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Pattern operations revisited

Which way did you go?

Once again your voice has been heard, loud and clear. CFIs from around the nation weighed in on Bruce Landsberg's article discussing traffic operations at an uncontrolled field ("Foundation Perspective: Which way do we go?" June AOPA Flight Training). That article told the story of a trainer and a business jet in a Mexican standoff on the same runway. The jet crew made the decision to save some time and money on the calm, VFR day by using the closest runway. Unfortunately, the rest of the traffic that day was using the opposite runway.

This situation occurs every day at nontowered airports across the nation. So who has the right of way? A whopping 67 percent of you said that the business jet should have the right of way, while 17 percent said the trainer, being on the runway favored by most traffic, should have the right of way. The remaining 16 percent said situations like this should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Everybody agreed with instructor J.A. Clark, who said, "It is absolutely incumbent on everybody to listen up and pay attention at every nontowered airport all the time."

The argument for the business jet

"When it comes to flying jets, there are usually many more considerations to runway choices than just wind direction. Runway slope, runway condition (wet or dry), terrain near the airport, and climb requirements/departure procedures are just some of the factors which we must consider; we can depart with as much as 10 kt of tailwind in our aircraft," wrote Eduard D. Soto, who flies a business jet. "I have heard the grumbling many times over the CTAF about our operations being opposed to the traffic pattern currently in use. And it seems that so many pilots take personal offense when someone uses a runway other than the one they use."

Warren Husk discussed the operational costs. "The trainer should have, and did, give the bizjet the right of way as a courtesy-since the costs to operate the jet are 10 times what the trainer costs. Who knows, someday the pilot of that trainer may be faced with the same situation when he is behind the wheel of a Gulfstream IV."

Mark Hutchins commented, "Each pilot in command chooses which runway suits his needs. In this case the bizjet wanted 36, he announced, and apparently he crossed the runway...hold-short line first, [so] it was his runway...period. It is a misconception that some person behind the microphone at the unicom can issue a mandate about the active runway. It is common sense that if the wind is favoring a runway, that is the runway that should be used in most cases. But in the case of changing and variable winds the pilot in command can and should choose the runway that suits him best."

The argument for the trainer

"I realize vigilance is of the utmost importance and one should always check for aircraft on final-both finals-this is what I teach my students dealing with departure. However, in this case, I feel the jet should have used Runway 18," said Allen McMahan. "I am a very courteous pilot and will gladly give up my right-of-way to avoid conflict. I fly at a nontowered airport with a significant amount of turbine traffic, and at my airport the majority of the jet traffic seems to think we should automatically give them the right-of-way because they are burning more fuel than the small planes."

A radio is not required at a nontowered airport, noted Steve Reinsch, who pointed out that, "Nontowered airports attract planes that do not have or do not use radios." Reinsch goes on about choosing a different runway. "Doing something nonstandard [at an airport where] pilots assume you will do the standard routine is dangerous. You should always work within the standard routine because there is no tower to warn of or solve nonstandard problems."

Communication and situational awareness

R. Wallace emphasized the need for clear communications by discussing the term active runway and how it applies at nontowered fields. "I have heard the term 'active runway' since I began flying in the 1970s. It makes no sense to me now, as it didn't then. At nontowered airports the phraseology would be better stated as 'Aircraft N123 departing Runway 26' rather than the often heard, and supposedly cool, 'Aircraft N123 taking the active.' The term 'active runway' is a referential term used to define what is in use (i.e. Runways 25 and 30 are now active) and only complicates things when used by pilots to state intentions. There is no misunderstanding when the pilot announces 'Downwind landing Runway 26.'"

Christian F. Clere argued that pilots can avoid such situations by using good situational awareness. "On downwind or base, I might ask the student something like 'If a plane reports on CTAF that they are outer marker inbound in the ILS, low approach, what-if anything-should you do about our pattern?' Or, 'How about a glider coming in for a landing on the secondary runway?' Usually we were fortunate enough to see some unusual things during our dual flights, but I at least made sure the student could 'think on the fly' and realize that not everyone flies the proper pattern or even uses the same runway. I made sure they could extend a downwind or even bail out of the pattern and try again if needed."

Henry Gonzalez teaches his students situational awareness in the traffic pattern by encouraging them to make decisions on their own. "Whenever a student asks me what the active runway is, my response is to shrug my shoulders and reply, 'I don't know, you're the one landing the airplane, not me. If it were my landing to do I would probably pick the runway with the most favorable wind conditions. You know-a lot of headwind, no crosswind, that kind of thing...but that's just me talking crazy.' This kind of thing gets a student thinking and develops correlation...yeah, that thing we learned about years ago during our FOI studies."

Husk may have summed it up best. "CFIs should be teaching their students deviations from the norm. If a pilot cannot handle a curve ball, how will he or she respond to a fast-pitch emergency? Lest we forget that small details have a way of turning into NTSB reports."

ASF offers the Operations at Nontowered Airports Safety Advisor as a training aid that any instructor can use to help primary students learn the nuances of operating at nontowered airports. (Download it for free.) Advice for operating at towered airports is likewise free, with the Operations at Towered Airports Safety Advisor and the online course Runway Safety Program.

Compiled by David Wright

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