Who's on First
Maintaining Situational Awareness in the Traffic Pattern
A famous features students playing basketball. You鈥檙e told to count how many times the students wearing white shirts pass the ball. It seems like a simple test, but, as you probably suspect, there鈥檚 a catch. (Which, so as not to spoil the video, I鈥檒l reveal later.)
That simple exercise of tracking a ball in a busy scene is a good example of how challenging the traffic pattern at Boeing Field can be. When tower says that you鈥檙e number three on downwind for runway 14L and you鈥檙e also looking out for big jets and their wingtip vortices approaching the parallel, it鈥檚 easy to lose track of who鈥檚 who and keep your place in the sequence.
In fact, we鈥檝e had several reports lately of pilots not hearing or failing to follow the tower鈥檚 instructions to extend downwind. Instead, they turn inside of another aircraft on base or final, cutting off the traffic they鈥檙e supposed to follow.
There鈥檚 no simple solution to this complicated problem, which involves the basic difficulty of spotting other aircraft, especially when they鈥檙e below you, camouflaged in ground clutter. Our eyes may be sharp, but our vision system is fallible, especially when complex tasks, like flying an airplane, are competing for our attention.
Nevertheless, you can adopt techniques that help you focus on what鈥檚 most important鈥攕uch as joining and flying a safe, orderly traffic pattern in accordance with ATC鈥檚 instructions or with the flow at a non-towered airport.
First, well before you approach an airport, take care of the airplane. Complete a cockpit flow and review the appropriate before-landing checklist. Make sure that you have all the avionics set up for arrival so that you don鈥檛 have to go heads-down to enter waypoints or tune frequencies. With those tasks accomplished, you can devote more attention to what鈥檚 ahead. And you won鈥檛 have a face full of checklist as you approach the airport.
Next, when you鈥檙e ready to listen, tune the ATIS/AWOS and absorb the information.
Now, based on that information, brief your plan for arrival, noting the runway in use and whether you鈥檙e hoping to do pattern work or land.
Next, tune the tower frequency or CTAF while you鈥檙e still far enough away to listen for a bit so that you can start developing situational awareness. Who鈥檚 already in the pattern? What types of aircraft are zipping around the skies?
Finally, contact the tower, state your intentions, and focus on the instructions ATC gives you. If you鈥檙e at a non-towered airport, start solving the puzzle of how you鈥檒l join the festivities.
If you remain in the pattern for touch-and-goes, take breath on each downwind leg to complete a cockpit flow.
Using this methodical approach to arriving at and flying the pattern will allow you to focus on what鈥檚 critical during approach and landing.
And the odds are better that you鈥檒l see that gorilla dancing through the scene.
By Bruce Williams – CFI, CFII