Who's Running The Radio?A student pilot, flying solo in four-mile visibility, was five miles from a nontowered airport when he called unicom to get an advisory. The unicom operator said that the active runway was 32, right-hand traffic, and that there was a light crosswind. The student acknowledged the advisory and set up for a 45-degree entry to downwind for Runway 32. As he turned downwind, he saw the glare of a landing light ahead and suddenly realized he was set up for a head-on collision with a Cessna 172.
The Cessna was on downwind for Runway 14, and the two aircraft missed one another by about 100 feet. Not far behind the Cessna was a Piper Cherokee also on downwind for Runway 14. The Cherokee pilot had to take evasive action. The unicom frequency bristled with angry voices saying the active runway was 14. Totally confused, the student pilot departed the pattern in the wake of reprimands from the pilots with whom he had just had a close encounter. Somewhat shaken, the student entered the pattern for Runway 14 and landed safely.
A CFI who had been on board the Cherokee talked to the student on the ground. The student had some interesting notions of the responsibilities and authority of the unicom operator. He believed the unicom operator was much like a tower air traffic controller who directs pilots to land on specific runways. The student didn't hear any position reports on the unicom frequency from aircraft that were in the pattern for Runway 14. He believed he had been directed to land on Runway 32 by the unicom operator, and by God that's what he was going to do.
The instructor made it clear to the student that the unicom provides airport advisories about wind speed and direction and the runway most favorable for those wind conditions. The unicom operator does not provide a clearance to land. This person is usually a desk clerk at the FBO who is scheduling airplanes, selling products, processing charges, and answering the phone in addition to providing airport advisories over the unicom frequency. Chances are the person isn't even a pilot.
In this case, the unicom operator had been too busy to pay attention to what runway pilots were using, and she simply saw from the wind instruments that the light crosswind was favoring Runway 32. She reported this to the student.
This was a valuable lesson for the student pilot. He learned that the unicom is not a control tower. He learned the importance of observing aircraft in the pattern, listening to their position reports, and visually determining the runway in use.
The traffic flow at nontowered airports functions well when pilots work together by observing what's going on in the traffic pattern, by listening to the common traffic advisory frequency for other aircraft reporting their positions, and by announcing their own positions as well. The unicom report is a place to start, but it must be supplemented with looking and listening when approaching a nontowered airport.
Richard Hiner is vice president of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
By Richard Hiner