FAA Issues Advisory Circular Update On Non-Towered Airport Operations


The FAA has issued an updated Advisory Circular (AC 90-66C) providing fresh guidance on operations at non-towered airports. While much of the 28-page document reaffirms existing information on preflight planning, charts, weather information and other fundamentals, the AC is very specific on traffic pattern entry, traffic pattern flow, and communications and phraseology. For example, section 8.2.1 of the AC reads: “The FAA does not regulate traffic pattern entry, only traffic pattern flow. This means that when entering the traffic pattern at an airport without an operating control tower, inbound pilots are expected to observe other aircraft already in the pattern and to conform to the traffic pattern in use.”

The AC also advises that “an aircraft on an instrument approach flying on the final approach course to land would follow the requirements dictated by the approach procedure. Further, to mitigate the risk of a midair collision at a non-towered airport in other than instrument conditions, the FAA does not recommend that the pilot execute a straight-in approach for landing when there are other aircraft in the traffic pattern. The straight-in approach may cause a conflict with aircraft in the traffic pattern and on base to final and increase the risk of a midair collision.”

On communications best practices, the AC provides detailed guidance on the “self-announce” procedure: “‘Self-announce’ is a procedure whereby pilots broadcast their aircraft call sign, position, altitude, and intended flight activity or ground operation on the designated CTAF. … Self-announcing should include aircraft type to aid in identification and detection, but should not use paint schemes or color descriptions to replace the use of the aircraft call sign.” The AC further admonishes: “When referring to a specific runway, pilots should use the runway number and not use the phrase ‘Active Runway,’” adding, “To help identify one airport from another when sharing the same frequency, the airport name should be spoken at the beginning and end of each self-announce transmission.”

The AC also reminds pilots: “The use of the phrase ‘ANY TRAFFIC IN THE AREA, PLEASE ADVISE’ is not a recognized self-announce position and/or intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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    • Well, as the article says, most of it is nothing new, but there were a few key things in it based on the summary in the article.

      For instance, the official word from the FAA is now “Self-announcing should include aircraft type to aid in identification and detection, but should not use paint schemes or color descriptions to replace the use of the aircraft call sign”. I have been arguing for years that using descriptors like “blue and white cessna” is useless and borderline dangerous, and it seems the FAA agrees.

      Also, “the FAA does not regulate traffic pattern entry, only traffic pattern flow” seems to put to bed the “debate” about how pilots should enter the traffic pattern by effectively saying “follow whatever everyone else is doing, but avoid a straight-in landing if other aircraft are in the pattern”. That’s subltly different from what it has been in the past.

      • I don’t totally agree with the straight-in “rule”. As a CFII I’ll break off an instrument approach if necessary but it’s almost useless if we can’t at least get down to minimums. I usually have no problems as I coordinate with others so that we are aware of each other’s intentions. Works fine from my experience n

        • The wording “the FAA does not recommend that the pilot execute a straight-in approach for landing when there are other aircraft in the traffic pattern” to me says performing a straight-in practice approach is fine, as long as the practice approach isn’t flown to a landing when there are other aircraft in the pattern.

        • Hoser. That’s what I do too – coordinate with other traffic. But per InFO15012, if there’s a deviation, the approach can still be logged per this guideline – “footnote 6 During simulated instrument flight in an aircraft, it may be necessary to deviate from the final approach segment for safety reasons (e.g., in order to avoid traffic or other hazards). In these cases, the pilot may still log the IAP, provided the aircraft has passed the final approach fix (FAF)”.

        • I agree 100% with you. Practice approaches should be flown to minimums when able. Communication is the name of the game. Training to minimums is key in becoming a proficient confident pilot. Common sense is clearly not common

      • Removing my journalist hat for a moment, Gary – I have a mixed answer to the color scheme question. On “self-announce” first call, the callsign should be part of the message. But I have found that in a pattern crowded with multiple Cessnas “Cessna 1234” doesn’t help much (especially with small numbers on the tail). I found it much more useful to hear, “Blue and white Cessna turning base” to assure me I had the correct one in sight. Thoughts?

        • I have never found it possible to tell what color most aircraft are until you’re within about a quarter mile of another aircraft – already a collision hazard. I have also found more often than not there are multiple “blue and white” cessnas in the pattern, so that makes descriptive even less helpful. At least with giving tail number, I can keep track of who is where, and if they have ADS-B Out, I can even see them on a traffic display.

          • ADS-B is a definite game changer on that, for sure.
            I have a wild story from years ago about a lost student pilot miles away with a similar tail number (almost all Grumman AA1s seem to have a lot of sixes and nines and end in Lima). He got confused and started answering my calls to a control tower (and saying he was lost) as I was getting close in to the airport – not letting me get a word in to undo the mess. The controller was watching me and talking to him, telling HIM the airport was right in front of him. The frustrated and very confused guy in the tower finally asked him what color his Grumman was…and guess what. His was blue, just like mine. I finally got through as I was turning base. It all worked out ok in the end.

        • fcc dot gov – Station Operation (see the last one).
          The licensee of a radio station is responsible at all times for the proper operation of the station. Radio operators should use the following guidelines to make radio a useful tool for safe and efficient flight:
          Tune both transmitter and receiver to the correct channels.
          Be sure the channel is clear before transmitting.
          Be brief. Transmit essential messages only.
          Shorten or eliminate test calls on the ramp or in flight.
          Identify transmission with FCC call sign or FAA “N” number.

        • Mark, I fly air ambulance helicopters out of a busy uncontrolled airport and I can attest that using only a color and aircraft make as the callsign causes a lot of confusion. When we are responding to a Medivac 911 call I don’t have the luxury of listening to the radio for several minutes while taxiing like a fixed wing so I use my TAS to get an idea of who might be out there. I use the information I hear and match it up with the TAS but things get confusing when I don’t hear N numbers being called out. There is a large flight school in the region that all have blue and white Cessnas and just a couple of weeks ago they were actually saying “second blue and white Cessna on left downwind”, no N number. When I decided to play the same game I said “Blue and white Medivac helicopter with red stripes, black lettering with white outlines and a snake on a stick” several times as my callsign they got the message (I think).

  1. How about more and different CTAF frequencies for non towered airports?

    On the weekends nobody can get a word in because 10 airports in North East Georgia all have the same CTAF.

    It’s ridiculous how bad frequency congestion has gotten.

    • Agree. At least 4 airports within 50-60 NM of the airport I fly at use 122.7, two of which have very busy flight schools.

    • I tried that at my non-towered field many years ago, did all the leg work and presented the best frequency to the board. Turned down as too complicated to make the change. We have a lot of older prop-driven military aircraft here and a more discrete frequency would be great to have. (Sigh)

    • Be careful what you wish for. 🙂

      My home airport (one of the busiest uncontrolled fields in the state) is getting a new frequency next month, after 40+ years on 122.8. I wonder how many months (years!) it will take before everyone gets the word?

      Yes, I know, everyone is supposed to be checking NOTAMs and familiarizing themselves with all aspect of a planned flight. But in reality, there are probably a lot of folks who aren’t going to get the word. It’s going to be fun; sometimes we get 10+ airplanes in the pattern.

  2. The FAA still stands by its guidance on pattern entry from the upwind side to overfly and do a descending 270 in the opposite direction of the pattern to join the downwind, regardless of how unsafe that maneuver is. Why not allow traffic to join on a 45 on the upwind side parallel to the runway and join the flow of traffic? It allows pilots to see other traffic and extend their upwind as necessary to fit into the flow of traffic. What was the FAA thinking when they came up with a procedure so full of hazards?

    • That’s not what AC 90-66 states. One should cross AT pattern altitude if one can fit in the flow (downwind) or overfly at 500’ ABOVE pattern altitude, fly out 1-2 miles to descend to pattern altitude, then enter on a 45* entry.

      • That’s what I said. When you look at the figure depicting the procedure you see that the “1-2 miles” could put you head to head with traffic entering the downwind. The turn depicted is opposite the direction of traffic ( ie a right 270 to join left traffic) which is a setup for a classic high-wing/low-wing conflict. Add to that turbine or jet traffic in the pattern and you have a recipe for disaster. The FAA should simplify upwind entries in the interest of safety.

        • Upwind entries aren’t always possible, such as at airports where both patterns are flown on the same side of the runway (due to airspace or terrain or other reasons).

          A one-size-fits-all pattern entry just isn’t possible, because not all airports can support the same type of entry. You just have to evaluate what the options and considerations are and choose the one with the lowest overall risk. And be prepared to change your plan based on the actual situation.

        • That graphic leaves a little (actually a lot) to be desired. If you literally follow only the graphic, it does look like you may have a collision hazard with high performance traffic at 1500agl and a blind-spot and head-on hazard with downwind traffic when making the 270° turn.

          However, the written guidelines on the previous page (8-4) provide clarification. The pilot should pass over at 2000′ agl when there is a 1500′ pattern (I use 2000′ agl at all times). The turn to the runway is really a three step process – continue overhead until well clear of the pattern, scan carefully and descend to pattern altitude, then turn right to enter on the 45 (i.e. don’t turn until steps 1 and 2 are done). So it doesn’t change the pattern entry – it is still a level entry at pattern altitude.

          • “ The pilot should pass over at 2000′ agl when there is a 1500′ pattern.” There is almost always a 1500’ pattern…for turbine aircraft. As a turbine pilot, this is one of the most-overlooked things that causes traffic conflicts for turboprops and jets. I’ve been completely cut off by training aircraft crossing midfield while I’m on downwind more times than I care to remember. They also tend to be the ones who then fly patterns wider and longer than the turbine airplanes, but that’s a discussion for another day.

        • One should be 500’ above the TPA until 1-2 miles out, then descend to TPA inbound on the 45* entry, advising of position on airport frequency.

          • The guideline is “When well clear of the pattern—approximately 2 miles—the pilot should scan carefully for traffic, descend to pattern altitude, then turn right to enter at 45° to the downwind leg at midfield.” I think that says the descent is completed flying away from the runway before turning right to enter at 45°.

    • “Why not allow traffic to join on a 45 on the upwind side”. You would have a head-on conflict with helicopter traffic, and then a blind spot hazard from climbing departing traffic when you cross the departure leg.

      • It would put you in the pattern with helicopter traffic, yes – but going in the same direction. That shouldn’t create any new hazards: it would be a 45 entry, with traffic in the pattern; fly accordingly. Crossing the departure leg (which we can now call “upwind” again), the crossing aircraft can clearly see aircraft on the runway and climbing out.

        • If you fly with the helicopter traffic, that’s not an upwind leg – that’s a downwind leg on the wrong side of the runway.

  3. “The AC also reminds pilots: “The use of the phrase ‘ANY TRAFFIC IN THE AREA, PLEASE ADVISE’ is not a recognized self-announce position and/or intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.”

    Why do commuter pilots say “Last call” when departing the area of an airport?

    • Commuter pilots? When I hear “last call” it’s from GA aircraft. I don’t know where this came from but it’s a redundant call when one says “departing tithe East last call”.

      • I hear it most often from the SpongeBob Flying Academy CFIs who start a chain reaction of “seeya”s which their students perpetuate. Then they make their way to the airlines where captains are tasked with mentoring professionalism.

    • My understanding of the thought behind the “last call” phrase is that it lets pilots (who are already on the frequency and have been listening) know that they’re switching frequencies and will no longer be monitoring the CTAF in case anyone were to call them.

      I tried it once (I’m opening to learning new things) but determined it wasn’t for me, and I didn’t get any value add from it.

  4. The value of developing a advanced mental picture of what’s going on at the airport you’re approaching can’t be overstated. I always try to monitor the CTAF for at least a few minutes prior to arrival. If you’re working with ATC it sometimes be a unwanted distraction, but the effort can be worthwhile, especially where ATC has poor or no low altitude radar coverage.

  5. So WITHOUT a radio it’s still the same. Keep looking and fit in with the pattern that works with the wind. And HOPE every one else in the pattern remembers that not all airplanes have radio’s or ADSB out.
    Let’s not forget about Ultralights also.

  6. Add to that the requirement to check NOTAMS for procedures that differ during non-tower operations at airports where towers are usually in operation. The FAA cuts funding for control towers so they are often unmanned and closed at night. Sometimes an airport you expect to have Right traffic when the tower is open reverts to left traffic when the tower closes.

  7. I have to disagree with the lack of calling out colors on aircraft. Calling a red and white Cherokee or blue and white Moonie is a lot easier to see that using a tail number that is impossible to see. If there is more than one Cessna whatever in the pattern, they can be more specific to identify their location in the pattern. Not sure how that is considered useless and borderline dangerous. How will anyone identify multiple Cessnas by using their tail numbers?

    • If you have to read the tail number to figure out where they are, you aren’t keeping a mental picture of where the traffic is. The point is not to read the tail number off the plane, the point is to keep track of who is where, and having multiple “blue and white cessnas” (they always seem to be “blue and white”) reporting their positions doesn’t help me keep track of which specific blue and white cessna is where.

      Besides which, most planes are mostly-white with some trim colors, and I challenge anyone to be able to visually distinguish a “blue and white” cessna from a “green and white” cessna at more than a quarter mile or so. Especially if you don’t have a side-on view of the aircraft.

    • Because ADS-B shows N-numbers. You can verify exactly where each airplane is in the pattern. Calling out colors is bad practice and I’m glad the FAA has finally said something about it.

        • It sure helps when I’m approaching a non-towered airport to see where the planes are on a traffic display before I get there. Or when an aircraft calls turning base to final and you can’t see them, it helps narrow down where to look.

          Looking out the window does not have to exclude using traffic displays to better locate the traffic.

    • My TCAS that shows N numbers does now show what color your aircraft is. Just saying “Blue Cessna” does me no good when I’m trying to figure out who I might address in the pattern when using TCAS (or the like) to figure out who’s who. Don’t be lazy and just use your N number.

  8. Company call signs such as Beech Test 147 for example are uninformative anywhere else but at the home airport. All a company call sign does is identify the PIC on that flight, and for that you need to be part of the company and know each other’s call signs. Such a call sign could signify a single engine Bonanza, a King Air or a military trainer, or even something faster.

    Several commenters have alluded to ADS-B. I outfitted my hobby airplane with ADS-B Out because I’m convinced some people spend more time with eyes glued to the iPad than looking outside, even in the pattern. Hopefully all of us here on AvWeb keep what’s outside our windows in our scan. Right? Please.

    • You hit it on the nose about ADS-B. People are forgetting that Non-Towered Airports DON’T require a Radio, or ADS-B in or out.
      Please us the heads up display that our Mothers gave us all. Look out the window.

      As far as call signs the FAA would prefer the use of numbers so any problems that arrize can be traced back to the offender if there is anything recording it.

  9. Regarding airplane color vs. callsign, unless you are fairly close already, one color scheme may not be discernable from another. The military has stated as much. More to the point, my brain registers number and letter sequences much better than it does colors when spoken. In any case, just ensure your position reporting is accurate and timely. And, BTW, what about night flying? If you do it one way during the day and another at night, eventually you are going to mess up. I also strongly disagree with the policy to not use ‘ANY TRAFFIC IN THE AREA, PLEASE ADVISE’ as a discretionary tool. While it may not be a good idea to use this phrase if the airport area is buzzing with CTAF calls, if instead if it is eerily silent when you suspect other aircraft are operating, there is nothing wrong with asking if anyone else is out there. When are we going to have a discussion about how messed up the NOTAM system is?

    • “there is nothing wrong with asking if anyone else is out there”

      Yes, there is: if there’s more than one aircraft in the area, who determines who speaks first? If more than one aircraft tries to speak at the same time, you’ve just caused those pilots to step over each other, and possibly the other pilot who was trying to announce their entry into the pattern.

      All that is required is to make your own announcement as usual. If there are other pilots in the area, they’ll make their calls as usual. And if they don’t, they wouldn’t have responded to “any traffic please advise” anyway. I certainly do NOT respond to “any traffic please advise”, and instead just make my calls as usual.

  10. FAA needs to give some standard guidance on “self-announce”–especially at airports with a lot of flight training.

    “Self-announce” is OK, until it is taken to the extreme–“Leaving the ramp to taxi to Runway XX”–“Crossing runway XX on Alpha taxiway”–“holding short of runway XX”–“Departing runway XX for touch and go practice”–“crosswind for runway XX”–“Downwind for runway XX”–“base for runway XX”–final for runway XX”–“on the go on Runway XX”……………..That’s virtually non-stop transmission……I guess these pilots think “If a little bit is good, MORE is BETTER!” And Heaven help us if there is more than one aircraft in the traffic pattern at the same time–it is a non-stop cacophony!

    Some flight instructors take it to the extreme–“Overflying the field at 7000′ (field elevation is 1000′)”–“Practicing Lazy 8s 9 miles north of the field”–“doing turns about a point at 700′ AGL 8 miles south”. It’s odd–these “instructors” insist on this over-use of the frequency–yet they don’t invest in ADS-B traffic avoidance.

    Even worse, they believe that this over-use of the radio somehow “inoculates” them as they cut others out of the traffic pattern (“But I called on downwind and base….”)–maybe they weren’t aware because they were transmitting (for the 8th circuit of the pattern) instead of listening for other traffic. Each traffic “self-announcement” takes about 8 seconds to complete. If a pilot makes 6 calls per circuit, that’s 48 seconds of transmitting for each circuit–or a maximum of 6 aircraft making radio calls IF EVERY SECOND OF AIR TIME IS USED. It only takes a few aircraft to utilize 100% of the air time in the pattern (and that doesn’t account for those who proudly announce their presence miles away or thousands of feet above the airport.

    I guess they subscribe to the “If a LITTLE is GOOD, MORE MUST BE BETTER! theory.

    Years ago, I saw a sign in an airport FBO–“Airplanes fly because of Bernoulli–NOT Marconi”–and a clueless flight instructor asked “Who are THOSE people?”

    Keep self announcements to a minimum–as the old joke goes “They should be like women’s skirts–short enough to be interesting, and just long enough to cover the bases.”

  11. James Peterson July 5, 2023 At 4:57 pm (There was no reply button on your comment).

    – In Connecticut, there are 10 non-towered airports open to the public. The only one that has a 1500′ pattern (for 12,500 lbs and above in this case) mentioned in the Chart Supplement is where I’m based – Robertson Airport 4B8. At least one other airport, Windham KIJD, sells Jet A, but there’s no mention of a 1500′ pattern. On the other hand, one towered airport, Bridgeport KBDR, specifies a 1500′ pattern for anything not single-engine.

    One question I would have for you is what is in the Chart Supplement for these airports where you said you were cut off? One issue could be that there’s nothing in the Chart Supplement. Another could be that pilots only follow the bullet points on the graphic in the Airplane Flying Handbook which says pattern altitude +500 feet – the guideline to fly at 2000′ agl is on the page prior to the graphic buried in one of the paragraphs.

    I’ve been flying since the 70’s and can’t remember even one occurrence where a turbo-prop or jet came into a downwind leg stacked up over slower traffic. I don’t see how the pilots are going to figure out the sequence, or how the higher aircraft is going to cut through the lower traffic pattern level to get to the runway without some dangerous blind spot hazards. All turboprop/jet traffic I’ve seen just make a straight-in so that makes it easy to extend the downwind and maintain spacing and visual contact, and also not worry about a faster airplane behind me.

  12. Alrighty then! Could y’all kindly inform all them Slim Pickens type folks from Oklahoma, Texas, and a few other states that the right way to say “Cessna” is usually “SESS-nuh” or “SESS-nah,” not “SESS-nerrr”?

  13. I fly air ambulance helicopters and have been flying for over 35,000 hours and have to say that proper radio discipline has really fallen off a cliff in recent years. I couldn’t disagree more with those that think that using “blue and white Cessna” as their call sign is a good idea. With many/most of us having some form of traffic advisory display that show N numbers and their approximate position it does nobody any good when trying to match “blue and white Cessna” with what is seen on the TAS display. Besides, from more than a mile away the only part of “blue and white Cessna” that is potentially discernable would be the Cessna part. Use your N number folks and don’t be part of the lazy crowd. Also, keep in mind helicopters are directed to AVOID THE FLOW OF FIXED WING TRAFFIC so keep an eye out for helicopters and helicopter pilots…make good radio calls so not to confuse the fixed wing traffic. Fixed wing traffic….when you hear a helicopter use the MEDIVAC callsign, be prepared to modify your plans while operating in the pattern to give priority to the Medivac flight. Rant is complete…..