What to expect at your first pattern contest

Congratulations! You’ve decided to give pattern flying a whirl. To help, here are a few ideas on what to expect so that you know what the overall plan is and have the best experience possible.

The number one thing to keep in mind is that everybody will be willing to help you. I’ve come across a grand total of one guy in 20 years of pattern flying who wasn’t helpful, and he’s long gone. The only consideration is to wait until when they’re not busy assembling their plane or flying before asking for help. 🙂

A good way to get ready for the event is to download the sequence you will be flying, and the judging information from this site. Visit the Sequences tab for all the supporting information you need. Read through the information, and develop an idea of what your sequence will look like by flying it with a stick plane (two popsicle sticks stuck together works just fine…).

Personally, I make up a custom call sheet based on the sequence with reminders like exit inverted and tall, short, etc. then I print it in as large a font as will fit on one page, and laminate the sheet.

If you have the opportunity, you should practice flying the sequence in the weeks before the contest. Even just getting a sense of the maneuvers will help; getting them in the correct order will help even more. If you can find a flyer to call the sequence for you, it takes the memorization pressure off, and if you can find a pattern flyer to call for you, you’ll pick up lots of tips while you practice.


Most folks take the Friday before the weekend to travel to, and practice at, the new site. Even if it’s your home field, getting out for the afternoon to meet everyone, watch and ask questions is a good idea.  Find a place to set up your stuff. Most folks bring those pop-up tents; if you don’t have one just find a good table or patch of grass to call your own. Unload your gear and get your plane ready to fly.

pattern tent


On the Friday it may be open flying, but it’s usually organized with a flight order. Put your pin on the board and chat up folks while you wait. The best ice breaker is to ask about the flyer’s airplane – the trick is getting them to stop! 😉 Get in a few practice flights with a caller (just ask, someone will step in!), get used to the visual cues at the location, and enjoy the afternoon.

At some point on the Friday or Saturday morning you’ll be asked to sign up – usually there is a fee, but for first timers, many contests will waive any fees. They’ll need your MAAC number & card, and the class that you’ll be flying in (probably Sportsman, maybe Intermediate if you’ve flown IMAC or similar). Your info will be entered into the scoring system for the contest.


Contests usually start at 9-10am with a pilot’s meeting, and you want to get there half an hour or so early to get set up. The pilot’s meeting introduces the contest director (CD), welcomes everyone, explains any field rules, runs through the safety procedures, and explains the flight order (which class is going first) and any judging assignments. If anything doesn’t make sense to you, this is the time to ask! It’s likely someone else has the same question.

In order to keep things running smoothly, you as a flyer need to keep track of when your class is up, when you will be flying in that class (just find out who will be flying before you), and to have your caller, call sheet, transmitter and plane ready to go when the pilot before you lands.


Relax! This is going to be fun. Yes, you’re going to be nervous, but that’s part of the excitement! You can expect a little shaking, dry mouth, and probably a lapse in memory, but fear not! Your caller is there to replace your memory with a working one, and the nervousness will fade quickly. Plus, it’s only on the first flight. I’m not sure why, but I still shake like a leaf on my first flight; after that I’m fine for the rest of the contest.

As you fly the maneuvers, remember to breathe and focus on the plane. If something goes sideways, it’s OK to bail on that maneuver and move on to the next one. Just let it go and focus on the next maneuver. Surprisingly quickly, your flight will be over and you’ll be able to walk through it with your caller. Often for Sportsman flyers, the judges will have some suggestions for you as well.  Take in what they say openly, as it’s all intended as positive advice to help your flying.


Most contests use contestant judging, as it’s rare to have a team of dedicated judges. A great way to get a sense of judging is to have read the material, and volunteer to `scribe`for a judge.  Scribing is simply writing down the judge’s score for each maneuver. Once you work out the hand signals (talking is not permitted as it’s distracting to the pilot) and have scribed a few rounds, you can start to pay more attention to the flying and note to yourself how you would score the maneuvers. Compare them to the judge’s scores and discuss afterward anything that you might not be seeing that they are.

If you’re asked to judge, go for it! As long as you treat every flyer the same, you’ll do fine. Odds are that if the CD asked you to judge, he felt you had a good enough understanding to do the job. Apply what you’ve learned reading and scribing, be consistent and fair and it will be a very useful experience.


There are usually six rounds to a contest.  Of the six rounds flown, your two lowest scoring rounds are dropped so that only 4 count in the final placings.  This means you get two `throw away`rounds, so don’t sweat it if you have a less than spectacular flight.

The flight order will be adjusted by taking the person who flew first in the previous round and dropping them to the end of the flight order so that everyone gets a chance to be the first person up for a round.  If your competitive streak is alive and well, the scores are usually posted after each round. Don’t get too focussed on them, as it sometimes works against you depending on how you handle pressure.

With the excellent scoring programs available today, the pilot will receive back a sheet showing the raw score on each maneuver, the flight total as a percentage of points available, and even a multi-round summary showing graphically which maneuvers need some focus!  Normalizing the scores means the top score becomes 1000 point, and the other competitors are indexed to that score.  So if you score a 940 on the round, this means that you’ve flown 94% as well as the top placing flyer in that round.  It’s more useful to review the raw scores to see where the judges where applying downgrades, and figure out what needs to be tweaked.


At the end of the event, folks will start packing up their stuff, and give a hand to the event coordinators putting everything away. While this is going on, the scorekeepers are getting the last round entered and running the final scoring calculations.  Everyone will gather together and the CD will go through the final placings of the contestants, handing out some form of recognition for the top 3 flyers in each class.  Any raffles or draws will be held, upcoming events mentioned, and the CD will have some closing comments.  A quick round of applause for the contest organizers and then you’ll be bidding fond farewells to your fellow flyers until the next event!

That’s it.  You’ve just virtually experienced your first pattern contest!  Of course, the real thing is WAY more fun. 🙂

– Wayne Powell