Eye of Experience #22:
Operations at Non-Towered Airports

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Just because there's not a control tower at an airport, it doesn't mean that there aren't any procedures to follow for landings and takeoffs. Still, operating at a non-towered airport can be one of the most confusing parts of a flight, for experienced and neophyte pilots alike. AVweb's Howard Fried demystifies these procedures with some common sense and some examples of what not to do.

Eye Of Experience A letter from a reader who had an unpleasant experience at a non-towered airport prompted this column. He wrote the following account:

I was recently making a straight-in final to a non-towered airport. Monitoring the Unicom frequency, I was aware of another airplane in the pattern flying touch-and-goes with a student. Since I was approaching from the west from a cross-country flight and the other aircraft was using runway 09, a straight-in approach seemed appropriate. The airport does have a left-hand pattern established. I made position reports several times using my GPS for accurate distance reporting and indicated I was on a straight-in final. I had the other airplane in sight the entire way. Shortly after I reported approximately a one-mile final, the other aircraft turned base. I was about two hundred feet lower at the time and with his turn to base we were headed on a collision course. I radioed this instructor to ask if he saw me on final and he acknowledged that he did. I radioed back that I would be aborting the approach.

As it turns out, this other instructor was trying to teach me a lesson because, in his opinion, I had no right to fly a straight-in approach at that airport because it uses left-hand patterns. He claims it is his responsibility to fly the pattern close to the runway so that if he loses power he can make the runway, and that my straight-in approach would cause him to extend too far on downwind to make the runway should he lose power.

I feel that I had the right of way according to the FARs because I was on final and at a lower altitude. I would have flown a standard left-hand pattern had I been coming from any other direction, or had there been several other planes in the pattern. By staying in communication with the other pilot/instructor I felt like I was certainly within the rules and also flying very safely.

When he turned base in front of me, I feel he violated FAR 91.13 and in addition flew his aircraft in an unsafe and reckless manner. With a student on board, what kind of message is he teaching? Also, I don't feel an instructor should be enforcing the FARs by cutting in front of another pilot on final to teach him a lesson. He could easily have communicated his difference of opinion to me on the radio or when we were on the ground.

I can clearly see the merit in both sides of this issue. Our reader was wrong for not flying the pattern instead of making a straight-in approach. What is he going to do with the two minutes he saved by not circling the airport and entering the downwind?

On the other hand, the instructor should have waited until they were both on the ground to discuss the matter.

A CFI and student prepare to fly.For many years I had the unique experience of operating two flight schools under two separate school certificates, one at an extremely busy tower-controlled airport (so busy that it requires two tower frequencies to handle all the traffic) and one at a small one-runway, country store type non-towered airport. These facilities were a mere dozen or so miles apart. Consequently, our students had the best of both worlds. Those enrolled at each school had the unique opportunity of obtaining a portion of their training at the other facility. At that time I was a very busy DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner), administering well in excess of 300 flight tests per year for all certificates and ratings, and when testing pilots trained at the busy towered airport from other schools I consistently observed an appalling lack of knowledge and skill when it came to operations at what we used to call uncontrolled airports, and now refer to as non-towered airports. Likewise, when applicants would come from distant airports without control towers for their private pilot check rides, many of them displayed a weakness in their radio communication skills.


When giving a practical test for the private certificate I would have the applicant plan a cross-country flight of over 100 miles to the first destination, and we would start off on the trip. Some 20 miles or so along the way I would divert the applicant to an alternate by telling him/her that I just heard the weather is rotten at out destination and is rapidly closing in on us. I would tell them to fly to the nearest airport and land, having arranged for the nearest airport to be a non-towered airport with a very narrow runway with power lines at one end and an 85-foot tree line at the other, albeit of more than adequate length. I would often hear the comment, "I can't land there that's not a runway, it's a sidewalk!" After all, they were used to operating off a 6,000-foot runway 300 feet in width and here they were confronted with a single paved runway with dimensions of "only" 2,600 by 24 feet. In fact, this facility is an excellent example of why it is important to land on the centerline, because if the nose wheel isn't on the centerline, one of the mains will likely be off the pavement in the mud!

Pattern Entry

It was amazing to see the pattern entries, or lack thereof, that some private applicants demonstrated. I was often literally astounded at the weird pattern entries I saw. Some would dive for the runway from wherever they happened to be. Others would descend into the pattern, a definite no-no, and still others would enter a right downwind, also a no-no. This activity demonstrated a definite lack of knowledge of both the AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual) and the FARs. There are, of course, a great many more non-towered airports in this country than there are those with operating control towers, and it behooves all of us to comply with and follow the standard procedures by which we arrive at them.

Cessna 150 at duskI vividly remember getting thoroughly chewed out one day by the owner/operator of a small one-strip privately owned airport for not entering the pattern at 45 degrees to the downwind leg. The situation was as follows: In the Commercial-Airplane flight test the three-turn descending spiral around a point on the ground is a derivative of the 1,080 overhead approach to a landing. On a commercial check ride, I would occasionally combine the forced landing with the three-turn spiral by cutting the power over the numbers of a runway at a non-towered airport (or at one with a control tower after advising the local controller of my intention) and asking the applicant to make a three-turn descending spiral around a point on the ground, ending on a base leg 45 degrees from the end of the runway, and finish by landing.

I did this with an applicant (broadcasting in the blind all throughout), and when we landed the owner of the airport drove a pickup truck onto the runway blocking our way. He then proceeded to explain that at his airport such a maneuver is not permitted. He insists that everyone enter the pattern at 45 degrees to the downwind. Since that time, whenever landing at his airport I have faithfully complied with his wishes. After all, it is his ball and bat, and he gets to make the rules. If I want to play in his ballpark, I'd better know what those rules are and play by them. I have a great sympathy for the owners of privately owned airports. In effect, they are competing with themselves. They pay taxes on the land, part of which money is used to support publicly owned airports. Somehow this strikes me as being particularly unfair, but who ever said life had to be fair anyway, especially when it has to do with the government?

The Force of Regulation?

Many sections of the AIM reference the FARs, and these portions of the AIM may or may not have the force of regulation behind them, depending on just whose interpretation one chooses to espouse. In any event, the AIM spells out for us just how we are supposed to enter the pattern at a non-towered airport.

Recommended traffic pattern at an uncontrolled airport with intersecting runways. Click for larger image.

I learned to fly as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and we were taught to descend to pattern altitude as we approached the vicinity of the airport and to enter the pattern at a 45-degree angle to the downwind leg. I teach all my primary students to do so as well, but with a slightly different technique. We fly over the airport 300 feet above pattern altitude, observe the wind indicator (tetrahedron, wind tee, sock, or whatever), and line up over the numbers on the runway most aligned with the wind. We then fly halfway down the runway, still 300 feet above pattern altitude, make a 45 degree left turn and descend, leveling off at pattern altitude. We then make a 180-degree turn to the right (so we can observe any traffic), and fly back toward the airport, entering the pattern 45 degrees to the downwind. This system works very well and is the surest way I know of playing the "see and be seen" game.

Invitation to Disaster

Recommended traffic pattern at an uncontrolled airport with parallel runways. Click for larger image.

Airports that have a published Unicom frequency but don't monitor it always irk me. I'm also annoyed by pilots who are flying radio-equipped airplanes and don't announce their intentions at non-towered airports. Of course, there is one situation in which pilots must be particularly alert in watching for traffic. Many non-towered airports have published instrument approaches involving a straight-in final. When the weather is, say, 800 and one, it is perfectly legal for a pilot to be working in the pattern (making circuits as our British friends would say). At the same time, also perfectly legal, an airplane on an instrument approach can come busting out of the cloud deck on short final. Unless both are using the radio to announce where they are and what they're doing, this situation is practically an engraved invitation to meet one another in a midair collision.

Near Midair

I had an extremely scary experience once in a light twin while combining recurrent training with a business trip for a well-qualified, multiengine, instrument-rated pilot. We had departed in good VFR conditions and were going some 50 miles or so to pick up a couple of his employees, for the trip to his customer's location a couple of 100 miles farther along. Within a very short time we saw that we'd be entering a cloud deck, so we air-filed for an IFR clearance to the first destination. While in cloud (solid IMC we could see only about 50 feet or so), ATC advised us of traffic off our right wing at our altitude, and concluded by saying, "I'm not talking to him." I looked out and there, right off our right wing was a Cherokee, blundering around in the cloud without a clearance! We veered away and continued to execute the VOR approach to our first destination airport. This approach had a 400-foot minimum and required a somewhat downwind landing that day. You can imagine our shock when we broke out on short final and saw the Cherokee on short final at the south end of the runway! The Cherokee made a go-around under the 400-foot ceiling while we landed, downwind.

A Piper ApacheAfter we taxied in and Paul was getting his employees loaded into our airplane, the Cherokee pilot taxied up and loudly began to berate us for landing downwind. As an Accident Prevention Counselor, I attempted to counsel the guy regarding his flying in cloud without a clearance, and this only enraged him more. Paul (my client) insisted on reporting the guy to the FAA, and sometime later I was asked to file a written statement describing the incident. I don't know the final outcome, but I did learn that the Cherokee pilot was a brand new pilot, having received his certificate only a few days prior to the incident! Scary? You betchya!

Which brings up my final comment regarding operations at non-towered airports is: BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!

Blue skies and sunshine,

Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit from your input.