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a plane flying in circles (From FlightRadar24)

Why would a pilot fly a plane (a Piper PA-28, N41622) like this? This was around 18:00 Eastern time at Pensacola, Florida (PNS) on October 20, 2022. This plane shows as "Private Owner" in FlightRadar24 and "Vy Aviation LLC" on the FAA database. It makes several flights (most under 1 hour) per day.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a date and time for when this happened? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have the registration number of the aircraft? Look it up on the FAA's website ("quick search N-number" partway down the page) and see if the owner is a flight school, or aerial survey company, or police department, or... $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone Anyone can pick up tons of info about aircraft out there, where they currently are, who they are with ADSB. You posting here is really not letting any great secret out. Take a look at a site like adsbexchange.com, where everyday volunteers upload Gigabytes of data about planes all day every day, or liveatc.net where yet more volunteers upload hours of airband communications between those planes. As a pilot, I assume that everything I do can/will be watched by the general public. Some people register planes under LLCs/generic business names because of this. $\endgroup$
    – Azendale
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, you know, there are all kinds of reasons! ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone For the record, many small planes are owned by groups of individuals organized under a LLC. It allows them to shield their private data somewhat from the public database it also allows them to rent out the plane to recoup some of the ownership costs. Depending on which VY Aviation this is there are several in different states, you could possibly try to determine who the officers of the llc are to try and figure out the owners. This is also a common tactic of celebrity owners of all sorts of equipment to cut down on the stop and gwak. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 21:22

3 Answers 3

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The likely explanation is that the pilot was just making room for another aircraft. If a plane stops in the air, it stalls and falls, so planes can't (shouldn't in normal operation at least) stop in place. Think of them like a shark, which dies if it stops moving "forward" through the medium it is in. The next best thing for a plane trying to hold its position is to just circle and stay in approximately the same place.

The square box you see with one side being a runway is a traffic pattern, which could have other planes trying to fit in in front of them. An example of this would be if a plane was making a straight in approach to the same runway while this plane was in the pattern. So to make space for the other plane to land first, the plane in the pattern just did a circle or two in place, to "pause" or "stop" where they were to yield to other traffic, without actually stopping (and thus falling from the sky).

Note that the PA-28 (Piper Cherokee) is commonly used as a training aircraft -- think of it possibly as the Piper version of the popular Cessna 172 trainer aircraft. Likely, this was someone practicing landings. Unless this flight happened from 0500Z-1130Z (very early in the morning - midnight to 6:30 AM if I'm doing the math right), they would have been operating under the direction of a ATC controller, who would likely have a training flight give way to commercial traffic, leading them to being told to circle to make way.

You can go back and look at the traffic that was in the area, according to ADSB, at https://globe.adsbexchange.com/?replay=2022-10-20-21:12&lat=30.472&lon=-87.166&zoom=13.2

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    $\begingroup$ For the record, I'm willing to say a stunt/acrobatics plane stops in place for an instant right at the top of a hammerhead turn. $\endgroup$
    – Azendale
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ It's a myth that sharks must move to breathe. There are recordings of sleeping sharks that lie still, breathing through their gills just like other fish do. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 6:41
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    $\begingroup$ That replay on adsbexchange is amazing. Thanks for pointing that out! $\endgroup$
    – Deepstop
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ For the record, not all sharks need to stay in motion in order to move water over their gills (although some definitely do). Nurse sharks is one common example of a species that often stays still. $\endgroup$
    – Arthur
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ Flying at a field with a significant number of large/heavy aircraft, the tower instruction, "Right 360 on downwind for spacing," was a pretty common occurrence. $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 17:01
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IFR holding patterns, whether waiting for a runway or waiting for other traffic to clear when en route, tend to be ovals, although they can be distorted by wind. The standard holding pattern is straight for 1 minute, right-hand rate 1 turn 180 degrees, straight (in the opposite direction) for 1 minute, then another right-hand rate 1 turn 180 degrees.

The PA-28 looks like it is waiting, though. It looks like it is doing circuits and is interrupted by a stretch 737 coming in for a straight-in approach and landing. It lands, then a helicopter and another commercial flight lands almost simultaneously, then a C-172 goes off and circles over the bay bridge while a Airbus A319 does a straight-in approach.

That's a really busy airport, and the controller must be working hard to manage all the different types and speeds at the same time.

When I was student pilot (in a PA-28-150), doing circuits in a small city airport (pop abt 350,000), a DC-8 was also doing circuits and the controller finally told me that he couldn't accommodate my circuits while the big bird was also in the pattern, even though there was room for both left-hand and right-hand circuits at that airport.

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  • $\begingroup$ "pop abt" is probably "population about" (approximately 350,000 inhabitants). But it did match Gregorio Luperón International Airport (IATA airport code "POP", with its corresponding city of 330,000 inhabitants...) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ It does mean that, and it relates to the city I lived in during my flight training, which was London Ontario. Airport code is CYXU, which at the time (1983-84) was the approximate population as far as I remember. Those years I set myself up for an expensive lifestyle by getting my ham radio licence, SCUBA certification and Pilot's licence in the space of 24 months. $\endgroup$
    – Deepstop
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 15:30
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Pilot training often involves flying in circles. Since airplanes are controlled in three dimensions, flying in a circle with reference to the ground requires a significant level of skill when you consider that the wind will blow the plane off course and the amount of vertical lift generated by the wings changes as the airplane banks.

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    $\begingroup$ One does not practice turns around a point or steep turns in/near an airport traffic pattern like this. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Oct 21, 2022 at 19:02

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