily the law, offers more detail in section 4-3. But still, a pilot is left with suggestions more than a commandment that “thou shalt always enter the pattern on downwind.”

So what if you are approaching the runway head-on? Should you fly the standard pattern, entering on a 45 degree leg, then flying downwind, base and final? Many pilots say no, and will fly a straight-in approach and land. Their theory is that it’s both easier and safer, since the straight-in gets you on the ground faster and eliminates potential traffic conflicts entering the pattern. Other pilots disagree, arguing that the system only works if everyone plays by the same rules.

What do you say? Is it ever acceptable to fly a straight-in approach at a non-towered airport? Why or why not? Add your comments below.

70 Comments

  1. Hesham Oubari says:

    Is it acceptable to fly a straight-in approach at a non-towered airport. Only in emergencies. The key to safety in a non-towered environment is predictability. That’s why we have the pattern. I was doing touch and goes once at a local airfield, calling out my positions (downwind, base, final), when a Commander 112 shot out from under me and landed right in front of me. I suspect he was doing an illegal operation, as he met someone on the tarmac and was airborne before I could get back around. All of this without a peep on the radio. Had he been less observant and I had been quicker on the descent, both of us would have been statistics.

    • Nate D'Anna says:

      I have three words regarding this topic: USE YOUR HEAD.

      An uncontrolled field that has little to no traffic on a regular basis should pose no problem with straight ins or other non standard approaches provided you announce your intentions and relay continual position reports. Here in the Southwest, there are many uncontrolled airports that have little to no traffic on a regular basis and therefore pose no problem in not flying the standard pattern.

      However, those same airports may host a fly in or event which changes the scenario from sleepy to busy. Under a busy atmosphere, I believe the standard pattern should be adheared to at all times in addition to announcing your position in an effort to maintain a safe and smooth flow of traffic.

      There are those who would argue that a non standard approach creates a problem for the pilot who does not have a radio in his airplane and those opearting in the same airspace that he does. Come now folks. I can’t believe in this day and age that any pilot would not fly with at least a handheld radio. They are economical enough to where everyone can afford one and are very reliable. As a result and quite frankly, I would question a pilot’s common sense if he or she flys without one for obvious reasons.

      So again, the answer to the question is USE YOUR HEAD.

      Tune in the published radio frequency of the airport and determine which course of action to take dependent upon the level of activity you hear on the frequency. By listening and looking for the number of airplanes you see approaching and departing, your good judgement should dictate whether or not a non standard approach would be acceptable.

      • Larry C says:

        Tell ya what Nate, I totally agree with what you’ve stated. Being in aviation, and living to a “ripe old age” REQUIRES one to USE YOUR HEAD!!! PERIOD!!! I think that the scenarios you have cited are right on. No one in their right mind would fly with out a radio, and since you have a radio, use it as per Reg’s.

      • EMW says:

        Many people in their right minds fly NORDO. Having no radio certainly limits where one flies, but it is not crazy.

        Straight-in? Fine, but be careful.

      • Roger Rowlett says:

        Good advice. At my home drome (KVGC) there is light traffic and entering the pattern when a straight-in in possible just wastes fuel and spends more time in the pattern. Don’t try this at a busy GA airport like KGAI or you may wind up bending metal. Be smart, use the radio, and keep you eyes open.

      • Alan says:

        Guess what, I fly out of an airport with lots of Piper Cubs, and a big old Stearman or two…whats the name of it…Oh yeah…PIPER MEMORIAL AIRPORT LHV. Some of them don’t have handhelds, many of them have handhelds, but don’t use them. Yeah, I would like to smack them upside the head for not using the radio and announcing at times, but flying open air or with the noise hole open and no headset on a calm evening is…well I am guessing that many of you already understand and the rest either have not had the opportunity or never will understand. Besides, when I ran on a handheld, my radio ate batteries breakfast, by lunch when I was returning to the airport I often had no radio.

        Point is, though I use my radio, announce and listen, not everyone does, so while you are chastising them for not using a radio, how about taking your own advice and using your head. Do your part, fall in line and fly a predictable approach. If they are not going to fly safe, at least you can. Heck, even the glider that dropped in last week flew a pattern.

    • Dennis Oparowski says:

      Hesham and others,
      The key to safety at a non-towered airfield is not that straight in approach are used, it’s the fact that some pilots refuse to use the radio. Predictability is not what I look for while flying, that invites complacency. Who are you…, where are you…, and what do you want to do… Oh… traffic in the pattern…. Cancel the straight in and join the pattern.

  2. Ed McNames says:

    Straight in approaches are fine, and if flying the pattern you should check that final is clear before turning from the base leg. Whatever I do in the pattern, I be sure it is not interfering with other traffic. I will break off my straight in approach if it’s obvious it isn’t going to work. As a CFI, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been cut off. Nothing is more annoying or dangerous than someone entering the pattern where they shouldn’t – if there is traffic present.

  3. Jonathan Trunz says:

    Absolutely ok for straigh-ins. Hesham quoted one instance that where he was cut off by a straight in WITH NO RADIO CALLS. That is just as bad had they flown the pattern with no radio. Two different problems. I fully support straight-in approaches and even direct to base approaches, assuming of course, proper radio use. These days there is almost no excuse for not broadcasting and listening on the CTAF.

  4. Mark Evans says:

    NO, safety at an uncontrolled airport is about doing what is expected by other traffic. Not everyone has a radio even in this day and age, lots of different speeds of aircraft.
    It is my experience that those that use a straight in a lot tend to be arrogant pricks that think that they are the only ones that use the airport and tend to complain about other users that are slower and/or lighter. To boot, it is safer for you even if there is no other traffic as it gives a chance to spot wildlife on the runway or other hazards.

    • Ron says:

      Mark.. You’re the one that sounds a bit arrogant here.. In aviation, there is NEVER a one size fits all policy.. At my home airport, CHN, we might average no more than 2 or 3 movements per day during the week.. On weekends, its a bit busier because we drop the price of fuel, but still, its not very busy.. Do I fly straight in approaches, or base leg entries? You bet I do.. And there’s nothing wrong with it.. At busier uncontrolled fields, I wouldn’t even consider it.. But at my home airport, its just a waste of time and gas to do a crosswind or downwind entry. The correct answer here is, ‘It Depends.” On weather, familiarity with the airport, and traffic concerns.

      • Mark Evans says:

        Ron, you seem to have some trouble parsing sentences so I added some caps to help.

        IT IS MY EXPERIENCE that those that use a straight in A LOT, TEND to be arrogant pricks that think that they are the only ones that use the airport and TEND to complain about other users that are slower and/or lighter. To BOOT, it is SAFER for you even if there is no other traffic as it gives a chance to spot wildlife on the runway or other hazards.
        That said, I did forget about a good reason to use a straight in, the practice IFR approach. But even then if you find 2 or three others using the airport good sense would dictate joining the pastern.

        • Larryo says:

          Mark,

          I think Ron has it fine, and you need to re think your attitude. Pricks is a pretty strong word.

          And the guy with the straight in spends a LOT less time in the pattern, reducing the risk. I have no problem slowing or speeding up for someone on a straight in. I just like to know they are out there.

        • Steve says:

          Mark
          I don’t know you but personally I always am leery of those with absolute advice. If you use the words, must, always, never then I immediately wonder about your attitude. Do the words immediately and always raise your hackles?

          My home airport is in the west sits at 5000 feet in a wide valley surrounded by mtns to the north, west, and south. To the west and south there is about 5 miles or more before you hit higher terrain and to the east no mtns. To the north you quickly hit the restricted areas and there is an MOA even closer. Landing can be interesting on a busy weekend. That airport has two sky diving schools with designated area for both schools off the north side of 29. Fly a standard left 45 entry to 11 is good but a close pattern is not advised. Parachutists come in all skill levels and I have seen chutes well out of the area you’d expect. This is the mountain with significant changes in winds a part of life. Add to the mix radio controlled planes operating off the southwest corner of 29, a few military apaches or other helicopters, the occasional forest service fire fighter in their planes and it can be very busy. Some days it’s boring and no traffic. That would seem to be the perfect setup for oh yeah I always fly a 45. Coming in from the west you will need to divert to the south to make that entry since chutes, MOAs, mtns and restricted areas will make any other entry very difficult. The problem with that is that the fire fighters are working a TFR just south east on the ridge line with an active fire so the entry is a tad tighter than normal. The two jump planes are in the air with one 2 minutes from jumpers away and the other is about 5 away. You are 5 out and one of the forest service planes calls 10 out. Choppers close to touch down. In this case the easy way to see all the known traffic is a straight in approach to 29. If not, then I’d make a left hand turn and hold about 10 out and let the other planes make their landing. Is that necessary? Maybe not fires are bad here so the fire guys get all the help I can give and I stay out of their way and they always have the right of way from me. Same for the jump planes, these guys are working and unless I am busy that get some courtesy. Remember that nearly all traffic will be approaching form relatively close in and on that day a 45 entry will put you in the middle of several converging aircraft in a relatively small area. Straight in looks best with very clear precise distance calls. I prefer 4.8 east straight in 29 and call who I am looking for. Most of us use a GPS and that tells the other planes it’s not a 5 out call than means its 3 or 4 or 6 out. As someone else said “think” and would I use this approach if I didn’t know the airport? No. BTW those jump planes and fire fighters may fly or may not fly standard 45 entries.

          • Mark Evans says:

            Steve,
            you make good points, there are always exceptions to the rule, I mentioned one, a IFR approach, you mentioned several others, and let me mention one more, an emergency trumps in all cases.

            The people I am talking about though think that THEY are the exception to the rule and will use a straight in all or most of the time to save 2 minutes and to bully there way through an otherwise cooperative pastern of two or three other aircraft.

            Thank you for your well reasoned response, I get the impression that some of the others that have replied are the people I am talking about…..

  5. Fortson Rumble says:

    Wow “pricks” thats pretty strong. I believe that if you are using your radio and looking than a straight in is fine. My experience is that the people that get all bent out of shape about straight in approaches DON’T talk on the radio, or often LISTEN.

  6. Neil Wright says:

    When I fly into a non-towered airport I usually overfly the airport and subsequently enter the traffic pattern on the downwind. I suppose a straight-in approach is a viable option, but as a student pilot years ago I was trained to always overfly 1000 ft. above the TPA before entering the pattern and fly the pattern for “predictability’s sake.”. 13 years later I still think that method works best for me, personally. Several years ago, however, I was on base for landing a local non-towered airport. Just as I turned to final, some yahoo cut me off, nearly T-boning my Cherokee. He was on the wrong CTAF, so he didn’t hear my self-announcements, and obviously wasn’t checking the pattern for any traffic–both my taxi and landing lights were on, as well as my beacon and strobe. He was doing a straight-in approach, to boot. A few minutes later I met with him on the ramp and expressed myself in no uncertain terms. Still, I do believe it’s up to the pilot’s discretion if there are no hard fast rules for approaches to non-towered airports.

    • Bob Shlafer says:

      Bob’s Way – VMC/VFR — “overfly” at least 500′ above pattern altitude and make the 45 degree entry to downwind.

  7. Guido says:

    Why not? If done with radio calls and eyes open for the rare NORDO, or worse, the self centered local that thinks he doesn’t need to say what he’s doing, it’s as safe as any other. The worse pattern is the infamous “45″ entry. I’ve seen every point in the sky called 45° at my field so it doesn’t really tell anybody anything – just that somebody is there, so better than nothing, I guess.
    I always listen to traffic and call straight-in if only one other in the pattern and qualify my straight in as “traffic permitting”….if it conflicts with traffic I run out and around in a traditional pattern – no big deal.

  8. Rich says:

    How I enter the pattern depends on a lot of factors. Is it a busy airport or a deserted one. Is there a lot of pattern work going on or none. Do I hear other aircraft in the pattern or is the CTAF silent. Is it night where I can easily see others lights, or are visibility conditions ripe for invisibility.

    Act and think like a tower controller does. They will sequence people in and out of the pattern for most safety and efficiency.

  9. Dave says:

    I initiate my call about 10 miles out stating where I am and what runway I intend to use. Repeat the same call at 5 miles. If I’m lined up for a straight in I state that as my intention and report it at 3 miles. Then once again on final.

    The key (as already stated) is communication. If anyone else is in the pattern I sequence BEHIND them, which could mean I abort the straight in for another standard entry. Most of the time I’m the only aircraft entering or in the pattern.

    • Bob says:

      Best response I’ve read, here. This pretty well covers it in my opinion.

    • SamB says:

      Ditto!

    • tom bonaz says:

      As a non-pilot, my friend is the pilot in training, I have said to him that these type landing (airports) require so much attention…they are a disaster if highest regards aren,t followed. Too many openings for a disaster. How about nitetime landings…probabaly emergency only. You all have balls of steel but intelligence rules!

  10. Steve Phoenix says:

    Nothing wrong with a straight in if there’s no conflicting traffic in the pattern. There are not many, nowdays, out there without radios; even the Cubs have a handheld. Where it gets somewhat hazardous is when there is other traffic in the pattern. A student on downwind may not realize that the Cirrus calling in on a 3 mile final can cover that distance pretty fast and turn base without establishing visual contact. I don’t think the mid-air statistics will support the “always enter on a 45 degree to the left downwind” holdover from the ’30s. Basically, if everyone will listen, make accurate position reports and visually verify the reported traffic, almost anything should work, in theory.

  11. liam davis says:

    in Australia (where i fly) it is illegial at most airports to do a straight in approach unless it an emergency, which is interesting at times where i fly out of, we have to make a call with our intentions, direction from airport, distance from airport, and current height, we have to fly at-least 1,000 ft over the airport (on crosswind of course) and then can join on any leg apart from final

    • Shannon says:

      It is perfectly legal to fly straight-in approaches in Australia.

      However, at non-towered aerodromes they are “not a recommended standard procedure” (AIP ENR 1.1 48.6). CAR 166B says pilots conducting straight in approaches should only do so when it doesn’t interrupt the flow of traffic. It requires pilots to determine the wind direction, speed and duty runway using visual or radio means. Pilots must include the straight-in intention in the inbound broadcast and be established on final by 3NM where further broadcasts should be made.

      Personally, I was taught to make 10, 5, 3, and 1 mile calls if making a straight-in approach which gives everyone in the vicinity (with a radio) plenty of notice. I have often gracefully extended a downwind leg to accommodate other aircraft doing a straight-in.

  12. Joe Kulbeth says:

    Straight in approaches are very common in area of high density flight training and the airport to which has instrument approaches. Numerous people practice in VFR conditions doing numerous instrument approaches such as VOR, GPS, that have arrivals from several different directions, and most all of them ends up with a straght in approach from about 10 miles out.

    Yes they are to conform to the traffic situation just like everyone else, but they also need to practice approaches down to the minumum altitudes and then execute missed approach procedures in order to become proficient. I think we have to live with straight in approaches and work with whom ever is there, look listen and expect to change when necessary. There is no need to get bint out over it. Be flexible, be alert, be friendly, be safe and stay alive!!!!!!

  13. Gary and Alice Nelson says:

    Iiam, are you certain it is “illegal”? How about when the field is below VFR minimums and the pilot is doing an instrument approach? Most approaches do not qualify as an emergency…

    That is at least one reason the US rule has some vagueness. Practice approaches are another. And if you are the only airplane in the sky (it happens a lot at night or very early morning).

  14. There are 45 degree, 270 degree midfield overfly entries, base, crosswind and final approach leg entries. The least time in the pattern the safest, the final approach “straight in” gives this, however, although all are legal entries any can potentially be the least safe even when under ATC. In non-towered airports the safest entry would depend on the aircraft mix,traffic position and timing but it does not discount final or “straight in” approaches. Some airports recommend no straight ins, read the AF/D and maintainbsituational awareness.

  15. Billy Barnes says:

    I’ve used the straight-in approach as well as entering the downwind. Each situation is different, depending on the runway in use, and if there is other traffic in the pattern. I’ll adjust accordingly as I approach the airport and call for airport advisories when I am about 15-20 miles out. Whether its a straight-in approach or entering a traffic pattern, radio communication is key as well as see and avoid. There is always that one indvidual that just seems to do his own thing.

  16. John Ozanne says:

    I was almost involved in a mid-air collision with a twin while I was on an extended downwind leg in a C-152 at a small controlled air port when the twin, cleared for a straight -in approach, came so close that I could see the rivets and the pilot’s face.

  17. Robert Morris says:

    I think straight in is perfectly OK as long as dilligence is applied at airports with unicom freqs. Announce your intentions be sure you have good visibility of the pattern always double check before short final looking at all times out the window helps (no duh). Most pilots are skilled and highly trained in see and be seen.

  18. Rich Gross says:

    I’ve flown straight in many times. 80% of the time it was at a field with no one in the pattern and I could verify that both via the radio and visually. I call 10 miles, requesting traffic advisories especially if I am considering a straight in, call again at 5 miles, and again at 2 1/2 to 3 miles to announce I’m on final. The other times I’ve done it, half the time there was one other plane in the pattern and the other pilot was fine with it, and the other half I won’t do again…I did it a couple times when there was more than one plane in the pattern, and while I timed it right to make sure I wasn’t getting in their way, I had a guy get bent out of shape over it (even though I was on the ground while he was still on downwind) and it’s not worth it to me if it’s going to piss anyone off.

  19. Mark Fay says:

    I think it’s fine, perfectly legal and a lot of people do at 1C5, my home base, outside Chicago. It’s mostly the charter guys that fly in and around a lot. So I always look for and expect it even though most of the time I am in the pattern by myself.

    But I don’t do straight in approaches unless I am on an IFR approach. Richard always talks about safety margins and never giving them away. I think straight ins give away the opportunity to:

    1.) See other aircraft moving on the ramp
    2.) See animals – we have a resident coyote that is always lurking around and deer are not uncommon in the area
    3.) See snow or rain puddles on the runway
    4.) See mowers or workmen
    5.) Set up the perfect approach to end the perfect flight (I’m trying anyway)

    It’s an extra 5 minutes max but it’s at a low power setting that lets the engine cool as you go around the pattern.

    So, I’ll watch for you when you do your straight ins. I’ll be the one on the 45 to the downwind.

  20. Eric says:

    Like so many things in aviation, I believe the answer here is that it depends. I agree with the previous comments that predictability at pilot-controlled airports is vital to safety, but in the instance that a straight-in approach could prevent a traffic conflict, or in the case where no other traffic is present, then absolutely it makes sense. Often times, in making a straight-in that doesn’t conflict with other traffic, you’ll avoid additional low-level maneuvering, time & fuel of course, and probably even make the neighbors happier by avoiding a noisier full pattern.

    That being said, there’s also an argument that you’ll be better prepared for a stabilized approach and precision landing out of a standard traffic pattern with cues and targets that are familiar. If altitude planning and configuration changes are more difficult for you in a non-standard setting, then you absolutely should subscribe to the traffic pattern every time school of thought.

  21. Brian says:

    I fly the pattern, I don’t have a problem with people flying straight in if they are positive that there is no one in the pattern. What I find dangerous is when call I downwind and someone calls a 10 mile final. Now I’ve got to fly downwind, base and final trying to see where this person is on final. Wondering how fast is his plane how accurate is he on his distances and where is he in relation to me all the while trying to land my airplane. This is all avoided if everyone flys the pattern and gets in line.

  22. Brent Dalrymple says:

    And just how else are we supposed to fly either a practice or actual IFR approach if not straight in as required in most published procedures? Other than when flying an approach, I use the pattern, but to quote Eric above, “it depends”.

    • Kamala Krishnan says:

      I have had the same dilemma. After a long flight to destination in IFR conditions ATC clears you for the approach and what else can you do? In at least one case, ATC warned me about a plane (ALT unknown) in the area but on breaking out of the muck at 200 ft, he was too close for comfort.

      Any suggestions?

  23. tom says:

    Here’s a well done article done by John Deakin on the subject. He puts a very fine point on the topic. http://www.avweb.com/news/pelican/182100-1.html

  24. When flying in the United States, I am a Canadian, I always have to remind myself about the 45 degree approach. Up here in Canada, we cross the midfield at pattern altitude, and join the left or right down wind. I like it this way, because I get the chance to look at both ends of the runway for aproaching NORODO traffic. I can see other aircraft in the pattern much better this way as well, since they are at the same eyelevel altitude. The bonus is that I can see the windsock as well. I’m not sure why the difference between our two countries, but I can tell you that I feel quite uncomfortable with the 45 degree aproach in my Colt. Without the back windows, it is one blind airplane. Essentially, I can’t see possible incoming traffic from behind me, on a perfectly legal but a bit longer down wind leg. I can always tell when an “N-tail” pilot friend is coming. I would see them to my “ten or two” o-clock, doing the 45 degree approach.

    I love my Colt, even though it feels like I put an oversized baseball hat on, as soon as a limb in. I spent way too much money on it, so I have to. Those of you who may be interested to see, what may be the most expensive Colt in the sky, have a look at my blog. The paint is still to come.
    http://www.c-gdnr.com

    As to the straight approach, I don’t ever rember doing one to an uncontrolled airport. I do like to see the windsock, even when there is no traffic in the pattern. There is no ATIS to get you the scoop on wind and such, and I have been known to be on a wrong frequency before. Besides, I can log a few extra minutes to my logbook for bragging rights.

    Safe flying to you all, no matter which method you use.

    • tom says:

      Edward, I assume you are a Canadian all the time, not just while flying in the USA, Eh?

      There is a school of thought that entering the downwind from an overhead puts the plane’s belly toward other downwind traffic in the turn, and that’s a bad thing. Ditto for descending into the downwind, especially in a low-wing airplane where you cannot see who’s coming from below and behind. I agree that crossing the field at pattern altitude gives a better chance to see other traffic and the windsock vs doing it from 500 ft higher as some advocate, but TPA plus 500 ft puts you in the turbojet pattern, so there’s no free lunch. Either way, my preferred method of entering the 45 from the wrong side is to cross the runway, go 3 miles away from the airport on the downwind side, descend if necessary and and turn into any potential oncoming traffic that might be 3 miles out, then continue the turn to enter the 45 at pattern altitude.

  25. Doug Resetar says:

    I think straight in approaches are ok as well other various approaches as long as the pilot is very cautious. However, while flying the other day I heard a pilot call an upwind pattern entry? I stayed clear until they had landed.

  26. tom says:

    Here’s a discussion of the overhead approach, which is straight in but maintains pattern altitude until the break, then spirals down. Overheads are really nice for formation flights because it allows separation and spacing. It’s also great in combat zones because it minimizes time low and slow outside the fence where small arms fire is a hazzard (think noise abatement, so the neighbors don’t consider grabbing the rifle), and for single engine drivers it is a spiral down to a point – the same steep spiral your CFI taught for engine out. http://www.eaa.org/warbirdsbriefing/articles/1001_overhead_pattern.asp

  27. tom says:

    I searched the web for data on midair collisions in the traffic pattern, looking for where in the pattern they occur. Certainly the data is out there, but I cannot find it. If someone out there has a source, please share.

    The AOPA air safety foundation’s Nall report 2010 for 2009 – the latest version I can find – cites midairs on page 34. There were only two for that year: A T-6 and Helicopter bumped, and a C-182 and Mooney m20 collided. It does not state where in the pattern the collisions occurred, but helos don’t fly the FAA pattern, and its likely the T-6 doesn’t either. The C-182 and M20 may typify the classic high-wing vs low-wing blind spot problem.

    Based on no data whatsoever, I’ll go out on a limb and assume that both events occurred on final or over the runway, which makes how they entered the pattern rather moot. This also behooves pilots to put your head on a swivel while turning final, and look for shadows: If you see more than one, you have company. http://www.aopa.org/asf/publications/10nall.pdf

  28. Alberto Silva says:

    I think Nate D’Anna (second post)has the better explanation and exactly how I fly. I usually do straight ins at night with good visibility and no traffic. The important thing is to be aware of the traffic at the airport and look out for NORDO. During the day, I usually do a full pattern.

  29. Denton says:

    Do I beleive a 45 degree entry is the only way to enter the pattern? No. Do I believe it’s the safest way to enter the pattern? Most definitely. I always favor the standard traffic pattern entry when approaching an airport visually. As someone else mentioned earlier, the key thing here is predictability. If I can predict what another pilot is going to do, whether he’s on the radios or not, I can safely plan my entry into the pattern and maintain more effective situational awareness.

    Entering on a 45 degree leg to the downwind allows me time to see what is going on at the airport and get the big picture. If someone is entering a pattern a little differently, extending downwinds, conducting touch-and-goes, etc. I’ll know it and be able to plan accordingly. If I have to fly over the airport to enter the downwind then I’ll fly about 500 feet above TPA, scope out the pattern, and then enter as appropriate.

    If I’m conducting an instrument approach and a VFR airplane enters the pattern and proves to be a safety issue, I execute a missed approach. I may not be too happy about having to execute a missed approach, but it’s better than the alternative.

    Another key point here, is to plan your entry (45 to the downwind or not) BEFORE you get to the traffic pattern and be prepared to change your plan. Don’t wait until the last second to decide how you want to enter. Sure, your plans may change depending on traffic or a wind shift, but if you diligently planned your trip to the non-towered airport before getting into the airplane you should already know the runway layout, whether it’s left or right downwind, etc. The point I am trying to make here is you need to stay ahead of the airplane.

  30. Mike Brown says:

    I tend to do 45 degree pattern entries, if for no other reason than it gives me more time to watch for traffic and get a feel for how the field is operating. That said, when I do a 45 degree entry I do it by going a good distance out from the field, well outside the normal pattern area, before I turn to head back to join the downwind leg at a 45 degree angle, joining around midfield. I’ve seen (and avoided) far too many pilots who reported a “45 entry to downwind” on the radio, but really flew a wrong-direction downwind followed by a 180 degree right turn into the downwind to base, which is both illegal (not a left turn in the pattern) and dangerous (I’ll often spot them coming directly at me on downwind).

  31. tom says:

    I apologize for diverging from the topic of straight-in approaches, but from the posts it is obvious that there is some freelance of so-called standard pattern entry. I do not have data on where most midairs occur in the pattern, so I assume it is at the arrival end of the runway, which makes what follows moot. But I thought I’d address it.

    A few posts suggest crossing the runway at 90 degrees at TPA to gander at the windsock and then enter the downwind from ‘inside’ the circuit. This ‘overhead inside entry’ is efficient, but puts the plane’s belly toward other downwind traffic in the turn, and that’s a bad thing. Some modify it so the entry is 45 from the inside so it’s no different than entry from the outside, but it still puts the RH blind spot over touch and go traffic climbing into the downwind. I don’t like that because I fly downwind 1/2 mile from the runway or closer depending on crosswinds, much closer than most – so I can glide to the airport if necessary. so they will probably cross my downwind to join theirs. If I’m doing my job there is no problem, but its inconsistent and unpredictable behavior. Stating their intentions usually make it all good.

    Ditto for descending into the downwind from any angle, especially in a low-wing airplane where you cannot see that high-wing airplane coming from below and behind. I agree that crossing the field at pattern altitude gives a better chance to see other traffic and the windsock vs doing it from 500 ft higher as some advocate, but TPA plus 500 ft puts you in the turbojet pattern, so there’s no free lunch. Either way, my preferred method of entering the 45 from the wrong side of the airport is to cross the runway, go 3 miles away from the airport on the downwind side, descend if necessary and and turn into any potential oncoming traffic that might be 3 miles out, then continue the turn to enter the 45 at pattern altitude. Note that this can result in either a crosswind or base entry if I guess the winds wrong.

    Here’s a diagram of the Britt preferred upwind entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Airport_Traffic_Pattern_with_Upwind_Leg.svg

    You’ll note the entry is parallel to the runway on the ‘wrong’ side at TPA, enter at the crosswind and all else is the same. All turns are also truly to the left, unlike the 45 entry which requires a right turn to join the downwind of a LH TPA.

  32. Tim Pullum says:

    I say it depends on how busy the pattern is and how familiar you are with the airport. At my home airport I start listening to the CTAF from as far out as I can just to get a visual of what’s going on. If there’s not too much going on and my route happens to bring me in straight then I fly it. Of course announcing my position as to not surprise anyone. If its busy or I’m at an unfamiliar airport then there’s no question. I enter the 45, downwind, base, and final.
    Not using a radio is far more dangerous than a straight in approach and that’s perfectly legal.

    • Peter T says:

      I fully agree: my entry depends on how busy the airport is, and how familiar I am with it. In geeneral I am a fan of the high overhead entry, but if I’m approaching from the west and I hear everyone else flying left traffic for 18 then I’m going to fly 5 miles north and come around on a 45 entry. I may burn a little more gas, but I’ll enjoy the scenery and log 0.2 more in the logbook that night.

  33. tom says:

    I’d like to hear comments on TPA dimensions. The AIM says to start the crosswind a quarter mile past the departure end, turn base no earlier than a quarter mile of the arrival end, and 1/2 to one mile offset from the runway on downwind. Elsewhere, the Pilot handbook says to modify that for ‘conditions,’ one of which is crosswind, when you adjust offset distance so you roll out on final without acrobatics. I’ve found that GPS groundspeed is quite instructive. If we are indicating 70 on downwind but GS is 140 at TPA, some adjustment is in order. Many don’t.

    One of the things I’ve done is to program the GPS with arrival, midfield and departure waypoints at my home drome, then call them up in the nearest page so we can see what 1/4 and 1/2 mile look like from TPA. On BFRs I call out those distances and ground speeds just for reference and find most pilots adjust the crosswind turn based on runway length and altitude not AIM suggestion, fly the downwind from one to three miles offset regardless of wind, and make the base turn at 1 to 2 miles past the end of the runway. There is no way they can glide to the runway in calm wind and rarely adjust for wind, so we end up low and slow on final, dragging it in with all the goodies hanging out at high power while the clowns who built houses under the approach lock and load. One of my goals in life is to stay off the front page of the local paper and back yards. I don’t think this works in in my favor, so I demonstrate how I would do it if I was PIC.

    Some object to steep approaches due to shock cooling, which is a bunny hole we’ll avoid except to say that if CHT is below 300F, GAMI says you cannot hurt a thing. Others don’t like to think as fast that a tight pattern requires. Slowing down is always a good way to make up for that. I admit that a huge pattern allows more time to enjoy the trip, but it’s inconsiderate of other traffic. If it’s an instructional flight I understand: Time to teach. There might be other good reasons. I cannot think of any.

    Your thoughts?

  34. David Semak says:

    USE YOUR HEAD!!!! I couldn’t agree more, there are fields that require predictability, if traffic is light consistently why waste time, fuel, wear and tear,for the sake of a vaguely written reg?

  35. Tom Cordell says:

    The proliferation of circles depicting class E to 700 feet is due to IFR approaches being established at those fields. That in turn came about from GPS. Since GPS can define any route of your choosing, it follows that the overwhelming number of GPS approaches is straight-in. Even in VFR conditions and without using a hood, performing an instrument approach on any or all arrivals enhances familiarity and proficiency. Once arriving at minimums on the approach, it seems that landing straight in is at least as safe as any pattern entry. The AIM depicts straight in approaches, 45 to downwind, and no other. It seems to me that 45 to any leg is reasonable as well. Flying overhead above pattern altitude to descend and maneuver in the quadrant everyone is trying to use does not seem any safer given our current availability of communications, particularly when a low wing airplane is descending in close proximity to the pattern.

  36. OldBob Siegfried says:

    I do not get bent out of shape if folks make a straight in approach as long as they give way to traffic they find ahead of them. Many respondents have mentioned that no one should be flying without a radio. I think that is inherently a poor comment. There are airplanes that do not work well with a handheld and I figure they have just as much right to use the airport as do we who have way too much money in the panel.

    However, that is NOT my principle point. The most common NRDO aircraft is one in which the operator has a radio, but it is mistuned or otherwise not working.

    I am confident that I am not the only pilot who has set the wrong frequency, had the volume not adjusted correctly, or otherwise became a non knowing NRDO aircraft.

    The true None Radio equipped pilot is probably doing a very good job of looking for other aircraft, but the pilot bwho is flying NRDO because of some mistake in operatiung the radio may not be looking as hard as the true NORDO operator. The whole idea of executing a traffic pattern was so that we could get some idea of the other aircraft’s intentions by the way he/she flew their airplane. When we first got the Unicom frequency assigned, we started to use the radio to add another level of efficiency to our operations at non towered airports, but it still remains our responsibility to watch out for the other guy, radio or not.

    Personally, I rarely make a straight in, but if I really wanted to, I figure it is acceptable, but that the straight in guy should give way to those in the pattern whether the right of way rules require it or not.

    Most of all, I think it is not good practice vto ever call other pilots bad names. This is a cooperative venture and we need to be aware of the limitatins of what we have.

    Happy Skies,

    Old Bob

  37. Loren Bennett says:

    Several of the towered airports that I occasionally visit are situated relative to my home base so that I am often told to go straight in. Straight in requires some practice which I never got as a student pilot. One of the nearby airports I visit often has no traffic in the area, so after many announcements with no response, I practice straight in landings there. Otherwise, I always use the standard 45 degree approach.

  38. JohnWF says:

    I have had pilots call a straight in approach when 10 miles out while I am in the pattern. They seem to do this as a way of establishing some sort of priority as to who can land first….even when calling all my turns some pilots will call a straight in when over 5 miles out when I have just called a base turn. Mostly these are corporate pilots who seem too often to feel they have some inherent right to whatever works best for them and other GA pilots should just stand away.

    • David Phillips says:

      Don’t do this a a priority but as a notification to traffic of a target inbound.
      On a straight in approach, right of way is always to the traffic proper.

  39. David Phillips says:

    Straight in approach works if everyone in pattern is aware and informed properly and functionally.
    To fly to a 45 degree entry is to further engage in traffic in the pre 45 entry maneuver, greater traffic undetermined position and altitude.
    Straight in approach is a safe procedure if executed with care and communication efficient on the Common Traffic Freq.
    I use this straight in procedure, with all care and vigilance and I never have a problem.

  40. Paul Ramsay says:

    As a new pilot, I agree that safety is paramount in all situations, but there is a time that a straight in approach is practical. If you don’t hear or see any traffic in the area, then a straight in approach is the safest approach, but if the airport is busy, then it is best to fly the regular pattern so as not to interfere with the normal flow of air traffic.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • Mark e. says:

      Paul,
      Why do you think a straight in is safer when there is no known traffic? Just trying to get my head around the other side.
      Thanks

      • Paul Ramsay says:

        Mark,

        In a situation where you are approaching an uncontrolled airport directly to the runway that you intend to land on, then the straight in approch is the approach with the least amount of complication. If youo lose an engine, or have other problems, you may not have the power to make a pattern approach. However, if the airport is busy, then a straight in approach may not be the best, in this case you would want ot join the traffic pattern from the safest angle, which would be the 45 degree.

        Hope this helps. I just got my pilots license so I still have much to learn.

        • OldBob Siegfried says:

          Good Morning Paul,

          I think you have a pretTy gOod handle on this particular situation, though it is my personal opinion that it is easier to evaluate the wind and set up a nice approach from a “normal” pattern than it is to execute a good straight in approach.

          Obviously, if it is an airport where you are very familiar with the obstacles, runway spacing, and general layout of the field, setting up a good approach is easier whether it is straight in or via a normal downwind.

          The big thing that worries me does not seem to be considered by any of the other respondents is the problem with a no radio aircraft. Should there be one in the pattern, it will generally be easier to spot if all aircraft are flying a “normal” pattern. There are some airplanes that have characteristics such that a hand held will not work. I figure they have just as much right to fly as do the rest of us.

          However, most No Radio aircraft these days are the ones that have a good working radio, but who have the volume not adjusted correctly, the wrong frequency set, or their audio panel incorrectly programmed. That pilot will hear no other traffic and figure the whole area is availble to do whatever he/she wishes.

          Listening to the rado only works if everybody does everything just right. You may never make such mistakes, but I do and I figure that most pilots with a fair amount of time have been gulty of misuse of the radio, I know I have.

          Happy Skies,

          Old Bob

  41. Jim Vinson says:

    As a student pilot, I am always concerned about not being able to see another plane coming straight in out on final when I turn base leg. If that plane is not on the radio, it is hard to detect at that altitude.
    Jim Vinson

  42. Brandon says:

    I haven’t been flying that long so I try to learn every chance I get. But it seems that there is no clear cut answer. It all depends on the airport, traffic, and pilot. most of my time has been spent at a towered airport but my most recent flight was at a non towered airport where there is a considerable amount of traffic KJKA I departed to the west and flew down the beach taking my mom and dad up for the first time we flew about 20 miles out and turned around heading back down along the bay which is almost perfectly lined up with the runway we made a straight in announcing my intentions at 15, 10, 5 and 3 miles out. There was other traffic in the pattern I slowed up for separation on one ahead of me and one extended his downwind for separation for me. Were all out here because we love flying all it takes is a little courtesy and using your head.

  43. Ed McDonald says:

    I often approach not towered fields while under ATC control in IFR conditions. This approach does use straight the in approach. I am very aware of alerting other traffic of my position and continually announce positions throughout the approach. I also prefer to use straight in and base to final approaches in clear weather when I feel it more appropriate.

    I am uncomfortable with the procedure of crossing the field, making a 270 degree turn, at the same area where other aircraft are supposedly doing the same thing, to get into the 45 degree entry to the pattern. We all know that while in a turn our visibility is very restricted. There is no defined procedure to get to the 45 degree entry point and it can be very dangerous. I feel the procedure encourages congestion close to and over the airport with planes flying in all directions to get to the fly over part and turning to the 45 degree entry point. I feel it is safer to remain out of the airport area if possible, continually announce your position and make a simple extended base to an extended final or a straight in approach. When a plane announces that it is on final, everybody knows where to look and where he is.

  44. Bob Shlafer says:

    VMC/VFR …. Bob’s Way …. overfly the field 500′ above pattern altitude and enter downwind per the AIM, making appropriate position reports if radio equipped.

  45. Scott Valenti says:

    Normally I hate to resurrect an old conversation (zombie), as no one has contributed since May. However, I had to make the “extended final or not” decision yesterday, and this page is an excellent conversation on the matter.

    I was approaching from the south, aiming for an uncontrolled airport with active runway 35. So this was an opportunity to perform an extended final.

    What I decided to do instead was to aim left (west) of the airport and then turn directly onto a left-base leg. I feel this is a good compromise.

    I didn’t see (or hear) any other traffic in the pattern. Otherwise I might have swung around into a downwind leg.

    The reason why the downwind leg is important is that everyone is flying at the same altitude, so you know where to look for traffic. Of course you can argue that it increases congestion, because everyone is at the same altitude. But I think the point is that you can spot other aircraft more easily if you know where to look.

    And a word about radios: I think the main issue that can occur with radios is that they might not be tuned to the correct frequency. This may happen quite often with inexperienced pilots. I know I’ve done it myself!

  46. GY says:

    I disagree with most people here. Obviously safety is the goal, but common practice (described largely in the responses here) seems to be partly at odds with federal regulations and FAR/AIM as a whole. It’s valuable to hear what people have done over the years remain safe, but “use your head” isn’t acceptable on its own when federal regulations exist. I found this thread because I was trying to find citations regarding the FAR/AIM to answer the “straight in landing” question. Only one person referenced FAR/AIM which is kind of upsetting, I think.

    Consider:

    A Citation X calls a 5 mile straight in final at a non towered airport. At the same time, a slower Cessna 172 is in the pattern turning downwind to base. So again, the Citation X is on final (albeit not in the pattern), and the Cessna 172 is in the pattern (albeit not on final). Although it might be safer and common courtesy to let the faster, more expensive Citation X land first, who would be held accountable if there were a collision?

    Also consider FAR 91.113:

    “(g) Landing. 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, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach. 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, but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft.”

    As John Deakin puts it, “If you are on downwind, and you see an aircraft on final that is below you, THAT AIRCRAFT HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY. To carry it even further, even if the aircraft on final is HIGHER than you are, it STILL has the right of way, since you may not cut in front of an aircraft on final! This is hardly the language that would be used if straight-ins were frowned upon.” http://www.avweb.com/news/pelican/182100-1.html

    And despite FAR 91.126 requiring airmen to make all turns to the left in echo airspace unless otherwise instructed by the A/FD, a straight in is technically not a turn. Just read plain English. (Note that 91.113 above does not use the word “pattern” or “45 degree” one single time.) Related, note there is nothing in the FARs about 45-degree ENTRIES, or any other entry. All you have to do is make all turns WHILE APPROACHING in the established direction. There is also nothing that says you have to make any turns.

    So as an attorney, seeing that 68 out of 69 people here failed to cite a single US-based regulation upsets me very much (although I applaud the Australians above who cited theirs as well as “Tom”).

    As an airman, it’s valuable to me that the 45 degree to downwind is embraced by most people. To keep me safe, I won’t use the “straight in” unless there’s an emergency. But if push came to shove and someone was on straight in final while I was on base in the pattern (even if they they had a lower altitude), chances are that they could very easily cite FAR 91.113 (above) and point a finger at me for not yielding to them.

    I do concede that I don’t know how far of an extended final is “too far” (I’d think a 20 mile final would be…excessive) and that this issue is not cut and dry. But to say that the 45 degree to downwind is the gold standard is merely custom and not bolstered by the FAR/AIM.

    In sum, if the FAR/AIM didn’t exist, I’d agree with the majority’s common sense, customary approach here.