Life in a World Without Towers

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So now that all the towers are closed, what are we to do? Will chaos reign? Have the dogs of doom been loosed? Not quite, but depending on where you fly, there could be some challenges ahead that will be unnerving. And just to put some numbers on it, the FAA-announced closures will shutter 149 of 516 control towers in the U.S. or 29 percent. It's not a trivial number so irrespective of safety or risk, many of us will have to adapt to operational changes.

On the other hand, for pilots already operating out of non-towered airports and who don't fly IFR much, if it all, it will be business as usual. It probably will not be business as usual for IFR operations, however. The control facilities which handle these—Centers and TRACONs—will be impacted by furloughed staff and controllers tell us service will inevitably suffer, we just don't know how much. One way to look at the tower closures is to consider VFR operations first, then IFR ops.

It's Just an Airport

When the towers close, the airport's Class D airspace goes away, too. So that means the base of Class E airspace will be at either 700 or 1200 feet AGL. Check a sectional to see which is which, but the majority will be 700 feet. There are a few airports around that have Class-E surface airspace and some of these have—or had—towers. When the tower closes, the Class-E surface remains in effect.

It's a distinction without much of a difference for most visual ops. The minimum requirements for VFR in Class E are more restrictive than in Class G, which is what a closed tower's airspace turns into under the 700-foot floor when the Class D goes away. Refer to FAR 91.155 for a rundown on cloud clearance and vis requirements in Class E and G. In some cases, when flying into former Class D airports, you may need to know the finer points if the weather is marginal.

As of late March, we don't yet have a clear picture of what towers may go to reduced hours so there's some trick in knowing whether the towers will be open or not. NOTAMS should tell the tale, but these can be notoriously inaccurate or out of sync when the system is transitioning from one phase to another, as is certainly the case with massive tower closings. We see several ways to address this before the fact. One is to check with Flight Service if the NOTAMS aren't clear on tower status and another is to actually call the facility. At one time, these were conveniently listed the Airport/Facility Directory which is still available in paper or, more sensibly, digitally. Now, only key facilities and Center numbers are listed, but if you're well and truly confused, calling these should eventually yield an answer. At this juncture, we'll plug our sponsor, ForeFlight, whose document handling feature is one of the best and it can include the A/FD. If you're not already flying with a tablet app of some kind, there's no better time to have one than now to help sort out this tower confusion business.

Last, is the push-to-test method. Just fly into the airport and call on the CTAF published on sectionals, approach procedures or in the communication section of the A/FD. Make a normal CTAF call and if the tower is open, you'll find out soon enough, regardless of what the NOTAMS say or don't say. If the airport of interest doesn't have a published CTAF—doubtful—refer to NOTAMS or check with FSS. If you're worried about airspace busts, make the call beyond the Class D boundaries.

While were on the subject of CTAF calls, the Aeronautical Information Manual covers this in detail in section 4-1-9. It hasn't changed much in years. It recommends the first call 10 miles out, then entering the downwind, base and final and upon clearing the runway. This is a perfectly reasonable starting place at non-towered airports, in our view. Busy airspace may require more calls, but slow airspace shouldn't have any fewer, especially where a tower used to exist. We differ with the AIM on one point: We don't see a reason to use a tailnumber on CTAF calls, and especially if it's a busy CTAF frequency.

This will do fine: "Sanford traffic, Cherokee entering the downwind for runway 6, full stop, Sanford traffic." If you prefer using an N-number, go right ahead. The double stating of the airport reduces confusion if there's more than one airport on the CTAF. But on closed-tower frequencies, that's unlikely to be the case.

In a busy pattern, keep the calls short and to the point and show as much courtesy to other pilots as you'd like to be shown yourself. The Golden Rule works even for cynics.

Runway Selection

We've heard from a handful of readers concerned about runway selection at closed-tower airports, but it's really no different than at any airport that never had a tower. Find out what the wind is doing and pick the most favorable runway. If you're really challenged by this, various apps have features such as extended centerline depictions and wind vector calculators. There's even one for calculating crosswind factor by plugging in the wind and runway data.

Failing that, another trick is to set a VOR card to the available runways and using it to visualize which runway has the least crosswind—or the greatest, if that's what you're interested in. We haven't found any soon-to-be-closed towers that don't have AWOS/ASOS sources on the airport, but if wind data isn't available and no one is in the pattern already setting runway use, do what pilots have always done: a pass over the airport at 500 feet above pattern altitude, followed by entry into the appropriate downwind based on the windsock indication. (You remember those, the big orange funnels. Fly into the small end, out the large end. Far as we know, they still work.)

Based on comments we've heard from AVweb readers, many of the 149 towers to be closed have so little traffic as to be essentially little different from an airport that never had a tower. However, some of the airports have enough mixed speed traffic to represent what we would consider a higher risk environment. Mixed traffic means slow training aircraft, business jets, helicopters and air carrier traffic. No one should underestimate the increased risk of operating into these airports without a tower.

What to do? When arriving, monitor the CTAF as early as possible and use that to form a mental picture of the traffic. Try not to lard up the frequency with unnecessary calls, especially the silly "any traffic in the area report" that just wastes frequency time and marks you as an amateur. If everyone else is using runway 36, why bother to ask for the active runway? Here are some tips on how to avoid embarrassing yourself on the CTAF.

Where practical, plan on and announce a standard 45-entry to the downwind—just what's expected. But understand that larger aircraft, especially air carriers and jets, are likely to fly straight-ins, which is perfectly legal and appropriate for them to do. The AIM says straight-ins are acceptable as long as they're not used to cut off other aircraft.

Speaking of which, if you do get cut off—and you eventually will—it's an utter waste of time and just tacky to chide the offending airplane on the frequency, even though it feels good. Just make the go around announcement and join the pattern for another try. The less carping on the CTAF and the more courtesy, the better. And that especially applies to runway considerations. If you want to change the runway in use, negotiate it with other airplanes in the pattern; that's what radios are for. If your game is up to it, there's no reason you can't use crossing runways at a non-towered field if the pilots work out the sequence and keep each other in sight. You don't need a college course to figure this out.

A reader wrote earlier this week to ask again about large patterns for large aircraft. What's the problem? There isn't one for large aircraft. To keep bank angles under control, they can't fly the same size pattern as smaller aircraft and shouldn't be expected to, which is why you should listen for them flying straight-ins. Adjust your downwind and base accordingly. Some jets and turboprops will fly a larger, conventional pattern at 1500-feet AGL. Watch for them.

But small airplanes flying large patterns just wastes everyone's time and airspace and are less safe than smaller circuits. Three-mile finals put you out of sight of aircraft on the ground or in other pattern legs, increasing the likelihood of conflicts, cutoffs and on-frequency pissing matches. Where practical and possible, smaller, tighter patterns are better. See this video for an acidic take on the subject.

Technology alert. Modern glass panels and avionics are eyeball flypaper, just what you don't need in the pattern. That applies to traffic systems, too. Even if your TAS or ADS-B system shows traffic, you still have to see it visually and your eyes should be outside the cockpit, methodically scanning 10-degree slices of the outside world. Let the avionics sort themselves out. You can't use a traffic system to set a safe and courteous interval for the traffic ahead of you. Don't even try.

One last point. Busy airports that are losing towers are also losing ground control. That means no taxi instructions and no help if you get lost or confused trying to find a runway or the FBO after you've exited the runway. It also means a higher likelihood of runway incursions—not the kind where you're asked to call the tower, but the kind that involve bent metal, or worse. While we're not a fan of ground position reports on small airports, there's a strong argument to use them when crossing runways and/or taking the runway for takeoff. There's no such thing as too much position awareness nor courtesy to other pilots.

This is another argument for a tablet app, since some of them geo-reference to the airport diagram and indicate hot spots on the airport where confusing taxiway and runway alignments might encourage an incursion. For more on hot spots, see this FAA document.

IFR: Be Patient

The tower closings are the most visible FAA cutbacks, but the most meaningful will be in the radar facilities that do the separating—the core of the IFR system. Conversations we've had with controllers who have seen the April and May work schedules suggest that services will be curtailed or delayed irrespective of tower operations.

At one large Center out west, a controller told us where nine controllers would normally be on duty, five will be once the furloughs go into effect. Sectors will be doubled up and controllers may be spending more time on position than they did pre-furlough. Allowing for the usual sick days and no shows, GA pilots should expect ATC facilities that are noticeably understaffed. We suspect any delays this will cause will vary by facility and time of day, but controllers told us it will be noticeable system wide.

How to cope? One way is to simply not fly IFR unless you have no choice and if you go VFR, don't be surprised to have radar advisories declined, since these are offered on a workload-permitting basis. Similarly, clearances through busy Class B airspace may become scarce or delayed, variable with the facility and time of day. Be prepared for it.

The FAA's traffic management units maintain an overview of overall system volume and try to keep specific Centers from getting hammered by too much traffic. But the TMUs will be hit by furloughs too, meaning Centers may be on their own to meter traffic. Controllers tell us that's likely to result in more in-trail spacing and probably something we don't see much anymore: holding. You might refresh yourself on what the AIM has to say about holds. If you haven't done one since your IFR checkride, you may be about to. As Centers and TRACONs figure out how to work with adjacent facilities, we expect to see second order effects that aren't predictable now. We'll know more in a couple of months.

As for getting clearances, the closure of towers won't affect this much everywhere, but it will in some locations. If the airport in question has a remote communications outlet directly to the separating facility, clearance and release may actually be easier than it would be with the tower operating…except the clearance delivery position could be distracted performing other duties. Don't be surprised if there are delays, so be patient.

The advent of cellphone coverage everywhere means the lack of a ground RCO isn't a showstopper. Lockheed Martin maintains an automated, nationwide clearance delivery number (888-766-8267) that runs through six regional hubs. But Flight Service doesn't haven't an inside line to a system that may be overburdened with clearance requests, so there may be more delays. In a pinch, the A/FD lists operational telephone numbers for Centers and while these aren't clearance delivery lines, you may be able to use one to get to a clearance delivery position.

Pop-ups are always an option, but probably not a very good one in a system that's reverting to work-load permitting status. Controllers we've communicated with suggest pop-ups may work in some cases, but don't count on it. A better option is getting the release on the ground. And don't even think about expecting a Center controller to plug in an IFR flightplan on the fly. Extend the courtesy of filing something so the flight strip is ready to go. Also, mind your radio work. Controllers aren't going to have the time or patience for other than A-game radio and procedures work. Think twice about ride report requests; ATC may have other things to do.

If you've spent the last few years warmly embraced by wall-to-wall radar coverage and nice comfy vectors to final, you should expect to encounter some situations where they won't be available. That means brushing up on non-radar procedures for departures and arrivals. We'll look at those in detail in a later article.

A Little Courtesy

One advantage of towers is that they conveniently relay down times to separating facilities once you've landed. That nice service goes away when the towers do, so you'll have to do it yourself and it's easy to forget it. It's also a big deal to forget it, because with no down time, ATC will automatically put the SAR apparatus into motion and they won't be amused with having to chase you down.

Down times can be relayed through a ground RCO if there is one, or via cellphone through Flight Service. If none of those work, you can always try to contact a nearby airborne aircraft on the controlling facility's frequency and request a downtime relay.

The courtesy cancellation: Is this a lost gesture? At least some of the airports that will lose their towers will become single-threaded for IFR, meaning one in, one out. This limitation can be dispensed with if inbound pilots simply cancel IFR—weather permitting—when the destination is in sight rather than taking it IFR all the way to the tie down. The cancellation effectively unpins the waiting IFR outbound and keeps things perking along for everyone with no cost to anyone.

And this gets us to courtesy and respect in general, to each other and to ATC. Don't forget, while major Centers and TRACONs aren't closing, as are the 149 towers, the controllers working in them are taking significant work-hour and pay cuts. Some might enjoy the days off, but some will be barely be able to afford them. Keep that in mind when you're denied a Class B clearance or you have to wait 15 minutes for an IFR release. Just take a deep breath, relax and we'll all do fine.