Up and Out

VFR departures made safer

December 1, 2005

Last year, Pilot published an article on VFR arrivals (see " Approaching the Airport," May 2004 Pilot), describing how best to approach an airport in visual conditions, and in response received the following e-mail from flight instructor Mark Hutchins in Virginia: "As a person who flies in and out of the traffic pattern a lot, I appreciate your article on pattern entry. I hope you will do an article on VFR departures from a nontowered field. The most egregious things I see every day are departing pilots flying through the standard arrival route after takeoff!"

Great idea, Mark.

Three to Go

For a smooth departure, here are three things you need to do:

1. As part of your preflight planning, think through how you'll clear the pattern and turn on course, keeping in mind the usual pattern-entry procedures and departure procedures from the AIM, as well as terrain and obstruction concerns.

2. Check traffic in the pattern and any using another runway, make sure the runway is clear before you cross the hold-short line, and be on the lookout for aircraft not following the local traffic pattern procedures.

3. When you make your radio call upon departure, clarify your intentions and departure heading once clearing the pattern. As you leave the pattern, make one last call prior to leaving the frequency to give your altitude and intentions again. Leave your landing lights on until 10 miles away from your departure airport.

While a lot of thought goes into the takeoff itself, not so for the segment of flight that follows, once the airplane is up and away, clear of obstructions, and at an altitude from which an engine failure could be more easily managed. Hutchins followed up his assessment with some sound advice, to which we'll add, giving you food for thought prior to your next VFR departure.

Everyday issues

Depending on your intended route, you can take your leave of most airports without crossing part of a potential arrival path. It just takes a little planning and sound knowledge of the airport traffic pattern and common arrival corridors.

For example, you plan to depart a north-south runway to the north. The runway has a standard left-hand pattern, so you can likely climb out on course without infringing on arriving traffic or aircraft already in the pattern. The same is true for a departure to the east — after reaching traffic pattern altitude and clearing the traffic pattern on upwind, you can start your turn to your on-course heading. The traffic in this instance should be concentrated on the west side of the field.

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) recommends that your initial turn away from the pattern be a 45-degree heading to the left when departing a left-hand traffic pattern (and vice versa when departing a right pattern) upon reaching traffic pattern altitude. Presumably, this would keep you from going belly up to traffic entering the downwind leg. After clearing the approach to the downwind, you can proceed on course.

This 45-degree turn also helps you clear any parallel runway's departure path. Most of the time when you depart from an airport with parallel runways, it will be under the guidance of a control tower — but there are times when a tower only operates part time at an airport whose primary runways are parallel. For example, at Denver's Jeffco Airport, the control tower is closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time. Though the airport isn't typically busy during the nighttime hours, you never know.

If you need to head off in the direction opposite to the one from which you take off, you should plan on clearing the traffic pattern before turning on course. "There is no such thing as a downwind departure — check the AIM," says Hutchins. He notes a recent midair collision involving a Cessna 210 pilot who flew a downwind departure into the path of someone inbound on the 45 to the downwind. "There is no reason for a departing aircraft to fly through the arrival routing. They should never mix."

Think of the standard traffic pattern at your airport as a "protected zone" and plan your departure so that you infringe upon this airspace as little as possible. If you plan to depart the area in the opposite direction from which you take off, extend your upwind and crosswind legs so that when you turn "downwind," you are at a higher altitude than traffic in the pattern. This should keep you clear of traffic entering the pattern on a 45-degree leg — a leg from which the arrival traffic makes a somewhat blind turn onto downwind. Stay aware that traffic entering the pattern also may be crossing the airport at traffic pattern altitude, or higher, as well, whether this is a good practice or not. Look left and right for potential conflict. And state your plans on the unicom or CTAF (common traffic advisory frequency) — why not give other pilots one more tool to avoid you?

If there are other regular operations at your airport besides general light-airplane traffic (rotorcraft, glider, corporate jet, or military operations or intensive training), research and understand what each operation's typical traffic pattern looks like. When an instructor calls "simulated engine failure," what does that mean? Do you know what an overhead traffic pattern, often used by military and warbird pilots, looks like and at what altitude it's executed? Where are the helicopter landing areas — and what does a "simulated autorotation" entail? Is there a designated glider runway? Do the towplanes follow a regular landing procedure after releasing a glider?

Busy patterns

There are FAA-established traffic patterns and local traffic patterns to keep in mind. Though local patterns may not be regulatory, they often include noise-abatement procedures that you would be wise to follow lest the cranky neighbor on the corner calls up to verbally smite thee.

For departures from airports in Class E airspace, the AIM recommends that pilots follow procedures for the airport as established in FAR Part 93, if any. Examples of airports listed in this part include a handful in Alaska; those near Valparaiso, Florida; and several high-density airports in the Northeast's major Class B areas.

At Class D primary airports, you need to comply with any departure procedures established for the airport by the FAA, even if the tower isn't in operation. From these airports, turbine aircraft and those weighing more than 12,500 pounds must climb to 1,500 feet agl unless cloud clearance minimums or the published departure procedure states otherwise. The same goes for Class C and Class B primary airports. Departures from satellite airports in the class C and B surface areas must contact the primary airport's tower as soon as practical after departure. The airport at Vancouver, Washington, comes to mind — just across the river is Oregon's Portland International, and your departure path from Pearson Field parallels that of the jets leaving Portland International. Almost. When you take off on 26 at Pearson, the jets are often departing on 28L/R.

Your IFR neighbors

At airports without their own clearance delivery, but near Class B or C airspace, be aware of traffic departing IFR from another runway (often the longest or primary instrument departure runway). When a pilot is picking up an IFR clearance on a clearance delivery frequency at a nontowered field, there's a tap dance back and forth between clearance delivery and airport unicom frequencies during those last few minutes in the run-up area. If the pilot in command is flying single pilot, even though he or she may be monitoring both frequencies, there's a lot of focus that goes into reworking a flight plan in a GPS navigator or understanding a routing change on the en route chart if that situation arises. You can never be sure that the other pilot heard your call to take the other (more aligned with the wind) runway.

Keep in mind that a standard IFR departure climb gradient is 200 feet per nautical mile. At 60 knots groundspeed, this is 200 feet per minute; at 90 knots, 300 fpm; and at 120 knots, 400 fpm. Alternate required climb gradients are in effect for departures from runways that have obstructions that penetrate a 40-to-1 slope (or 152 feet per nautical mile). An alternate climb gradient essentially creates a departure path that takes the aircraft 24-percent higher (based on starting elevation) than the obstruction. If this kind of climb gradient result is unreasonable, then a visibility requirement is added (and sometimes the viz requirement is added anyway) and the onus is on the pilot to see and avoid the obstacle. Of course 200 fpm represents an initial climb rate from the runway — at higher-elevation airports, if you're flying a normally aspirated piston aircraft, the required climb gradient can quickly surpass the aircraft's maximum rate of climb.

So what do these climb gradients mean to you as a VFR pilot? Well, if there's an obstruction that the FAA would like to see IFR flights avoid, you may want to find out what and where it is so that you can use your VFR-ness to watch for it. Also, if your airplane on a given day (or any day) can't meet the IFR departure procedure's climbout path, you should either plan an alternate way to climb out that keeps you clear of the obstruction or revisit whether you so badly need to take off (see " Secrets of Safe Departures," November Pilot).

Another thing to know about the IFR pilot's plans is that after takeoff, the pilot will seek to connect to a nearby airway, or follow vectors to a navaid close by. If you figure out what the common initial clearance is (if you're not instrument-rated, you can ask any local, current instrument pilot or instructor) and plot that course in your head, you can easily visualize the IFR flyways and avoid them, especially in marginal VFR weather.

Egregious errors

Hutchins points out three practices — hopefully not commonplace at your field — that he views as particularly hazardous.

First, starting a crosswind before the end of the runway, and then climbing out into the 45-entry leg. "This is incredibly dangerous," says Hutchins. In this case, the erring pilot heads right into oncoming and merging traffic.

Second, flying a downwind departure, as mentioned before. It's really tempting — I've done it. But it's an opportunity for improvement, and I'm going to avoid it from now on.

Finally, there is no such thing as a defined position-and-hold operation at a nontowered field (although it would not be prohibited). "I saw someone do that yesterday," says Hutchins, "and the pilot sat on the runway for a minute with his back to the final approach path while another aircraft rolled out [after landing]. [The pilot in position] should not have crossed the runway safety area hold-short line until the landing aircraft had cleared the hold line at the taxiway connector."

When you prepare to depart, your radio call should reflect the nature of the airport you're departing. In practice, I use the phrase "taxiing onto Runway XX for departure" rather than saying "position and hold Runway XX." Make it your practice never to taxi onto an active runway until you're prepared to depart immediately. Sit at a 45-degree angle so you can see the arrival path over your shoulder. When you're lined up to take off, you can no longer see the last part of the downwind, base, or final approach paths. Your last snapshot of that traffic has to serve you until you're safely airborne.

And hopefully your departure is planned so that you know where to look for traffic — and how to stay out of its way.


E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.


Links to additional information about departure procedures may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml).