What do you do when downwind is full?

Taking off from runway 03

What do you do when performing an overhead join, you travel into crosswind and downwind has not room at the inn?

Like many, my preference is to always perform a join from deadside, as it provides me with an excellent overall view of what’s happening on and around the airfield before I commit to getting stuck into the traffic pattern, 1,000 feet below.

We all know what the standard traffic pattern looks like:

Deadside approach procedure

(Page 99 Skyway Code, https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/modalapplication.aspx?appid=11&mode=detail&id=7920)

Sometimes, it gets busy down there, and it’s extremely important to have excellent situational awareness.

You can help other pilots by being very clear and give regular updates on your position (never be afraid to tell people where you are on the radio – find out what you need to know about the FRTOL here).

But sometimes, it’s just a touch … too busy!

So, you do your overhead join, you’ve called 5 miles out and you do your call overhead:

Overhead comms

You descend deadside knowing that there are already 4 aircraft running along the downwind leg and another just taking off for circuits when you reach the circuit height of 800 feet and prepare to fly the crosswind leg.

Crosswind join procedure

(Skyway code page 100 – https://publicapps.caa.co.uk/docs/33/CAP1535_Skyway_Code_V2_INTER.pdf)

As you announce you are entering crosswind leg it prompts a few other pilots to update on their position too. You realise there are another 3 aircraft on the downwind already and you are starting to doubt where you are going to fit in.

This is it, your decision point. The earlier you decide the better. Regardless of your confidence, how confident are those already in a very busy circuit? You may be perfectly happy slotting into a gap the size of a fingernail, but how will that action impact those around you?

So, what do you do when downwind is full?

As early as possible, you announce where you are and what you’re going to do:

Comms back into the overhead

Then you do it, climb back up and into the overhead at 2,000 feet. Once you are climbing remain clear of the down wind leg (make turns in the same direction as the circuit) and take a look around from the overhead. Perhaps a few orbits and things will be much clearer? Perhaps by the time you descend back into the deadside, there’s more likely to be a safe gap?

Regardless, if in doubt on crosswind, approaching a busy downwind – get back into the overhead and try again.

What not to do

  • Keep going ▶ if there’s not enough room you’ll put yourself and other people in danger. Just because you can, doesn’t mean others can. If you’re not confident dealing with the workload associated with that level of traffic, don’t attempt to join it.
  • Turn in the opposite direction of the circuit pattern ▶ this will potentially put you head-on with on-coming traffic not a good idea (seen it happen, I still can’t get the stains out of the seat).
  • Go lower and under the circuit height ▶ others are simply not expecting you to do that and if someone happens to need to descend, they again won’t be expecting you there.

Please note images are copyright AirBourne Aviation unless otherwise stated.

Disclaimer: This article was written for information only and was up to date at the time of writing. Please always ask a qualified instructor for more information and discuss airfield operations and the use of aircraft equipment with a suitably qualified person.