My wife, my dog, and I often sit out at our airport in the car and eat a fast-food supper in the evening; and when we do, we often have a handheld radio tuned to the traffic frequency (i.e., CTAF = Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) to listen to the “going’s on”. You never know what you’re going to see or hear sitting out there, and I recently noticed a spate of pilots performing touch and go’s while calling they were “upwind” on the climb out. In all my years of flying, I had not noticed that becoming a problem before, so I decided to go look into why it might be happening. Obviously, the pilot had never paid attention to the traffic pattern diagrams or terminology used in the Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) and, worse, somebody may have trained them to say that. So, I spent a little time reviewing what the AIM and some other publications that provide pilot training might be doing. But, before we take a look at what I found, let’s talk a little about why using straight- forward and standard terminology when talking on the radios is important. If you don’t think it is, you can unplug from this discussion now and turn off your radios anytime you’re flying at a non-towered field. You’ll be better off because you’ll be totally dependent upon your Mark II eyeballs and not get sucked off looking in the wrong place or confusing other pilots who are listening to the radio for advisories and really do care.

Talking on the radios is not a skill all pilots take value or pride in, as we all know when we hear someone clobbering the frequency with a monologue that would compete with the best of the late-night talk shows and demonstrates to the world their lack of training. While using the Mark II eyeball is ALWAYS required for collision avoidance and is a pilot’s primary tool, using the radios to improve pilots’ situational awareness in the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport will always improve one’s odds of survival and even of having a good time (just not at the expense of everyone else listening on the CTAF). I realize, too, that my training as an F-14 Fighter RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) is kicking in here, since the RIO generally spoke to Air Traffic Control for the airplane, and both my superiors and my pilot deeply cared whether I communicated like a professional. That meant thinking about what I said before I keyed the mike, making my communications crisp to get on and off quickly while also getting my point across or relaying information quickly but accurately, and doing it in a way that made us sound “Sierra Hotel”. Part of getting there is by using standard terminology. When we don’t, we can make the other pilots guess what we mean. They might guess wrong. Sometimes that might just irritate or inconvenience us; but sometimes it can actually put us at risk, exactly what using the radios is trying to avoid.

So, let’s start looking at that standard terminology and what it’s supposed to be. We’ll start with the Airman’s Information Manual’s (AIM) part 4-3-2. While this section discusses operations at a field with a control tower, the make-up of a traffic pattern is defined generically. Here’s the picture it presents.

Here’s how it defines what we’re looking at: “The following terminology for the various components of a traffic pattern has been adopted as standard for use by control towers and pilots (See Figure 4-3-1):
1. Upwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing.
2. Crosswind leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its takeoff end.
3. Downwind leg. A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the opposite direction of landing.
4. Base leg. A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its approach end and extending from the downwind leg to the intersection of the extended runway centerline.
5. Final approach. A flight path in the direction of landing along the extended runway centerline from the base leg to the runway.
6. Departure. The flight path which begins after takeoff and continues straight ahead along the extended runway centerline. The departure climb continues until reaching a point at least 1/2 mile beyond the departure end of the runway and within 300 feet of the traffic pattern altitude.”

There is no graphical depiction of the departure leg in the above figure, but there is one a few pages later:

So, when taking off from a runway and climbing out, calling you are on the “Upwind” is NOT correct! When you do that, pilots approaching the airport, on the downwind, or even on the ground can be suckered into looking for you at any point except where you are. Even if they think they know who made the call, the uncertainty created causes a distraction, something no one can afford if they’re on downwind, reconfiguring their airplane for landing and performing their landing checklist while trying to keep everyone else in sight.

The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge also uses the same diagram above with the same terminology we have been discussing. Look at how the graphic shows the use of the term “departure”.

“Upwind” is nowhere to be found.

So, just how has this practice come into play? It probably is one of those common usage/myth things, started by someone (and maybe even trained by someone) who didn’t know better. Or didn’t care. Maybe the assumption is that since the nose is pointed as the same direction as “upwind” and you’ve got power on, it’s the same. It’s not. Your position is directly aligned with the runway centerline, you are NOT flying parallel to it. (Your closest argument to being correct would be on a go around in which you had side-stepped to the right; but I would not personally call “upwind” for that case since my lateral displacement from the runway is rather small.). Frankly, if I heard a radio call telling me an airplane “was on the go” from the takeoff runway, I would consider that call more accurate and likely to lead to a better result even though it is non-standard. (It still tells me where to look.)

But when I looked into it, I realized there was some training material put out there by a pilot’s organization that could be contributing to the problem. It is AOPA’s “NON-TOWERED OPERATIONS” brochure, which includes the following graphic:

With the number of pilots and CFI’s involved with this organization, you gotta wonder what made them comfortable codifying a practice inconsistent with FAA usage (i.e.,the AIM and the Pilot/Controller Glossary). My own experience with the organization’s training materials is when they start off with a disclaimer or an excuse, you can bet it’s wrong. (Don’t get me started about their Aerodynamics training. It fits that pattern.) I would contact them to suggest they correct this; but I’ve done it before and they’ve blown me off. I’m sure the argument will be they were just telling you that folks were doing it; if that’s it, it’s not clear. Additionally, for new pilots trying to learn this stuff, it can be misleading. There really is NO reason for it to be there at all. You gotta have some boundaries and discipline somewhere.

Or maybe you don’t. It is up to you.