Transition From Towered To Non-Towered Airports

by Hal Davis
Airport Compliance Manager

As I write this article, federal sequestration is set to discontinue funding at eight (8) Wisconsin air traffic control towers on June 15, 2013. Whether that happens is anyone’s guess. Barring any congressional or legal action, the towers that will cease operation include: Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA), Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (EAU), Kenosha Regional Airport (ENW), La Crosse Municipal Airport (LSE), Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport  (JVL), Timmerman Airport (MWC), Waukesha County Airport (UES), and Wittman Regional Airport (OSH). As a result, these airports will transition from towered to non-towered airports.

For many pilots a transition from towered to non-towered airports will be seamless; however, it is important to remind ourselves of proper traffic pattern operations. Remember, uncontrolled airspace doesn’t mean “out of control,” nor does it give a pilot permission to fly whatever traffic pattern desired. Good traffic pattern etiquette is essential to safe flying. A majority of midair collisions occur in the traffic pattern. Flying the published traffic pattern in a predictable manner provides for a safer airport environment, with the added benefit of establishing consistent, stabilized approaches.

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) Chapter 4-3 lays out very specific procedures for entering non-towered airport patterns. If you ignore them and cause an accident, the FAA may charge you with careless and reckless operation. So, in a way, the recommendations and suggestions in the AIM are covered under the Federal Aviation Regulations.

AIM keys to traffic pattern operations:

• Enter pattern in level flight, abeam the midpoint of the runway, at pattern altitude (1,000 feet AGL is recommended, unless established otherwise).

• Maintain pattern altitude until abeam approach end of the landing runway on downwind leg.

• Complete turn to final at least 1/4 mile from the runway.

• If remaining in the traffic pattern, commence turn to crosswind leg beyond the departure end of the runway within 300 feet of pattern altitude.

• If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out, or exit with a 45-degree turn (to the left when in a left-hand traffic pattern; to the right when in a right-hand traffic pattern) beyond the departure end of the runway, after reaching pattern altitude.

• Do not overshoot final or continue on a track, which will penetrate the final approach of the parallel runway.

• Do not continue on a track, which will penetrate the departure path of the parallel runway.

Be sure to check if the airport has right traffic in the Airport/Facility Directory (AFD). The AFD lists “Rgt tfc” at the end of the runway data notation. Of the Wisconsin airports set to lose their air traffic control towers, Kenosha Regional Airport is the only airport with right traffic patterns. Runways 7R and 25R both have right traffic at Kenosha.

Traffic pattern entry, specifically straight-in approaches, can often be a controversial issue among pilots. Most pilots follow the convention that the 45- degree entry to the downwind is the most proper pattern entry. They feel this way for good reason as it creates an orderly flow of traffic around the airport. However, there are times a straight-in approach is warranted.

For example, instrument approaches, real or practice, are a legitimate use of a straight-in approach. Local VFR traffic should work with transient IFR and IFR practice traffic to allow a reasonable flow to the airport. Collisions between VFR and IFR operations funneling toward the same runway can be avoided if everyone is properly communicating.

Larger aircraft may also fly a straight-in approach for several legitimate reasons. They are typically operating on an IFR clearance and flying an instrument approach to the airport which sets them up for a long, straight-in final. This practice allows for a stabilized approach, the hallmark of a safe approach and landing.

The best defense when large and small aircraft are operating near the same airport is to fly defensively, look outside, listen, and broadcast intelligently. Radios are an essential piece of safety gear. Pilots of antique and classic aircraft understandably may not want to modify their aircraft, but the use of a handheld transceiver will increase the safety margin at busy airports.

Following procedures is an important element in peaceful and safe coexistence in the traffic pattern, but more important is the one unimpeachable rule of VFR flying: Look for other aircraft, and avoid them!

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