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I learned at an uncontrolled airport. I thought I had controlled communications down pretty well, but I upset the tower controller today.

Situation: I was coming from the southeast, and tower told me “clear to land runway 5”. He didn’t tell me what leg to fly or anything. It wasn’t busy. So I stayed straight for the left crosswind. He said I should have never crossed the field. I continued left downwind, base, and final.

I know I should have asked for clarification on how he wanted me to enter. Maybe he was also expecting me to have maneuvered to the west side of the airport for a right base.

I could use some coaching on this. What do you all experienced pilots think?

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    $\begingroup$ What country is this in? I know that flying in certain areas, you are expected to include the upwind and downwind in your inbound traffic pattern. The US is not one of them. None that I know of advocate joining the traffic pattern on the crosswind. Why did you just not join the left downwind for runway 5 at a 45° angle (initially a right turn) if you were coming from the Southeast? $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Nov 22 '20 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, welcome to AviationStackExchange. Please, don’t take my comment above too harshly. I am sincerely trying to understand your thought process or the training you received so that I can help answer your question. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Nov 22 '20 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ Which airport was this? $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Nov 22 '20 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ It might be worth a phone call to the tower to ask them what they expected as well as learn from the answers here. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Nov 22 '20 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ @DeanF. Arriving from the southeast - heading northwest - a right turn will put you on a left upwind for rwy 5. Generally, I would expect the tower to tell me where to join the pattern (and the direction), provide vectors to final, or indicate a straight-in approach. If ATC instructions aren't clear, ask for clarification. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Nov 22 '20 at 12:58
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Your description sounds like the diagram below, so I'll proceed based on that.

When a controller gives you a landing clearance while you are a ways out with no intermediate instructions, it's usually because there is nobody else around the controller needs to coordinate and you are being given discretion to proceed by the most direct logical routing to get to the threshold of Rwy 5.

Although there is a published "left" traffic pattern, and normally you would follow the usual protocols to get established for the left pattern for Rwy 5, the landing clearance at that stage was granting you discretion to use a right pattern if it was more direct and that's what the controller expected. When you crossed the field to get to the "proper" side (blue line below), this would get the controller wondering what you're up to as you appear to be just flying off to the northwest until you turn downwind, especially if you are in the habit of using wide patterns.

I would have proceeded direct to a right downwind or even a right base leg (red or black line below) if I was already line up for that, and would have mentioned that in the readback for the landing clearance, such as "Cleared to land runway 5, proceeding direct right base", just to let the controller know my intentions, and if there was a misunderstanding, I'd find out about it then.

There is a contributor here who is an air traffic controller, so hopefully he/she will chime in.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ In the UK the blue line is somewhat near to what we call an "Overhead Join" - which is the SOP for the left circuit (pattern) given no other instructions. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Nov 23 '20 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ Same in Canada. In the absence of ATC, like when the tower is closed, overhead to the left circuit that would be what to do. $\endgroup$ – John K Nov 23 '20 at 19:37
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This appears to have been a good learning experience for both you and the controller. It seems you both made assumptions which were different for each party.

At a tower controlled airport you must follow the controllers instructions regardless of any published circuit pattern. You say that the controller only said "clear to land runway 5". Was there no other communication after that by either you or the controller? This is either an error by the controller, or you missed part of his instruction.

It is normal to expect the shortest route to the runway at a tower controlled airport. When approaching from the southeast, most experienced pilots would expect a clearance to right base followed by a landing clearance. The controller should have given you an instruction which included how to join the circuit. The controller should have said "join right base, cleared to land runway 05".

In the absence of an instruction or clearance to right base, you should have asked for clarification. Even if he did indeed only say "clear to land runway 5", you should have confirmed how to join the circuit.

You made an error by overflying the airport without a clearance or instruction to do so. Good airmanship dictates that you should have at least reported your intention to join the circuit either crosswind or overhead. It never hurts to announce your intentions or position. It only increases situational awareness for everyone.

enter image description here

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In the US, there are several ways to approach a runway for landing that are generally accepted. They include, but are not limited to:

  1. Instrument approaches
  2. Visual Charted approaches
  3. Overhead approaches
  4. Circling approaches
  5. Straight in approaches
  6. Surveillance Radar Approaches
  7. No-Gyro approaches
  8. Visual approaches
  9. Contact approaches
  10. Side-step approach
  11. Base-to-final
  12. Traffic pattern approaches

If you choose or are directed to fly the last approach on this list, there are five generally recommended ways to join the traffic pattern dependent on which side of the traffic pattern you are arriving. They are:

  1. Arriving from the same side of the runway as the downwind leg? Directly join the downwind leg at traffic pattern altitude, at a 45° angle.
  2. Arriving from the same side of the runway as the upwind leg? Cross the upwind leg and the runway at traffic pattern altitude, at a 90° angle at midfield. Directly join the downwind leg.
  3. Arriving from the same side of the runway as the upwind leg? Cross the upwind leg, the runway, and the downwind leg 500 to 1000 feet above traffic pattern altitude, at a 90° angle at midfield. I prefer 1000 feet since large and turbine aircraft are recommended (sometimes required at some airfields) to fly at 500 feet above normal traffic pattern altitude. Continue to fly one to two miles away from the downwind leg. Affect a 270° descending turn in the opposite direction of the downwind leg. Join the downwind leg at traffic pattern altitude, at a 45° angle.
  4. Arriving from the same direction as a straight in approach? Join the upwind leg at traffic pattern altitude at the extended base leg. Continue to parallel the runway until midfield. Cross the runway at a 90° angle at midfield. Directly join the downwind leg.
  5. Arriving from the same direction as a straight in approach? Join the upwind leg at traffic pattern altitude at the extended base leg. Continue to parallel the runway until crosswind. Turn crosswind. Turn to join the downwind leg.
  6. Arriving from the reciprocal direction as a straight in approach? Remain on whichever side of the extended center line of the runway your original course has placed you. Carefully widen your distance from the extended center line. Alter your course enough to place you in a position to use one of the first 3 traffic pattern entry options.

ATC is going to direct you to use one of these types of approaches (except for the contact approach). Follow their directions. If there is any information missing, ATC is going to expect you to use the approach that is most expedient to affect a landing. But, if in doubt, ask them for clarification.

Note that none of the above approaches has the aircraft entering the traffic pattern at crosswind. Crosswind at traffic pattern altitude is the most dangerous place in the traffic pattern an aircraft can be. Both the pilot and ATC should limit the amount of time in the crosswind leg as much as possible.

Remember, like driving, the safest way to fly in an area of possible traffic is to fly as predictably as possible. Try not to go outside of the norm. And, if you have a particular approach style you want to do, ask for it. Or, at least inform ATC and your fellow pilots to expect it.

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As a controller (edit: USA) I would say there isn't a "published" traffic pattern at a towered airport. I generally am aware that at uncontrolled airports, or when the tower is closed, left-hand patterns are standard. But if the tower is operational the tower is responsible for keeping planes apart and we don't favor one side over the other just because it's "standard." We favor one side over the other based on what the most direct entry would be or where other traffic is or is going.

I would 100% be surprised and upset if you entered the left downwind in that situation. But I also agree that you should have gotten a pattern entry from ATC, either from approach (if class B or C) or tower (if class D).

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My ten cents on this one: I was always taught that you fly all patterns as left handed, unless specifically cleared otherwise by ATC. Then again, I was always told you never cross the runway, on ground or in the air, without clearance. The reason for not crossing the runway is, that the ATC may have cleared a plane for takeoff, and if someone was to fly (or taxi) across the runway, separation might be lost.

I may have been taught wrong, but things were beautifully simple that way. Good old days...

As mentioned above, a very good learning experience for both parties. You had different mental pictures of how things will go, and were surprised. No casualties, so it's a win-win if you both learn something.

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  • $\begingroup$ You shouldn't just assume that the runway has a left-hand traffic pattern. Sure, probably 90% of them do, but that's not a guarantee. You should always look up which traffic pattern a particular runway uses before you fly there, or use the pattern markers next to the runway (if available). $\endgroup$ – HiddenWindshield Nov 23 '20 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ I omitted the obvious, which is that during flight planning you check out if there are such irregularities as rh pattern ;) $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 Nov 23 '20 at 15:35
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If the controller didn’t specify, then I would take that as them not caring. I’d set up for the near-side downwind, the near-side base or the straight-in depending on where I was in relation to the runway because that’s the easiest and fastest (read: laziest and cheapest) thing to do, and that’s what ATC will be expecting.

Notice that crossing the runway to the far-side downwind is not on my list, and regardless of whether that’s legal (I have no idea since it never occurred to me), it’s definitely a Bad Idea™️ to surprise ATC.

If you are ever in doubt about what ATC is expecting you to do, just ask. They’re there to help you, after all, and the best way to do that is to make sure you’re both on the same page.

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