When flying into a towered airport in VFR, is the pilot expected to enter a standard traffic pattern, or should the plane be flown in the most direct route to final as practical?

For example, if westbound into a class D airport with a north-south runway landing on runway 18, should the pilot enter the pattern at a 45 midfield, fly parallel on downwind as usual, then start the descent normally when abeam the threshold, turning left base and final? Or should the pilot simply fly to the north of the field and start the descent and turn a left final approach?

The AIM 4-3-13 doesn't really explain towered airport operations, as far as how to enter the pattern. This is the most relevant explanation I can find:

When necessary, the tower controller will issue clearances or other information for aircraft to generally follow the desired flight path (traffic patterns) when flying in Class B, Class C, and Class D surface areas and the proper taxi routes when operating on the ground. If not otherwise authorized or directed by the tower, pilots of fixed-wing aircraft approaching to land must circle the airport to the left. However, in all instances, an appropriate clearance must be received from the tower before landing.

I've only flown into a few class D airports (only 3 months since I got my license), and wasn't sure about how to approach the field in certain situations. Some were straight in approaches, but a couple were generally as I described above. The tower usually says to report at 3 miles, or when turning to final. "When necessary" ATC will issue clearances for traffic patterns, but what to do if they just tell you are clear to land? Does "circle the airport to the left" mean do the full pattern procedure?

During flight training I never experienced anything other than pretty much a straight in approach to class D.

Edit: I found this explanation on a flight instruction website: "Pilots do not fly a standard traffic pattern at a towered airport, with a 45-degree entry to the downwind leg. Instead, aircraft enter the airport vicinity as instructed by ATC, reporting arrival on an assigned pattern leg and then accepting further instructions or a clearance to land."

This seems to contradict the AIM explanation. And again, what if ATC doesn't instruct anything, what are they expecting the pilot to do? A standard pattern or a straight in approach as direct as possible?

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    The correct traffic pattern at a towered airport is the one the controller instructs you to fly -- If there's any ambiguity or you're not sure what they want you to do key the mic and ask them to clarify. – voretaq7 Dec 20 '14 at 6:06
  • But what if they don't instruct you to fly any pattern? What is ATC expecting me to do in the above situation? I could fly to the north of the field, do a left turn to final and in essence be "circling to the left". – Eric Dec 20 '14 at 12:54
  • Not a full answer, but if I was given that instruction I would think to myself "hmm, that isn't standard ATC phraseology per the pilot-controller glossary, so I had better ask him what he means....". – Lnafziger Dec 21 '14 at 20:52
up vote 7 down vote accepted

When flying into a towered airport, you will be given specific instructions, as per the ATC Handbook, Section 10, Arrival Procedures and Separation such as:

  • "make left traffic for runway 15"

  • "enter a right base for runway 15"

  • "make straight-in runway 15"

You can also request whatever you want, like: "Tower, Cessna 3-3-Lima, information bravo, requesting left base for 15"," and the controller will then evaluate your request and issue you instructions.

These instructions refer to the following diagram form the Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (PHAK, p. 13-12):

enter image description here

Traffic patterns are also covered in the Pilots Flying Handbook, Chapter 7, and states that:

When operating at an airport with an operating control tower, the pilot receives, by radio, a clearance to approach or depart, as well as pertinent information about the traffic pattern.

Which type of traffic pattern information ATC might give you, depends such factors as where you are relative to the airport, other traffic, noise abatement, obstructions, local procedure, etc. For example, in the diagram below:

  • N or NE of the airport, you could be given "Left traffic"
  • NW you could be given a base entry
  • W you could be given a straight in.
  • If you're SW, S, or SE of the airport, you could be given the same pattern instructions as the north side, but with RIGHT instead of LEFT, or you could be instructed to overfly the field and enter, say, left downwind.

If you are in contact with ATC, and don't know what you're expected to do, then key the mic and ask the controller.

  • If ATC instructs to "enter a right base for runway 15", does that mean fly directly to the base leg and not enter a standard right pattern by joining the downwind? What about "make left traffic for runway 15"? Does that mean enter the downwind leg? If I were instructed to do that, I would probably ask what ATC means by "make left traffic". – Eric Dec 21 '14 at 3:25
  • Traffic patterns earns an entire chapter in the PHAK: faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aviation/… – rbp Dec 21 '14 at 3:41
  • @rbp It's worth noting that the section on traffic patterns begins with "At those airports without an operating control tower". Not that you can't use these procedures to get onto a downwind leg if the tower instructs you to to enter a downwind, but it's better to ask than to be the guy maneuvering to enter on a 45 when the tower expected you to enter on a base leg. – voretaq7 Dec 21 '14 at 5:24
  • @voretaq7 -- read the whole sentence: "At those airports without an operating control tower, a segmented circle visual indicator system [Figure 13-13], if installed, is designed to provide traffic pattern information. " (emphasis mine). – rbp Dec 21 '14 at 16:28
  • Also, I added some additional explanations, with references, which should clear up any confusion. – rbp Dec 21 '14 at 16:50

(This is more from EASA regs, but FAA's should be identical)

Flying into class D airspace as VFR you are completely responsible for traffic separation. ATC will give you traffic information about other VFR and IFR flights, and traffic avoidance on request.

You need to be able to see other traffic and separate just as you would in uncontrolled airspace.

This tells me that , unless otherwise instructed , I need to fly as usual and enter an appropriate traffic pattern to give me ( and others ) the chance to maintain visual separation.

  • When are you not responsible for traffic separation under VFR? Even under IFR, you're responsible to see and avoid in VMC – rbp Dec 20 '14 at 18:17
  • In Class C ATC will provide separation vs IFR flights. In class B ATC will separate against all traffic. Of course you are still responsible to look out the window, but in Class D you DON'T GET ANY traffic separation service, just information (hence the wording "completely responsible" . Can I get my downvote back now?). – Radu094 Dec 20 '14 at 18:30
  • Those are separation SERVICES, which is a shared responsibility between ATC and the pilot; the pilot is still response to see and avoid. Under IMC, ATC is fully responsible. – rbp Dec 20 '14 at 18:39
  • I'm guessing the down vote is because it doesn't answer the question about what pattern to fly. – rbp Dec 20 '14 at 18:40
  • 1
    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Radu094 Dec 21 '14 at 6:25

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