By Sam Fink
It was a gorgeous Saturday, not a cloud in the sky nor the slightest breeze. I decided to go for a $100 Korean barbecue run with some friends, to an airport where I have landed many times. It is about a 30-minute flight to the airport, which is nontowered and not typically super busy. Given it was such a pleasant day and a familiar flight, I didn’t get a full weather briefing.
I did do some basic checks, such as looking for temporary flight restrictions and pulling up the airport page on ForeFlight, where it typically shows a red box that lists notams. I discovered there was a TFR near the airport set to go into effect later that day (well after our departure time) because of a football game at a nearby college. On the airport page of ForeFlight, something popped up saying that one of the two runways was closed, but no other notams.
Our flight there was uneventful. The automated weather observing system (AWOS) mentioned the notam about the runway being closed, specifically that it was closed to serve as parking for aircraft coming for the football game. It also gave taxi directions for fans coming for the game.
After lunch, I started up and listened to the AWOS again. It made the same mention of the runway closure, and taxi instructions. Announcing my taxi on the common traffic advisory frequency, I headed toward the runway. Just prior to the runway, the FBO contacted me on the radio to advise me the temporary ground controller needed to talk to me.
To say I was surprised would be an understatement! I hadn’t the slightest clue there was a temporary tower in operation, with a ground frequency and tower frequency separate from the CTAF, apparently. It went into operation after our arrival, but right before departure. I called the ground controller and he issued taxi instructions, which was rather comical since I was pretty much at the hold-short line at this point. He didn’t make any mention of my indiscretion, no number to call or anything, and I got takeoff clearance and proceeded with a normal return flight. Upon arrival, I did file a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System report, since this could be classified as a surface incident.
Overall, this was on me, as it is the pilot’s responsibility to thoroughly investigate the notams for every flight. I let complacency interfere, and didn’t consider how a football game could affect the local airport, aside from the nearby TFR. Had I gotten a full briefing, I would have seen the notam. Ordinarily, it would pop up on the airport page on ForeFlight, but it apparently glitched out.
That said, it did seem odd that the AWOS made mention of the runway closure, but no mention of a temporary tower. Additionally, the AWOS giving taxi instructions seemed to make it even less likely there was a ground controller. I think I understand why the tower operated on different frequencies from the CTAF, but it makes it pretty easy for somebody to show up talking on the CTAF/unicom, and the tower wouldn’t know unless they visually spotted them, or the FBO folks told them. Although I felt a bit foolish, it was a meaningful day. Along with the greater weather and stupendous barbecue, I learned an important lesson on avoiding complacency in order to be a safe and competent pilot.