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Departing When Clear

Is This Really A Good Idea?

"Frederick traffic, Arrow Two-Zero-Zero-Three-Kilo is taxiing into position Runway Two-Three, departing when clear."

It seems I'm hearing that phrase more and more lately, and I've got to wonder why. I've always taught that runways are used for two things only - taking off and landing. Sitting on a runway with your back to the traffic is not only uncouth, it can be unhealthy.

"Position and hold" is just another capacity-increasing tool for towered airports, but does it have a place at nontowered fields? At a towered facility you've got a controller checking your six, but even that isn't a guarantee that someone won't land on top of you. It's happened more than once with disastrous results.

Unless you're flying something with a clear canopy, you're blind to the traffic behind you once you taxi onto the numbers. If the airplane on rollout ahead of you happens to have a flat tire before clearing the runway, you could sit there for quite a while. It only takes a few moments to taxi out for takeoff. Why not sit back and enjoy the show until it's your turn?

And what about the "departing when clear" bit? In some parts of the country the weather can be overcast for weeks. Will that airplane be sitting on the numbers until the sun shines?

That brings me to another point - radio procedure. The "departing when clear" advisory is a good example of communication that's perfectly true but of limited value. How can you plan for a landing behind that airplane? What's the pilot's idea of clear? Perhaps he's flying a fire-breathing airplane that needs at least four miles of in-trail spacing to keep from running over the airplane ahead. Perhaps he's not and just thinks he needs that much spacing. In either event the hapless folks in the pattern have to extend until they actually see him moving in order to be sure of having the aluminum safely out of the way before their arrival.

Traffic advisory communications is one subject discussed in Pilot Operations at Nontowered Airports, a Safety Advisor published by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. At key points in the traffic pattern, pilots should announce their position and intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). Although the radio call sign is required for at least the first transmission, aircraft type is more useful in spotting the traffic.

Departing pilots should advise the runway they will use and their planned direction of flight or whether they are staying in the pattern.

Arriving pilots are encouraged to report entering the pattern, downwind to base, and base to final. Calling the turns gives a specific spot to scan for traffic, and airplanes are more easily seen when they're turning.

Unless it's impossible to see traffic on the runway because of terrain or weather, calling "clear of the active" is as superfluous as the dreaded "Hey Earl, is that you - where you at?" We all know the frequency will be useless for a while if Earl answers and details his itinerary for the day.

I hate burning fuel at the end of the runway, and I'm as anxious to get going as anyone else, but I do believe that runways at towered and nontowered airports alike are for landing and taking off - not for holding and departing when clear. I never do it at nontowered airports. When the tower asks, I comply, but I don't feel very comfortable, and you can bet I'll be confirming every minute or so until I'm cleared to go.

By John Steuernagle

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