If you're approaching a non-towered field and you find that the pattern is too crowded to enter what do you do?

Provided you have adequate fuel to wait for an opening is there a standard place and altitude to hold?

What if you don't really have enough fuel to hold? Do you call on ctaf and say that you need to enter the pattern right away?


3 Answers 3


As PIC if you don't feel comfortable entering congested airspace at a beehive airport, dont enter it. It's that simple. Divert to another airfield and attempt to return to the original airfield when the congestion abates.

If you anticipate high density traffic at an untowered airport, you should let other pilots know your intentions on the CTAF well in advance, generally at least 10NM from the field. Closely monitor other CTAF pilot reports and start building a mental picture of traffic reporting their positions in the pattern, entering the pattern, or leaving it and begin to adjust your entry speed and position for appropriate separation and traffic flow. Most other pilots will work with you on this and make changes to their traffic pattern to accommodate you as well.

If you have a fuel emergency or any other emergency for that matter and no other alternative is available, declare an emergency on the CTAF, indicate your position, altitude and intentions. All other traffic in the pattern, by federal law, MUST give way for you

  • $\begingroup$ How would you find out when the congestion abates? $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    May 18, 2017 at 0:39
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Monitor the CTAF at the field. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2017 at 0:40

There are a couple of options for you. Carlos' answer above is absolutely correct. The FARs are helpful, as is AC 90-66A. You should take a look at both of those. AC 90-66A is informative, but not regulatory, and Part 91.113, 91.126 are regulatory but not particularly informative. 91.103 says you have to know everything about everything, which is true, but again, not helpful.

First the rules: Be safe, be alert and then proceed. FAR 91.113(c) governs your low fuel question. If you are below minimum fuel, and are in distress you have the right of way. There is a difference between a fuel emergency, which is "I'm going to run out of gas unless I land now" and a minimum fuel advisory/situation which means, I got just enough gas to get where I'm going and get myself safely on the ground. If your fuel status is in doubt, it's an emergency. Better to fill out that paperwork than the NTSB paperwork.

The other pertinent part of 91.113 is 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...

So, this means that the airplane on the final segment does have the right of way, over everybody but the emergency, but can't abuse the privilege. So, if someone wants to disrupt a busy pattern with a long straight in final, it's legal, and traffic in the circuit do have to give way and turn the base behind him.

Next, FAR 91.126(b)(1) which says all turns shall be left hand in the traffic pattern, so plan left traffic unless the AFD (US) advises the traffic pattern is right hand turns.

AC 90-66A tells us to play nice in the pattern. "It says Landing and takeoff should be accomplished on the operating runway most nearly aligned into the wind.  However, if a secondary runway is used, pilots using the secondary runway should avoid the flow of traffic to the runway most nearly aligned into the wind." (AC90-66A 8. Recommended Standard Traffic Pattern, (f)).  8 a. of the AC states, "Prior to entering the traffic pattern at an airport without an operating control tower, aircraft should avoid the flow of traffic until established on the entry leg."

I have seen pilots arrive at an airport with a busy stream of departures call and declare they were landing on the opposite direction of the departure runway. They only have the right of way, if they are on final, but it doesn't strike me as a a nice thing (or safe thing) to do.

In a busy pattern, it is generally best to follow the AIM recommendations in the US, which is, unless otherwise noted, cross overhead the field and plan a 45 degree left downwind entry to join the traffic flow, watching traffic for spacing. If in doubt, break off and try again. Announce your intentions and position on the CTAF at all times, but be vigilant, as there may be some airplanes that do not have radios. Which also means they will not be seen on TCAS/ADS-B or whatever. It's probably a good idea to get an ads-b in receiver if you don't have one. There's a homebrew one based on a raspberry pi that can be put together cheaply and mostly works. Don't assume it will see all airplanes at all times.

Finally, once in the pattern go with the flow. If the pattern is too full for your comfort, the general rule is to remain at least 500 ft above the pattern altitude and move away from the flow of traffic, but there may be others doing the same, so watch and listen. Depending on the situation, you might want to divert to an alternate, nearby airport, buy some gas aand hope the pattern traffic is more to your liking when you come back. Turn your base only after the next airplane in line has crossed abeam you and adjust your pattern accordingly.

You might want to practice with an instructor who has some experience in high density traffic areas before you go on your own.


Emergencies and extreme traffic aside, orbit a mile or two out, state your intentions, and if you can't get in, ask if someone will let you in. Without asking, it is common to do a crosswind 360 or extend the upwind leg to allow traffic to get in.

"Cessna 34A is extending upwind to allow Warrior circling south of Hometown to enter downwind. I have you in sight and will follow you in the pattern."

If you are a student on a solo, say so. If you are unfamiliar with the field say so. At a busy field there are usually several people who are familiar with the field or who are instructors, and will work to get you in.

"Cessna 34A is extending upwind to allow Warrior circling douth of Hometown to enter downwind. Warrior, that will put you number three following a Maule and Citabria. That Citabria is now just turning base. Do you have him in sight?"

Practicing pattern courtesy is pretty easy, and as an instructor, you help show students how to negotiate from both sides.

  • $\begingroup$ BTW, sometimes a landmark is better than "two miles out"...like circling over the orange water tower. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Jul 17, 2017 at 18:48

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