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Nontowered

Orderly operations keep everyone safe

Recently I enjoyed dinner with friends who were excited to take their first flight in a general aviation airplane with me the next morning. Kelli and Melissa peppered me with questions like, “How will we get permission to take off?”
Illustration by Gordon Studer
Illustration by Gordon Studer

Their eyes widened when I explained that we won’t need permission because the Franklin County Airport (UOS) is a nontowered field. With a mix of excitement and trepidation they continued, “Is that safe?” “Wait, what happens if another plane is arriving while we are departing?” “What if two airplanes approach the airport at the same time?”

I assuaged their concern by explaining that there are several ways we can ensure safety as we operate to and from a nontowered field. I described how we are always on the lookout for other traffic, and that I would enlist their assistance in that endeavor. Also that we pilots announce our intentions on the common traffic frequency to coordinate departures and arrivals with other pilots. Finally, I explained that my airplane is equipped with ADS-B so that many of the other airplanes will appear on the panel’s display. With a shared commitment to safety, attention to surroundings, and some common courtesy, general aviation pilots can enjoy the great freedom with which we are blessed.

Of course, several recent midair collisions show that when coordination efforts break down, the results are devastating. In one accident in 2022, a Cessna 340 collided with a Cessna 152 on the final approach course to Runway 20 at Watsonville, California (WVI). The Cessna 152 pilot was performing a sequence of touch and goes in the pattern while the Cessna 340 pilot finished his cross-country flight with a straight-in approach to the same runway. Perhaps this tragedy served as an impetus for the FAA staff to review and update their guidance on nontowered airport flight operations in Advisory Circular 90-66C that appeared in June of this year.

The general advice that encourages pilots to operate in predictable ways and to speak a common language carries over from its predecessor that served as the basis for the article “Don’t Be That Pilot: Take Your Time, Try a Little Courtesy” (July 2022, AOPA Pilot). While the “FAA does not regulate traffic pattern entry, only traffic pattern flow,” the new version explicitly discourages straight-in approaches. It advises those who do opt for a straight-in approach to self-announce at least eight miles from the airport and reminds them that they enjoy no priority over traffic already established in the pattern.

Earlier this summer, I witnessed that descending into a pattern can be as dangerous as a straight-in approach as I administered a commercial practical exam in a Cessna 172. Ben, the candidate, entered the 45-degree leg for a left downwind to Runway 18 at the Winchester Municipal Airport (BGF). As he did so, he pointed to an aircraft above the airport heading east, and connected it to an ADS-B target reporting 1,000 feet above pattern altitude.

Shortly after Ben announced turning onto the downwind we saw the target turn north on the traffic display, now only 500 feet above us, and the two airplanes almost overlapped. At this time, the Cirrus pilot announced that he too had turned downwind for a full stop landing and had the 172 ahead of him in sight. Ben wisely decided on a short approach and made an early turn onto the base leg to encourage more distance between the aircraft. To our surprise, the Cirrus pilot quickly followed onto the base and final legs. Ben initiated a go-around, stayed in the pattern, and completed the landing without the pressure of another airplane so close on our tail. While the Cirrus pilot’s decision to enter the pattern on a crosswind leg aligns with FAA advice, descending into an established leg is dangerous and unacceptable. He should have entered on the crosswind at pattern altitude.

The last page of AC 90-66C invites feedback from the public for changes that could be made to this version or for the next full update. While this circular contains excellent information, there are some topics that could be introduced or emphasized. What follows are a few of my suggestions for an improved version of the advisory circular.

Practice instrument approaches

AC 90-66C advises that “safety may best be served by breaking off the approach and entering the airport’s downwind leg to not disturb the current flow of landing and departing traffic.” But that’s just not realistic in our bustling training environment, and it would not be wise to give pilots the idea that there will be fewer straight-in approaches in the future.

Airmen certification standards for the instrument rating require that the candidate descend as low as 200 feet above the ground at the missed approach point very close to the runway. Negotiating with other pilots in the pattern and even altering the approach speed to facilitate myriad operations should be part of every instrument pilot’s repertoire, and pilots who operate in a standard pattern should always be on the lookout for traffic on straight-in approaches. Rolling wings-level on base to check the extended final leg and the opposite base leg is an important practice. Assuming that there will be such traffic is an effective antidote for complacency.

Airspeed in the pattern

Facilitating multiple kinds of operations at a nontowered airport doesn’t end with communication among pilots, as the accident in Watsonville demonstrates. In AOPA Air Safety Institute’s “Early Analysis: Midair at Watsonville Municipal Airport,” ADS-B data shows that the Cessna 340 maintained a ground speed of approximately 180 knots until the collision on short final—at least twice or possibly three times as fast as the Cessna 152. Such disparity in approach speeds surely made the charge to see and avoid an especially challenging one.

Verbiage

AC 90-66C asks pilots to “consider that non-instrument-rated pilots may not understand” IFR phrases. But the example it gives as a best practice, “Cessna N1234 on VOR 6 not flying the published missed approach, turning east for another approach,” is at odds with the advice. Non-instrument-rated pilots might not know what a VOR approach is, and even instrument-rated pilots won’t be familiar with the published missed approach unless they are viewing the same approach plate. “Cessna N1234, five-mile final, Runway 6, low approach,” offers the pertinent information and makes sense to any pilot. “Cessna N1234, going around on Runway 6, departing east” during the missed procedure can help coordinate with other traffic in the pattern.

Defining the upwind leg

The first figure in Appendix A in AC 90-66C shows that the upwind leg of the pattern is parallel to and on the opposite side of the runway from the downwind leg. But under the textual description it says “The upwind leg is separate and distinct from the departure leg and often used to reference the flight path flown after takeoff (or a touch and go).” This sentence seems to say that some pilots are using “upwind” when they really should be using “departure leg,” but it’s not clear to me where the FAA stands on such a blurred distinction. The circular could more clearly communicate that these should remain separate legs. Because FAA guidance condones entering the pattern on the crosswind, flying the upwind leg to delay turning crosswind until a pilot can seamlessly enter between or behind other traffic on the downwind leg can be helpful. The Cirrus pilot who entered on the crosswind leg at Winchester could have used the upwind leg to his advantage.

Flying with friends new to general aviation always reminds me of the amazing amount of trust they place in me. Associated with the gift of their trust comes the profound responsibility for me to continually improve my abilities, preparation, and decision-making skills, so spending time with AC 90-66C proved a valuable expenditure of my time. If you haven’t had the chance to review this new version of AC 90-66, I hope you find the time soon and make your own suggestions to the FAA.


Catherine Cavagnaro

Catherine Cavagnaro is an aerobatics instructor (aceaerobaticschool.com) and professor of mathematics at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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