I am a fairly newly minted private pilot licensee (PPL). I had just taken off from a small private, (but open to the public) airfield. We are under the shelf of Class B, but are G up to 700 and then E to the B above at 4000.

My instructor noticed our oil Pressure gauge was very close to the red line, and so of course we headed back. I was about to make a call to inform CTAF we would be crossing midfield and joining the left down wind. Instructor takes control and makes a call asking if any others are in the pattern. Then declare that we will be entering a right down wind (we are a left hand field).

A voice pipes up: Are you declaring an emergency?. I reply no, this is an urgency. (By now the wisdom of my instructor's decision to not cross midfield was clear: It would take much less time to land; it kept us out over paddocks should the situation get worse; It would not take us over houses as the left down wind would.)

Said voice pipes up again: This is the airfield manager, you must declare an emergency if you are using a right hand pattern. My Instructor told me to ignore him and make another call to CTAF asking for any traffic to report position. There was no traffic. We landed without incident.

Who was correct? The manager or us- and does anyone have a FAR/REF to support the conclusion. The old adage Aviate, Navigate, Communicate seems to apply here - but what might the manager be basing his claim on and why?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like a good situation ASRS report $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Jun 20, 2016 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks Tom. I Was wondering- googled the ASRS - but then chickened out- am a visitor here in the lone star state - worry about visas, blow back etc $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 20, 2016 at 6:00
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    $\begingroup$ @TomLongstaff From my understanding, preventing that is one of the benefits of filing an ASRS report. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jun 20, 2016 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ The very reason the ASRS system exists is to encourage pilots to report things without worrying about the report itself getting you violated since NASA is not a regulatory body. They act as a repository for information. If a problem does arise with the FAA sometimes the ASRS can head it off. I'd say it's always a good idea to file one. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Jun 20, 2016 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if an airport manager has any authority to enforce such rules (they very possibly do), but he should know that even a possible emergency trumps a rule like "left pattern only", and forcing you to "declare" isn't making anyone on the field more safe. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 10:31

2 Answers 2


Before we delve into this one. Let's be clear that it is much easier for us to sit at a computer with books in hand and review decisions made under urgent circumstances.

Technically, the airport manager was correct here because per 14 CFR §91.126(b)(1):

"Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right..."

There do not appear to be any caveats to that rule.

To un-bind a flight from this rule, one would need to take advantage of §91.3(b)

"In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency."

In my personal experience, I have seen plenty of pilots fly around the pattern in whichever manner is convenient to them; entering on right or left bases for final, approaching for VFR straight-in landings from 15 miles out, etc. So far, I haven't seen any repercussions for these actions, which is probably why your instructor did not agree with the airport manager.

Another thing that shouldn't go without being said is that this situation was none of the airport manager's darn business.

By verbally acknowledging that there was not an emergency, your instructor placed a liability on himself. §91.3(b) allows the pilot to deviate from a part 91 rule, but to my knowledge, there is no statute that actually requires recognition of an emergency to be verbally declared or announced under non-ATC-controlled VFR flight.

By leaving the question, "is there an emergency?", unanswered, there is a chance to retrospectively say, "yes, we had an emergency and that's why we deviated from the rule." However, since he told the airport manager that it was only an urgency he kind of shot himself in the foot if someone were to decide to raise the right turn as a legal issue, but I would be very surprised if anyone does.

To summarize and give you a more direct answer.

  1. You had a valid emergency
  2. You had no responsibility to verbally declare it
  3. You did deviate from a legal regulation to meet the needs of that emergency

Sounds to me like you've got a very competent instructor.

Edit: I came across this Letter of Interpretation, which is sort of related to your situation.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you Ryan - and yes I have - I am lucky. Actually It was I that uttered the word urgency, not my instructor. - In retrospect I think it would have been far better to simply ask again if there is any traffic in the pattern (as opposed to an arm chair) and ignored the airport manager entirely. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 20, 2016 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom my mistake. I don't see a need to edit that because it's simply a semantic difference and no one is trying to point fingers here, as I'm sure you're aware. $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2016 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan.Thank you for the letter.Very interesting reading. My take is that we were within our rights to deviate as it was a safety of flight issue. As you mention above perhaps the only mistake was declaring an urgent situation, rather than remaining mum. And of course very aware no one is pointing fingers. This forum feels like a very erudite space- great resource for newbs like myself! $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 28, 2016 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom indeed, and now I have learned this new word erudite. $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2016 at 0:17

In this case you guys were correct. Technically speaking traffic patterns at un-towered fields are not like ATC vectors from a tower. You are free to enter the pattern as you like (provided its in a safe manner) and joining it from the 45 to the downwind is simply what the FAA recommends. For that matter you technically don't have to make any radio calls and an un-towered field (but that is another matter)

It's worth taking a look at AC90-66A for more info on this matter.

Use of standard traffic patterns for all ‘aircraft and CTAF procedures by radio-equipped aircraft are recommended at all airports without operating control towers. However, it is recognized that other traffic patterns may already be in common use at some airports or that special circumstances or conditions exist that may prevent use of the standard traffic pattern

One might go out on a limb and say that this is a "special circumstance" in which case you are in the clear.


e. The FAA encourages pilots to use the standard traffic pattern. However, for those pilots who choose to execute a straight-in approach, maneuvering for and execution of the approach should be completed so as not to disrupt the flow of arriving and departing traffic. Therefore, pilots operating in the traffic pattern should be alert at all times to aircraft executing straight-in approaches.

Technically you can fly straight in if you like as well.

The only scenario where you may be in the wrong is if there is a local noise abatement that restricts you to left traffic or a specific runway during certain hours. The fact remains that if that were the case you would be more than capable of explaining your actions.

Now to the crux of the question: Did you need to declare an emergency?

No, you did not need to, but you should have; generally when in doubt you should declare and deal with the paperwork later. Declaring an emergency allows you to precede over other aircraft (and the others should be smart and yield the way). In this case your oil pressure could have led to a serious issue. While you were flying fine at the time the ways this could have played out are endless.

In addition to this I was doing some thinking last night on Ryan's point about not having to actually say you are in an emergency and he is correct that there is no legal requirement to say so. I think that the reason for this is such a law would be in direct contradiction with FAR 91.205 which does not require a radio be on board for VFR flight. As such they can not actually mandate you call out an emergency lest they mandate that you carry a radio.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you Dave. Fascinating reading.Very interesting for me Interesting to note the different, yet very well informed opinions. As we had just turned out we were almost on the right down wind when the oil pressure issue was noticed by my instructor. You are absolutely spot on - it was my fear of paperwork that led me to utter the response- "this is an urgent situation, not an emergency." in retrospect I should have ignored the manager and simply asked again for any traffic to advise- hind sight is 20 20- a good learning experience for me, another day in the saddle for my instructor! $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 20, 2016 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ You are absolutely spot on - it was my fear of paperwork that led me to utter the response- "this is an urgent situation, not an emergency." The managers rather officious tone was rather frightening and added to the stress - Making the prospect of paperwork all the more frightening at the time- in retrospect I should have ignored the manager and simply asked again for any traffic to advise- hind sight is 20 20- a good learning experience for me, another day in the saddle for my instructor! $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 20, 2016 at 6:36
  • $\begingroup$ sorry for the repost- am new to this site and floundering a little $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 20, 2016 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ No problems, @TomLongstaff, and welcome! Just hover over the little "x" to the right of the "x hours ago" tag and delete the duplicate comment. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jun 20, 2016 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ On a related note, think carefully about asking for traffic in the pattern to advise. In an urgency situation I would probably do the same, but many pilots consider the call either superfluous or annoying; and you may set yourself up for a false sense of security when nobody replies but there is NORDO traffic around or somebody is intentionally not responding. $\endgroup$
    – nexus_2006
    Jun 20, 2016 at 16:12

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