In one video, I saw a Cessna that got its instructions to enter the pattern along with landing clearance, but I saw another where the pilot just flew in and got clearance somewhere around late-downwind.

Edit: Still confused here, if you need a landing clearance to enter traffic, then why do diagrams like this exist: (Figure 4 indicating the recommended area landing clearance should be given)

Traffic Pattern

And why do you see so many videos on youtube of late landing clearances? And why do I see people get cleared to land when they're on downwind abeam to the numbers if they already have clearance?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking about a specific country? Regulations and local practices can be quite different in different countries. If you're asking about the US, I suggest you add the tag "faa-regulations". $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 1 '19 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ Can you please link some of the videos you are referring to, that maybe helps to avoid confusion. $\endgroup$ – TobiBS Dec 5 '19 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiBS I'll See If i can find them. $\endgroup$ – James Davis Dec 5 '19 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife I was looking for FAA and CAA, But mainly FAA $\endgroup$ – James Davis Dec 5 '19 at 16:05

The US AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual) says:

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. Pilots approaching to land in a helicopter must avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic. However, in all instances, an appropriate clearance must be received from the tower before landing.

(AIM 4-3-2-b.)

Components of a Traffic Pattern
(AIM Fig 4-3-1)

So it is mandatory to receive a landing clearance, but if traffic flow doesn’t demand it, there is no need to fly the traffic pattern. The controller basically has a lot of freedom here, but the standard is to get instruction to join it, even if this means to join a long final.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm very confused " If not otherwise authorized or directed by the tower, pilots of fixed-wing aircraft approaching to land must circle the airport to the left." $\endgroup$ – James Davis Dec 1 '19 at 7:26
  • $\begingroup$ Is that implying a holding pattern, or the general left-hand traffic pattern? $\endgroup$ – James Davis Dec 1 '19 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ As this section talks about airports and only takes into account airspaces around airports (B, C and D), it is about general left-hand traffic patterns. See the graphic below this section in my link. $\endgroup$ – TobiBS Dec 1 '19 at 7:49
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    $\begingroup$ @James Davis it refers to traffic pattern. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 Dec 1 '19 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, flying a complete pattern I agree Is happening seldom enough, but how often do you at least join the pattern on base? That way ATC has you separate from straight in IFR traffic and can make last minute adjustments if necessary. As I have written in my answer, even if you join a long final, that is just the last part of the pattern. However I agree that this depends on local procedures. The field I fly a lot from has multiple flight schools and heavy training traffic, so there you will join downwind in a lot of circumstances. With less traffic it might be different. $\endgroup$ – TobiBS Dec 1 '19 at 21:21

At a controlled airport, you need a clearance to land, and sometimes to enter its airspace (varies by class of airspace and country). How to enter the pattern is not a clearance, at least if you're VFR.

Depending on other traffic in the area, ATC may give explicit instructions on how to enter the traffic pattern. If there's no other traffic present (or at least none near enough to cause a conflict), though, ATC may not care how you do it. Their job is to ensure a "safe, orderly and expeditious flow of traffic," not to dictate every single thing a pilot does.

The diagram you cite shows the standard traffic pattern, which is what pilots use at uncontrolled fields, or at controlled fields if ATC doesn't specifically instruct us to do something different. Even when ATC does give instructions, it is usually based on the names of the pattern legs, e.g. telling you to enter on base or long final (because that makes the most sense given your position and that of other traffic) rather than on the downwind as usual.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Stephen, Thanks for your response, The pattern image is referring to when atc should ideally give landing clearance (dashed lines) $\endgroup$ – James Davis Dec 6 '19 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesDavis In theory, yes. In practice, I've gotten a landing clearance on upwind, on 10 mile final, etc. It all depends on the traffic. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 6 '19 at 14:33

The difference will be controlled and non controlled airspace. When in controlled airspace you will receive clearance to enter the pattern and proceed to landing. In uncontrolled airspace you will transmit on guard or airport freq. your position and type aircraft and state your intentions.


Note: This answer assumes that you are in FAA airspace.

There are two aspects about entering a terminal area to land. First, there is clearance into the terminal area, and secondly, there is clearance to land. Let's look at them separately.

The clearance into the terminal area is dependent on airspace and your flight flan. You do not need a landing clearance to enter the traffic pattern. This is clearance to fly a path in the sky, but is not a clearance to touch anything on the ground. If your terminal area is controlled, you will need to work with ATC to arrange your entry into the traffic pattern. Depending on your entry geometry, this could be a full rectangular left hand pattern as you depicted, they could just give you a long final, or anything in between.

For further reading about FAA classes of airspace, this is a good reference.

Where clearance into the traffic pattern permits a flight path, landing clearance allows the airplane to touch the ground, but does not provide any clearance for path of flight. Thus, if the airfield is controlled, you need to receive a landing clearance before wheels touch the ground. Situationally dependent, you will typically receive landing clearance about when you turn base. It is controller technique to give you an earlier or later landing clearance. You may fly a full traffic pattern expecting to receive clearance, and when on short final it is not received, you have to execute a go around.


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