• Airport Traffic Pattern

    Essential to every pilot’s training

Pilots spend most of their time flying from one place to another but, for safety, there must be a procedure for flying safely near airports; this is known as airport traffic pattern.

The airport traffic pattern (or traffic circuit) is a pattern that is established or “imagined” with respect to a runway and that allows one or more aircraft to fly safely on it.

Imagine several commercial flights arriving from different points at the same airport, how should they overfly while maintaining order and safety?

That’s what today’s post is about.

Why is the airport traffic pattern so important?

You know that, during the initial phase of training, every student pilot must thoroughly practice the landing procedure.

Well, the fastest way to acquire this skill is through repeatedly carrying out takeoffs and touch and go procedures; that is, landing, applying full power and returning to the air.

If each aircraft flew around the airport as it pleased, the safety of other aircraft would be greatly compromised. Add to that the usual commercial traffic at airports such as Malaga.

As you can imagine, establishing the order in which to land would be ludicrous. This is the reason why the traffic circuit was created at airfields and airports.

Characteristics of the traffic pattern

We have already told you about the purpose of the traffic pattern, but what is it really like?

The traffic pattern is a kind of rectangle that is set up around a runway. It contains five different sections: headwind, crosswind, tailwind, base and final. We will tell you about them in detail later.

As a general rule, standard circuits are generally made with left-hand turns, as this provides a better view for the pilot in command, who is seated on the left side.

Another factor, when making a traffic circuit, is that it must be done at a safe distance and height, which allows us to reach the track in case of a problem in any of the sections. And also remember that airplanes take off and land into a headwind.

Airport traffic pattern sections

Now that you know the basics, let’s talk about the specific sections. And if you are studying at One Air, or are thinking of doing so, to familiarise yourself with the operations at La Axarquía aerodrome, we will take runway 12 as a reference.

Before explaining everything in detail, watch this video on board a Diamond DA20 performing the traffic pattern, this time right-hand.


It constitutes the initial section of any circuit and, as its name indicates, is the one in which we have the wind against us, in which the aeroplane performs its initial climb while maintaining the runway course.

During the headwind leg, we will reach our safety altitude, where we will stop flying at speed for best angle of climb, VX, to fly at speed for best rate of climb, VY.

Once the aircraft reaches safety altitude, we will initiate a right turn to a 210º heading to proceed to the crosswind leg of the traffic pattern.

We have already told you that the standard turns in the circuits are to the left; however, in La Axarquía, with track 12 in use, they are to the right. This is because, in this way, we increase the separation from the ground and, therefore, it is also safer.

When turning from headwind to crosswind, it is very important not to exceed 20° of roll. Keep in mind that the aircraft is still flying at low speed and close to the ground, so this is a delicate phase.


As in the previous case, its name already gives us clues about our position with respect to the wind.

In our practical case, in the traffic pattern of La Axarquía aerodrome, we will fly it on a 210º heading.

During the crosswind section, we will reach the circuit altitude, about 1600/1700 feet. At this point, we will accelerate to our cruising speed, 90 knots in the case of the DA20.

The tailwind turn will be made once our aircraft forms a 45º angle with respect to the runway. The maximum roll in this turn is 30º.


It is the longest section of the circuit, and as its name indicates, it is the only one in which we have the wind in our favor.

As this is the longest leg, it is possible that there may be more than one aircraft on it, so this leg is divided into three thirds: first, second and third.

In the first third, the aircraft is flying straight and level, at cruising speed.

The second third should be used by the pilot for pre-landing, a quick but effective check that everything is in place. Once we are at ‘threshold beam’, i.e., the extension of our wing coincides with the threshold of the runway in use, we will start to ‘dirty up the wing’. Dirtying up the wing consists of lowering the first flap point and reducing our speed, the altitude should not vary.

In the third third, we will continue to reduce our speed and may even begin to descend slightly. Once we are at 45º to the runway, it is time to turn to base; in our case, it would be flying a 030º heading.


We can define the base leg as the opposite of headwind, since, at base, we continue to reduce speed and increase our flap setting.

In this section, you can descend without restrictions but remember: you must maintain an altitude that allows you to reach the runway in case of an incident.

Once we approach the runway extension, it is time to start the final turn.

In this section, in the Axarquia circuit, you can overshot but do not increase the roll angle. It is normal that in some approaches you will overshot the runway; but don’t worry, keep your roll angle and, later on, make the necessary corrections.

Although it may not look like it, this is one of the most delicate turns in the traffic circuit. This is because the aeroplane has all flaps deployed, the speed is low and the ground is approaching. Thus, a strong increase in roll could lead to an unrecoverable situation.

Remember: when in doubt, it’s better to perform a go around.


This is the final section of the traffic circuit, which we take advantage of to make the final speed and height corrections.

“In aviation, there are three big rules to achieve a perfect landing; unfortunately, no one knows them.” Confusing, isn’t it?

It is a recurring joke made by pilots because, really, learning to land is simple, but no one is able to explain the steps to make it perfect.

What all pilots agree on is that a stabilized approach is key to a good landing.

If your speed, altitude and nose attitude are correct, the aircraft will approach the runway smoothly, you will only have to pull the control back slightly to ‘flare’ and the shot will be perfect.

Once you have landed, with the wheels on the ground, it is time to put the flaps in takeoff position and apply full power.

Now you know how aeroplanes fly over an airport

The movement of aircraft through the traffic pattern at an airport is one of the most important aspects of aviation, so it must be strictly followed to maintain safety.

Today, we have seen in detail the general guidelines of a traffic circuit, and you have been able to ‘hop on’ one of our Diamond to ride it first hand.

We hope that you have enjoyed and learned and that, from now on, you will better understand the movements that an airplane makes when it flies over an airport.

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