Earlier today I was hanging out at the funnest place on earth – the Vail Valley Jet Center, and a pilot called the FBO to ask about mountain flying. Well naturally, being the local CFI and being the lobby the phone got passed to me. The VFR pilot on the other end of the line was coming to the area for the first time and wanted to know if climbing in the pattern was something that could be done.
Overall this strategy is a good one, and it’s something I’ve done many times. Simply take off, let the tower know you want to make a lap through the pattern and continue climbing. This is a great way to get to your crossing altitude. Not only does it keep you over friendly terrain, but also keeps you near an ideal landing site. I specifically do this at night quite frequently – I think it’s a great strategy for circling over the airfield or city when the lights are below you to gain altitude before departing the area enroute – expecially where there is mountainous terrain.
The only complexity of this strategy really only comes into play if the weather is less than ideal, or the traffic to the airport is heavy. Here’s why. You can assume at any given field there are probably a couple instrument approaches, with missed approach procedures. There is also the “go around” flight path to the runway. As you climb in the pattern, you are climbing through airspace that is sometime used for that go around or used for the missed approach. Let’s say as a VFR pilot you’re in clear airspace directly above the airport, but to the east is a cloud formation and arriving aircraft from the east are on instrument approach. Assuming the arriving aircraft don’t see the airport by the missed approach point then they start their go around, then they may pop out of the clouds right where you’re circling to climb.
No strategy is perfect, but this an overall good one.