by Harold Green
The focus of this discussion is operations in a non-towered airport environment. Please note that the use of the term “non-towered,” rather than uncontrolled is deliberate. That’s because in effect non-towered airports are really pilot-controlled. This system works remarkably well albeit with a few issues which repeat on a fairly predictable basis. Some of these are discussed herein.
Both regulations and standard practices cover non-towered airport operations. It is, however, interesting how few operations are covered by FAR Part 91. Most operations are actually defined as standard operating procedures in the AIM. Since these were established a lot has changed in the flight environment.
First, there is a greater range of aircraft performance than when these rules and procedures came into being. Today it is very possible to have a J-3 in the pattern with a Citation or Gulfstream and a tremendous spread in airspeeds. In addition, the airspace today is much more complex. We now have a vertically layered airspace with the vertical dimension playing a much greater role than initially. This results in complex operations requiring strict pilot attention.
Regulations covering pattern operations are principally 91.113 Right-of-Way rules: Except Water Operations,” (we will leave a discussion of Water Operations to those more familiar), and for those airports in Class G Airspace (91.126). FAR 91.127 defines departure procedures. There are also a couple of others which by extension could be considered as applicable, namely 91.111, “Operating near other aircraft,” and 91.117, “aircraft speed.”
For standard practices AIM Chapter 4 defines standard operating procedures. Advisory circulars AC 90-66 and AC 90-42 provide insight into recommended operating procedures in non-towered airport environments. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation also provides an excellent discussion of accepted practices in “operations at non-towered airports.”
Items to consider: First, the traffic pattern altitude is usually, but not necessarily, 1,000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level). Not only could a given airport have a different pattern altitude, but also often has a modified pattern for noise abatement or other considerations. Next, the pattern altitude for turbine aircraft is higher than for piston aircraft and these planes need to fly a wider pattern than a Skyhawk or Cherokee. This means that when looking for other aircraft before entering the pattern, it is necessary to look at a wider area in all three dimensions to cover all possibilities.
Where I fly at C29 (Middleton Municipal Airport-Morey Field), we are pilot controlled and under a shelf of the MSN Class C airspace, the floor of which is 2300 feet while our pattern altitude is 1900 feet. C29 is a fairly typical example of more complex intermingled airspace involving operations in multiple levels of airspace control — in our case, Class C, Class E and Class G. There are several high-performance aircraft in and out of C29. We also enjoy a quite active flight school operation, which means Cessna 152s and 172s are in the pattern more often than not. Now for the most part this all works well because people announce their position and intentions on CTAF and everyone is happy. The professionals are professionals and the students are becoming so.
However, a few transient pilots are radio shy and squeeze under the Class C floor to avoid talking to Madison Approach. This means they cannot safely over-fly the airport and check on airport conditions for landing, and in a few cases, they just charge through the pattern without announcing their presence and have no intention of landing. You just keep an eye out for them. But it can get sticky at times.
For example, it is not uncommon for someone to announce a 10 or even a 15-mile final for the active runway or even the opposing runway. Whether the intent is to claim a position in the pattern or not, the effect is that anyone in the traffic pattern has to think about whether this poses a conflict or not. FAR 91.113(g) states that aircraft while on final approach have the right-of-way. If you are on downwind about to turn base, or are about to take off on the same runway, who has the right of way in this instance?
A call to the Milwaukee Flight Standards District Office regarding this situation revealed the following: Reporting a distance outside the standard pattern of a couple of miles does not constitute a pattern position. Therefore, the incoming aircraft has not established itself in the pattern and does not have the right of way. Now that answer is effective for an accident investigation or incident report, but how about for safety?
Each pilot must make their own decision based on circumstances. Unless you are certain there is no conflict, perhaps the best idea is to simply announce extending downwind to turn behind the landing aircraft, then wait for it to pass you before you turn base. This is particularly true if the incoming aircraft is much higher performance than the aircraft you are flying. If you are already on base, a quick position announcement stating that you are about to turn final is in order. Then if you have any concerns about the incoming aircraft, ask them their intentions and react accordingly.
On the ground, perhaps just waiting is the best answer, or simply stating on CTAF that you are ready for takeoff and asking the incoming traffic if you have time to depart. A more appropriate call for the pilot 15 miles out is to state position and altitude as required and then state “Planning on landing Runway XX.” This tells people where the plane is without staking a claim on a pattern position. It then behooves anyone in the pattern to state his or her position. Occasionally, someone announces a final to the opposing runway. Generally announcing the active runway will alert them and they will change their intended runway. If not, just get out of the way. There are a very few pilots who believe aircraft performance or cost determine right of way. Just avoid them in the air and on the ground.
There is also the problem created when instrument approaches are conducted to the airport often to a runway other than the favored one and sometimes to the opposing runway. This gets sticky when visibility is at a minimum and perhaps Class E is under Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), while Class G is legal VFR (Visual Flight Rules). Then aircraft executing an approach and an airplane in the pattern, albeit at a legal altitude lower than standard pattern, are both legal and both can be legally dead if they aren’t careful. The best way to handle this (other than to stay on the ground) is for each aircraft to monitor both CTAF and approach and for both to make concise accurate position reports and communicate with each other regarding position in the pattern and their intentions.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that an incoming VFR pilot intending to land on a runway, which has a pattern on the far side of the airport, may inadvertently cross the final approach path of an instrument procedure. At any time this can be an iffy proposition as the instrument pilot is likely to be focused inside the cockpit and not looking for traffic. The crossing VFR pilot only gets to see the limited profile, head-on view of the aircraft on approach. That’s one reason both aircraft should have their landing lights on. Further, the final approach fix of the procedure is typically 5 to 7 miles from the runway threshold, considerably outside the pattern for the airport. Therefore, the VFR pilot wishing to cross over may be well advised to consider a mid-field crosswind to enter the pattern for their approach.
The classic pattern entry of 45 degrees to the downwind is also a recommended practice. It is NOT required. In today’s environment, there may be good reason to enter the pattern on other than the downwind leg.
A key part of pattern safety is communication. That means precise, concise and clear radio communications. Every frequency allocated to CTAF can be busy at times. Therefore, it behooves pilots to minimize time on the radio. It is sufficient to state your position and intentions, speaking clearly and at a normal pace. The pilot who slowly drawls out things like “Jaxson, uh… traffic, uh… Cessna, uh… 172, uh… 15 miles, uh north… uh, over the brewery… landing Jaxson… uh Jaxson… uh traffic (long pause before releasing mike button)” is a distraction and takes unnecessary time. Further, unless the brewery is a defined VFR reporting point on the sectional, only the locals know where the brewery is. Some folks would be interested to know that AIM 4-1-9(g) states, “Traffic in the area, please advise,” is not to be used at any time.
A not uncommon communication sin is too frequent reporting. Little knowledge is added of the pilot who calls out a position every mile or so, and prevents someone else from reporting more important information. Bear in mind that it takes several minutes to transit a traffic pattern. There is no need to report every 15 seconds with excruciating detail.
Sometimes the best answer if you sense a conflict is to exit the pattern after carefully checking the direction of your turn, and then re-enter after the traffic has sorted itself out. Further, you probably can’t beat someone to a point in the pattern, but you can successfully defer to him or her virtually every time. A few extra minutes delay is much better than an eternal one.
It is absolutely necessary that you maintain a mental picture of the pattern, your position and the position of those aircraft you know are in the pattern. Then expect to see an airplane you did not know was there. Each pilot should make sure the airspace they are about to use contains no other aircraft.
This is certainly not all of the concerns in operating in non-towered airspace, but neither the editorial space nor your patience permits their inclusion here.
Conclusions: The best route to traffic pattern safety is for everyone to be courteous, patient, aware and communicative. Remember, regardless of anything else, you are the Pilot-In-Command and are responsible for the safe operation of your aircraft. Still, two of the best rules are “See and be seen” and “Hear and be heard.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor at Morey Airplane Company, Middleton, Wisconsin.