Sharing The Airport… Operations At Non-Towered Airports

by Hal Davis
WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2018 issue

Each year at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, I’m reminded as to just how many ways there are to take flight. For those of us who regularly only fly “conventional” aircraft, it’s easy to overlook those who take to the skies by more adventurous means. Gliders, balloons, powered parachutes and skydivers operate under a wide range of parameters and regulations. However, they are all protected aeronautical activities, meaning federally-funded airports are required to make their facilities available to these users on reasonable terms.

Of course, there are certain airports where a specific aeronautical activity cannot be reasonably accommodated without negatively impacting safety or efficiency. These impacts may be due to the physical characteristics of the airport or the existing traffic mix. In either case, the airport may prohibit or limit certain aeronautical activities as long as the restrictions are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, these situations are rare. Most of the time, we just need to be accommodating and look out for one another.

At an airport with an air traffic control tower, pilots can rely on the controller to facilitate the mixing of different types of aeronautical users. At an uncontrolled airport, users must rely on each other to ensure a safe and efficient flow of traffic.

In March 2018, FAA published Advisory Circular 90-66B Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations. In it, FAA describes recommended operating procedures related to radio communications, the recommended standard traffic pattern, and traffic patterns specifically for unconventional, fixed-wing aircraft.

Communicate

As with any relationship, good communication is key to getting along with fellow airport users. In general, those capable should continuously monitor and communicate, as appropriate, on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) whenever operating within 10 miles of an uncontrolled airport. As a pilot of any type of aircraft, regularly announcing your position and intentions greatly improves the situational awareness of those operating around you. However, two-way radios are not required at most uncontrolled airports. Therefore, pilots should always remain on the lookout for no-radio aircraft while operating in the traffic pattern.

Traffic Patterns

Among other benefits, the use of a standard traffic pattern allows pilots to better anticipate the path of other aircraft. This is especially critical when no-radio aircraft are involved. Prior to entering the traffic pattern, pilots should identify which runways are currently in use. If overflying the airport is necessary to check runway conditions or wind direction, it should be done well above traffic pattern altitude to avoid a collision with aircraft already in the pattern.

Entering the pattern should always be done at pattern altitude. An airport’s traffic pattern altitude is listed in the FAA chart supplement, previously known as the airport facilities directory. Usually, the traffic pattern for conventional fixed-wing aircraft is 1,000 ft. above ground level (AGL). Larger or faster aircraft should fly 500 ft. above the standard traffic pattern altitude. At those airports with regular unconventional aircraft operations, special traffic patterns may also be established. For example, FAA recommends a rectangular pattern 500 ft. below and inside the standard traffic pattern for ultralight vehicles. In some circumstances, it may be advantageous to separate different types of traffic using right traffic for one category of aircraft and left traffic for another.

Right-of-Way

While operating in the traffic pattern, pilots must yield the right-of-way to other categories of aircraft as prescribed in the applicable Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). Largely, right-of-way is given to the less maneuverable aircraft. The following lists the right-of-way rules as established by FAR 91.113 and FAR Part 103.13 in order of descending priority.
1.  Aircraft in Distress
2.  Balloon
3.  Glider
4.  Aerial Refueling/Towing Operations
5.  Airship
6.  Fixed-Wing Aircraft, Rotorcraft, Powered Parachute, Weight-Shift Control Aircraft
7.  Unpowered Ultralight
8.  Powered Ultralight

Skydiving

FAR Part 105 also establishes rules for skydiving activities on airports. In general, skydiving operators are prohibited from landing on an airport without prior approval from airport management. Skydiving must also be conducted without creating a hazard or disrupting other air traffic. The chart supplement lists airports with permanent drop zones. Even though skydivers don’t fly a traffic pattern, parachutes can be expected to be deployed below 3,000 ft. AGL within two miles of an airport. In addition, it is highly recommended that pilots of jump aircraft report skydiving operations on the CTAF while jumpers are in the air.

Flying into any uncontrolled airport, pilots should be aware that there may be unconventional, no-radio aircraft flying in the area. Notable glider, hang glider, ultralight and skydiving activity at a particular airport may be depicted on a sectional chart and reported in the chart supplement. However, don’t expect these activities to be confined strictly to these airports. If you encounter unfamiliar air traffic near an airport, communicate, exercise caution, and be patient. There’s plenty of blue sky to go around!

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