Let's say that I'm doing some pattern work in my favorite little Cessna or Diamond at my favorite little non-towered airport. Everything is going just fine, I'm on the downwind leg...

Or, wait a minute, am I on the crosswind leg? Which runway are we using today? I just heard another plane on the radio that I can't see; what did she say, again? Is she behind me or are we on a collision course?

In short, I suddenly realize that I don't have a full picture of what's going on here.

What are my options here, and how should I choose between them?

Here are my ideas, from best-sounding to worst-sounding:

  1. Just climb out of the pattern, then fly a safe distance away from the airport, descend, and fly back into the pattern. I assume that after starting the climb, a quick radio call wouldn't hurt: "Wobegon traffic, Skyhawk eight three four sierra tango, climbing out of the pattern and going west." (I've always heard that you should never descend or climb directly into the pattern, but I've never heard that you shouldn't climb out of the pattern.)
  2. Keep flying, keep looking out the window, and talk fast on the radio: "Aircraft at Wobegon, where are you again? I'm not sure exactly where I am, do you have me in sight?" (I'd feel stupid saying this, but it's better to speak up and feel stupid than to stay quiet and be stupid.)
  3. Keep flying, keep looking out the window, stay quiet, and just try to figure out what's going on.
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    $\begingroup$ I don't mean to be rude, but have you actually flown an airplane? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ Not stupid, I just wondered if perhaps you only had home flight sim experience - the idea of not knowing where you are in the traffic pattern is hard for me to wrap my head around, at least in an actual airplane with windows you can look out of. But I have a couple of thousand hours so it's become totally second nature to me and I guess I've forgotten what it's like to be a student. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 2:05
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    $\begingroup$ @pericynthion: Though it's quite possible to lose track of other aircraft. One of my least favorite memories is the time I was on a fairly long final in a sailplane, when some idiot in a Beechcraft flew under me to land. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ As it happens, I've witnessed a pilot screw up departure heading by 180 degrees in a single runway airport, so yes, it is possible to lose situational awareness in a simple environment :) $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ Step 1, Don't panic it's written right there on the cover. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented Jan 19, 2020 at 11:20

4 Answers 4


It is the advice of the FAA that you should be looking out the window quite a bit when VFR in the pattern. According to this AC related to traffic patterns:

Collision Avoidance. The pilot in command’s (PIC) primary responsibility is to see and avoid other aircraft and to help them see and avoid his or her aircraft. Keep lights and strobes on. The use of any traffic pattern procedure does not alter the responsibility of each pilot to see and avoid other aircraft. Pilots are encouraged to participate in “Operation Lights On,” a voluntary pilot safety program described in the AIM, paragraph 4-3-23, that is designed to improve the “see-and-avoid” capabilities.

If you are worried you should (over) self announce, if you lose track of an aircraft you should do every thing in your power to make sure that the other aircraft know where you are in the pattern.

Self-Announce Position and/or Intentions. “Self-announce” is a procedure whereby pilots broadcast their aircraft call sign, position, altitude, and intended flight activity or ground operation on the designated CTAF. This procedure is used almost exclusively at airports that do not have an operative control tower or an FSS on the airport.

The FAA also offers lots of advice on how to fly a pattern here.


If you are confused somehow about your situation over an airport, and there are other aircraft around, head for empty sky away from the airport beyond the pattern/circuit and get reoriented. By empty sky, I mean if you think somebody might be nearby and you aren't sure where they are and don't have them in sight, identify a patch of sky where they're not, and head for that. Don't climb or descend while doing this. Most midairs are from aircraft on similar tracks that converge while one is descending or climbing, within a few miles from the airport.

The key is, you have various blind spots and you shouldn't head into the blind spots. Head for sky you can see.

Yes announce your position and intentions, without cluttering up the channel with chatter. Don't expect too much at your level. With practice and familiarity, your ability to think about multiple tasks will improve and your situational awareness will improve with it as you gain the ability to think outside the aircraft once your physical actions start to become automatic.


Aviate, navigate, communicate.

Tell yourself to keep calm.

Look around you: If your current heading is not taking you over the runway or towards visible traffic, keep your heading and altitude.

Look around you: is there any feature outside that you recognize? Chimney, church, lake, forrest? If yes, and the course there does not cross the runway or other traffic, make a standard rate turn towards the feature.

Announce your intentions, don't worry about specific phraseology, for example: "NXYZ is leaving ABCfield traffic pattern with heading 123 at 1234 feet" will do.

After you gain some distance from the field, and get yourself oriented again, approach the field according to local procedures. Keep aviating, navigating and communicating. Keep calm :)


Your DI will tell you your heading and you can work out which leg you are on from that. If the runway in use is 09 and you're flying 270 then you're downwind. If the pattern is left hand and you are flying 180 you're on base, if it is 360 you're crosswind.

Obviously, heading is not track. It gets harder if your runway is 23 and there's a 20kt wind from 170 to allow for. But you could get a vague idea of where you are IF you've flown the circuit correctly before you lose situational awareness.

I think, in the pattern, you are more likely to lose awareness of where you are in relation to other traffic, stop paying attention to your height or (let,s face it, we've all done it ) fly the wrong way round the circuit, rather than forget what leg you're flying


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