Answers for Pilots: Nontowered Airport Operations

How to act when nobody’s in the tower

June 1, 2013

Closed towerThe FAA has postponed decisions pertaining to air traffic control tower closures across the country until the end of fiscal year, 2013. The funding gets the FAA through until Oct. 1 when a new round of sequestration-induced budget cuts will take effect if Congress doesn’t take action before then. So, with some time to prepare for possible tower closures at 149 airports, pilots are thinking about how to smoothly transition from towered to nontowered airport operations.

While challenging, it is certainly do-able. That said, pilots who normally operate in towered environments will need to review nontowered airport operations. Flying at an airport with no tower warrants a different way of thinking. Pilots need to think like controllers, constantly visualizing what type of traffic is in the airport environment, where it is, and how they fit into the flow.

AOPA recently teamed up with the Air Safety Institute to hold a webinar refresher on nontowered airport operations and to answer questions and concerns from pilots anticipating a tower closure at their airport. Nearly 1500 pilots attended and an equal number have watched the Webinar recording.

Concerns revolved around a number of issues, including sharing the airport safely with a mix of traffic, right of way, good communication, and safety and courtesy as pilots contemplated moving from a controlled environment to one that would be self-regulating.

Safety is the common denominator for all operations. Right-of-way rules, along with standard airport traffic patterns and procedures, exist to prevent collisions in the air and on the ground. While it may be legal to shorten your flight by turning base early rather than waiting for a jet on long final, is it safe? Know how far out on final the jet is and how fast it’s travelling – and either extend your downwind to fall in behind it, or let the pilot know you’ve turned base in front of him. Generally, the larger the aircraft, the more room it takes to maneuver at its higher operating speeds, so if you are flying a small piston aircraft, be considerate of the big guys.

In a nontowered environment, follow the standard traffic pattern procedures and preferred entries from both sides of the field. On a recent flight, approaching Frederick Municipal Airport from the southwest, the controller had me fly a right downwind to Runway 23. This would be non-standard and likely dangerous at this airport should we revert to non-towered operations, where left-hand patterns are standard for Runway 23. Had the tower been closed, I would have had to fly over the airport, turn and enter the pattern midfield downwind at 45 degrees.

Safety tips in the pattern? Announce your turn just before “turning the corners.” It gives other pilots a definite place to look for you, and increases your visibility, as banking airplanes are easier to spot in the air. High-wing aircraft should pick up a wing and look before turning.

Who has the right of way? As we all know, the pilot is always responsible to see and avoid other aircraft in visual conditions, even if on an IFR flight plan. However, there are rules:  An aircraft in distress gets first priority;  if aircraft are converging, the one on the right goes first; make way for less maneuverable aircraft (balloons, gliders, airships, powered parachutes, tow planes pulling gliders); landing aircraft have the right of way over aircraft on the ground. When in doubt, or if you are cut off, let the other pilot go first and discuss it on the ground. 

Recommended traffic pattern altitudes are 1,000 feet agl for single-engine pistons and 1,500 feet agl for twins, turboprops, and jets. So, in the pattern, be aware that traffic could be above or below you, as well as in front or behind.

Unless the wind has picked up to make the preferred runway unsafe, use it. It keeps order in the pattern. If the wind picks up or changes direction: announce that you are using another runway and keep your head on a swivel for opposing traffic. And remember, pilots must obey all airport signs and markings whether the tower is operational or not.

AOPA will keep you updated on sequestration budget cuts as the end of the fiscal year approaches. If you have questions, ask the aviation specialists in AOPA’s Pilot Information Center either by phone, 800-USA-AOPA (872-2672), or by email, pilotassist@aopa.org. If you want to view the webinar recording, click here.