Uncontrolled airports

Bob Turner

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#1
This might get long - I think I will submit it to my flying club newsletter.

So we train pilots - one cross country dual, and one solo, and they get a license, hopefully. We may get one shot at teaching proper pattern entry, and lately the AIM has become less than helpful, if it is even read after the checkride.

I just did two flight reviews - one for a fairly recent pilot; the other for a Cub pilot with over 20 years experience. Both involved multiple different uncontrolled airports.

Here is my take on uncontrolled airports. It is different from the AIM, but I bet I have more experience at this than all the folks who write the AIM uncontrolled airport guidelines combined! First, always assume there are "no radio" airplanes around, and never assume that anybody will answer your radio calls.

Unless it is your airport, plan on some sort of standard pattern entry. I do not care for the new 1000' patterns, but I think we have to conform, unless we are sure the airport specifies 800'. I always overfly, partly to see the windsock and fuel island, but also to look for other traffic - unless some nice soul has said "Winds 230 at ten; everybody is using runway 24, left traffic" or something similar.

If I overfly, I usually do so maybe 200' above pattern altitude. Then I enter either upwind or crosswind. Any other entry is cutting corners, in my opinion. It only takes two more minutes. Lately, there has been a lot of sentiment for only entering on the outside 45 to downwind. That entry can potentially involve descending aircraft doing interesting teardrop maneuvers, and I only use it when I am coming from an appropriate direction and sure of the runway in use. I am at pattern altitude before three miles, and looking for weird teardrop descents.

Radio calls - here is where I really differ from the AIM. Unless you are in a jet, wait until you are four miles out to call. Then briefly identify yourself and what you are about to do, followed by the airport name. Like this:

"Yellow Piper Cub four miles East landing Deming". Period. If they need to know your N-number instead, tell them you would rather they not come close enough to see if you are really who you say you are. (Just kidding here - if they really need to know your N-number, they can ask, and you can easily tell them. Once.) Then, when you decide what kind of entry you are going to do, let them know. At Hemet, we know they are using 23, and we know where the fuel is, so most of us say " Yellow Cub entering the 45 for runway 23 Hemet.

This particular opinion has generated a lot of discussion. The AIM suggests using only N-number, which is less than informative for other aviators. One might as well say "aircraft". Several commenters have said that the N-number is critical for record keeping and federal funding. I am not sure that even a fraction of uncontrolled airports keep such records. If it becomes clear that this is truly important information on each transmission, then only the full call sign will do. Further research might be necessary.

Noticce how short my calls are. In Southern California we have a lot of folks learning English on the radio, so I try to leave room for them. That is true at towered airports too - I repeat runway assignments with my N-number, and skip the complicated stuff. Most have been instructed to read back every word, so we get "cleared to land behind the King Air on right base, caution wake turbulence, Cessna 123." when a simple "two eight right number 2" would do it. Leaving the runway number out is unforgiveable in my book. It is not yet illegal, but it soon will be. Another idea - when a controller says "standby" he or she means I will get back to you. The proper response is nothing. Be quiet and wait. We often hear as a response, "standby, hold sort of 28 right, number three for departure". Defeats the whole purpose of "standby".

But back to the uncontrolled field: once you scope the situation out, maintain pattern altitude until you are downwind abeam the approach end of your chosen runway. Then - and only then - start your descent to land. You should complete your landing chcklist well before the descent point, and you should be at approach speed for flaps up when you begin the downwind leg.

Remember - you lose 1/3 of your altitude on downwind after the abeam point, one third on base, and the last third on final.

The AIM can be helpful - it suggests being stable on final not less than 1/4 mile from the threshold. A Cub or Champ, at idle from the abeam point, will usually be so established.

In the pattern, or on departure, the AIM recommends being within 300' of pattern altitude and beyond the departure end before turning. That may not work well in a crowded pattern. At our tower controlled airport I ask for early turns in the lower powered airplanes. Picture me and another 190 lb pilot in a 65 hp Chief - we will be a mile and a half west of the airport before we reach the proper altitude for a turn. If you find yourself in that position, remember, you are a sitting duck for a Cirrus or Bonanza smoking out behind you. Have a plan.

So what inspired all this verbosity? My students. One was shooting very short patterns at 500' agl. After 20 years, that was a tough habit to break. It is not clear that I have been successful.

Be precise. Look for "no radio" aircraft. Watch for your fellow pilots doing non-standard stuff (the worst is "straight in"). And discipline yourself to stay at pattern altitude until the abeam point. Find an older document that describes standard arrivals including upwind and crosswind entries, and remember, when these entries were standard, most flying was no radio - at least in light planes.

Of interest: one comment was to the effect that "uncontrolled" is now disfavored by those who sit behind desks and decide this stuff. That is apparently because the word connotes "out of control" rather than not controlled. I, being a really old codger, am not in favor of re-defining stuff in such arbitrary fashion. I note that there can no longer be taxiways "india" and "oscar" because pilots might confuse them with runways one and zero. These same pilots are treated to "line up and wait", which really is ambiguous. I think "line up and wait" is a decade old, and yet every day our tower has to explain it to somebody ("It means 'position and hold' "). So I shall continue to use the older "uncontrolled" term until they threaten me with a violation.

More later. I am just going to add by editing, so if interested, check back here. Last edit Oct 18, 2018.
 
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Clifford Daly

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#2
Awesome write up, definitely not enough knowledge at these types of airports. I like keeping everything standard, because if everyone thinks their way is the best way it causes confusion.

Just so you know, the FAA prefers ‘non-towered’ over ‘uncontrolled’ because it makes it sound like they are out of control. I sat through a seminar about it last year, they really want to move away from it (even though sometimes it seems uncontrolled).
 

aftCG

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#3
Good discussion. I had to find an actual keyboard to begin a response.

To begin with, you cannot hold up the AIM as an example and then tell us you use "Yellow Cub on base". That terminology must have started with Oshkosh style arrivals (and makes 100% sense in that application) and has since been adopted by many pilots. And it makes sense that people can't read your tail numbers from a distance so a color description might be a better choice. But I just looked at this in my 2018 AIM a month or two ago and it clearly states use of N number and not "yellow cub". What if there's more than one yellow cub in the pattern?

Next up, pattern arrivals. Don't get your shorts in a knot yet because we don't disagree on most of your points but I'm trying to establish the base for continuing discussion. I whipped out my AIM last year when a local Facebook group went postal over the way people arrived at a local airport (Auburn, WA where I don't fly). There was outrage at this thing called a teardrop entry, including many who thought it was hazardous to all involved. Preposterous!

The teardrop entry was in the AIM when I learned to fly 21 years ago and not only is it still in there, it is the preferred method for entering a pattern from the non-pattern side. The other method crossing at TPA +500' (AIM says that for teardrop too) and then descending into the downwind leg is listed as acceptable (that one creeps me out, sorry - can't see it happening smoothly unless the pattern is basically empty).

The crux of the Facebook discussion was that people should use the known landmarks (water tower, graveyard, etc) and call those in. I asked what happens if I drop you off at Davenport, WA and you aren't familiar with the local landmarks? I got crickets, which is exactly what I expected.

Next, people bitch loudly about a straight in (Skagit Bayview in this instance). They often don't understand that a King Air on an instrument approach to a non-towered airport isn't on frequency until they're pretty close, and then they're going to seem like a d*** swinging King Air making a straight in like they own the place. Some understanding of both sides is in order. If the King Air is arriving in nasty weather then the pattern is likely to be empty anyway, so "a tree falls in a forest...". If it's CAVU he should consider breaking off the visual far enough out to mix in with the appropriate flow. They often don't so there's the rub, and it's not going away anytime soon. It is typically the strictly VFR white knuckle types who complain (it ain't the King Air).

It's a plane, it's in the pattern, deal with it. People freak out about a plane going the other direction 1000' away and feel like they almost died, yet drove to the airport going opposite direction from complete strangers (most incompetent) 6' away.

NORDO. Oh, my fave. Arlington, WA where they have two runways (plus grass and ultralight). Non-towered and the home of probably the largest local segment of experimental and classic planes. But put one guy in the pattern in a 1939 Cub, who chooses to use the appropriate runway for the wind direction and "FOR GAWD'S SAKES NOT USING A RADIO" and watch the internet implode. NORDO is a fact of life. So are people who can't seem to use an audio selector panel or read the NOTAM that said the local CTAF frequency changed (last year).

I guess maybe it's because I ride a motorcycle every day and don't trust that just because someone is at a stop sign or red light and I have direct eye contact with them, that they won't gun the throttle anyway (because they do). Laws of physics apply. Eyes out, head on swivel.

I flew Friday at my local towered airport and had a controller clear a practice approach on the missed. I knew it was heading 250 which would send him my direction, and it did. The controller must have spaced that he asked me to report midfield downwind and there I was, putting a bit of a dogleg in my 45 to make some room. Situational awareness on my part (visualizing what everyone in the pattern was doing and where they should be) caused his instruction for another plane to make my head snap in the correct direction.

I do appreciate your short calls and fully agree. The only thing you need to repeat back is "cleared taxi [insert runway number]", "holding short", "cleared for takeoff" and "cleared to land" followed by your tail number (abbreviated if the controller initiates such).

My soapbox
My pet peeve is people calling out that they are taxiing from the restaurant/gas pumps/local FBO to the "active"on a CTAF that is shared by a half dozen airports in the vicinity. I have been in patterns where I was unable to announce my position because of the traffic stepping all over each other with crap like that (or as you point out "15 miles south" in a 80 knot plane) - it actually creates virtual NORDO situations with all that useless trivia. I would love for someone to give an example of an accident caused by taxi confusion, that would have been solved by such announcements.

Patterns
Not sure when the "new" patterns were adopted but 1000' AGL was also per the AIM 21 years ago, though there were still airports with 800' patterns at the time.

For the record, patterns used to be 500' and 1/4 mile out on downwind and that was pulled off by pilots in DC-3s.

The funny part
Even though we fly planes of the same bloodline, I have the opposite problem in my local pattern (towered). My 150hp 7ECA climbs really, really well. I wouldn't put it up against a Harmon Rocket but I'll take on anything single engine from Wichita. On my 5002' runway I'm at 1000' by the end of the runway, and I hit TPA a few second after wings level on my crosswind. I keep my downwind about 1/4 mile out. I can make the runway from anywhere in the pattern, which is the point of flying the pattern to begin with isn't it? The tower controllers work well with me while I watch Skycatchers fly into the next county before turning base. I just pull the loud handle way back and wait for them to come back into my time zone, turning base when they pass me going the other way (like the AIM says).
 

Bob Turner

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#4
Check my third paragraph. I start out by saying I disagree with the AIM. AIM wants a call ten miles out, and presumably about six more (on the 45, downwind, base, final, clearing the runway, going to the restaurant). I wildly disagree, as do you.

As for there being two yellow Cubs in the pattern, that is easily handled - "second yellow Cub, left downwind 23, Hemet". I have no idea how that would be clearer with an N-number and no color - I anxiously await what use an N-number is at an uncontrolled field.

The FAA has a bunch of non-pilots studying all this stuff. They decided that VFR runways have to be 75 feet wide, taxiways must be 125 feet wide, and hold lines must be 150 feet from the edge of the pavement. All of that, in my opinion, is boneheaded stupid. If we think "uncontrolled" means "out of control" then we are in the same class - although what I am suggesting is being a bit more "in control".

I could address more of your comments, but you get the idea. I am just appalled by folks who have literally no idea how to enter an uncontrolled pattern.

My take on readbacks is even more abbreviated. I state runway number and my aircraft ID, and very little else. Ready for takeoff? Our local instructors teach "Cessna 123, ready for takeoff, holding short of 28 Right". The tower only needs the word "ready" as in "Cub 123, ready 28 Right, straight out". Way more info, lots fewer words.

Cleared for the option? "28 Right, Cub 123". People I don't know have picked it up - tower is happy.

My Super D gets to pattern altitude rather quickly. I ask for an 800 foot pattern, and reduce power before the neighbors scream. And even in a Mooney my patterns are tight. 1/4 mile is good.

A teardrop 45? In the olden days we were taught a 45 from either side, or an upwind entry, or a crosswind entry. They still have some press in those neat AOPA handouts. Descending in a teardrop or on downwind, I agree, is just plain scary.
 
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Clifford Daly

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#5
While I agree with sticking to the books, I would much rather hear “Yellow Cub” than “N123AB”. Tail numbers are for towers to get info on you and a positive ID. Non-towered airports like tail numbers for their books to show their daily operations, that should be used simply when you call for the runway advisories and then continue with a way everyone can see you. When I fly my families biplane, I use “biplane”, why? Because it gives you more information than anything else I could say. Everything of course changes on a given day but if there was another biplane I would add “blue and yellow biplane”. Saying my tail number and type would not give you enough to look for a biplane.
 

Bob Turner

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#6
And how many non- towered airports even bother to respond on unicom? We landed on five uncontrolled airports eastbound last week, and not one of them responded. We landed on six westbound, but we had no radio . . .

One pilot suggested that the N-number would be essential if we crashed. Izzat so? Would it get the crash crew there quicker? One possibility is if you went missing later they would know where not to look, but that is tenuous, since most unicoms that do answer are not recording stuff or writing it down. Fuel receipts would be more reliable.
 

Clifford Daly

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#7
Any airport that gets funding is writing down their operations. No operations = less funding. You’d be surprised how well binoculars work.. because pilots don’t answer and are hesitant to give tail numbers, they just visually get them to send the bill or prove operations. How do I know this? I did it.
 

Bob Turner

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#8
Gila Bend gets federal funding. Nobody there - hasn't been anybody there for decades. Deming is a major airport. Nobody is in the office, although during daytime hours somebody is close by. Benson requires a phone call to get fuel, and it is a recent federally funded airport. Van Horn is a "call out" airport. Nobody mans the unicom at Hemet or Fallbrook, although Fallbrook has surveillance cameras everywhere. Nobody answered us at Big Spring or Pecos, even though lots of folks were "around."

If they are there with binoculars, why don't they answer the Unicom?
 
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Clifford Daly

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#9
It all depends on the airport! Some don’t need to prove operations because there’s other means of proving the need for money while for some, proving people fly in there is all they got!

You have to remember that A LOT of airports go from towered to non-towered at night. The airport I was ops/arff at, we couldnt talk on the radio for liability issues, but we still got everyone in the computer for the landing fees on the overnights 😏

You can’t just assume no one is there when they don’t answer, I’m only speaking for the airports I worked at and know the exact policies for. “Unicom” has no responsibility to answer up for a radio check and runway advisories but someone does have to be available to issue notams and other tasks. Im sure there’s someone at all the airports you listed responsible for that! Maybe they listen to the radio more than you think!
 

Bob Turner

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#10
I can assume no one is home when the pilot lounge is empty, there are no cars in the parking lot, and the sign says call this number for fuel; we can usually be there in 30 minutes. I have been doing uncontrolled federally funded airports for 55 years, and nobody answers "airport advisory" requests. Nobody. They used to, back in the 1970s.

I have seen sign-in sheets. Voluntary, and done by the pilots. In the last week and a half I have been in and out of six different uncontrolled airports, and last April I visited 15. Sixteen if you count Eastland twice.

But my point is that we should teach precise and disciplined uncontrolled pattern entries (and departures). This is a minor point, except that I would much rather know what you look like than your N-number. AIM wants your number.

Every time I type "uncontrolled" I think of those bright guys who changed our taxiway "India" to "Kilo" so we wouldn't confuse it with runway 1. They think pilots are idiots.
 

Bartman

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#11
Wow, I completely missed this thread.

My preference is strictly to enter on the 45 at pattern altitude and no less than 500 ft above the pattern when passing over. The more we accept other entries, the more we have to ensure we aren't about to hit someone or be hit from an entry style we weren't aware of.

Personal experiences always seem to dictate our preferences, in my case a straight in collision with an aircraft in the pattern at the field just north of us, everyone died. Was almost t-boned by a frickin' Glasair that came screaming into the pattern from the crosswing leg just as I was coming off of the 45 and he never saw me.

The other thing is that students might not always be restricted to whatever we're teaching them in so they can be the next guy in a Glasair to blast through the pattern after they've demonstrated proficiency in whatever low performance plane that they learned in. Putting everyone on the 45 to enter the pattern and making the standard radio calls along the way ensures we all have the best shot of seeing and avoiding each other even with the performance differences factored in.

My take on it, your mileage may vary.
 
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Bob Turner

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#13
Maybe, but if your goal is to record N-numbers, that won't work.

Upwind, crosswind, and reverse 45 entries were looked on with favor when almost all airports were uncontrolled. I personally prefer the upwind entry to the 45 for a number of safety related reasons, including avoiding that scrum of descending aircraft out there at the presumed start of the 45 leg.
 

JimParker256

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#14
Interesting thread. It is telling to me that when our tower crew wants to point out other traffic to us, they ALWAYS say something like "Cleared to land runway 18, you're #2 behind the Bonanza on short final." Or "Your traffic is a Citabria at mid-field on downwind." They NEVER say "Your traffic is N9502S on downwind." (Somewhat ironic, because these days, with ADS-B more prevalent under our Class B airspace, I see the tail numbers pretty easily on the "fish-finder".)

So, taking a cue from them when operating at uncontrolled fields, I usually call myself "Citabria 9502S" on my first call, and "Citabria 02S" for all subsequent calls. Every once in a while, I'll be at a field with another Citabria (unusual, but it does happen), and I'll call myself "Red & White Citabria 02S".

As for the entry, I tend to stick with a standard 45º entry to the downwind leg, and plan my arrival accordingly. If I'm approaching from the "wrong" side, I cross over 500 ft above the pattern altitude, and descend only when well clear of the downwind leg, even for the Cirrus (or is it B-52?) pilots...

I've also done more than one 360º turn on downwind to allow IFR traffic unimpeded access to those "uncontrolled" runways without having to worry about where I'll be... I figure my 4 GPH fuel burn in the pattern (and my 70 mph pattern speed) makes it a lot easier for me to kill time than for them to do so. I get a lot of "Thanks" conversations later on the ground, generally followed by mutually admiring each other's planes. The jet / turboprop pilots usually tell me they'd rather be flying mine. I tell them "So would I!" and we have a good laugh.
 

donv

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#15
Wow, there is a lot in this thread, so I'll try to keep my response short.

On N-numbers: I use my N-number in the pattern. As was pointed out, this is standard procedure and there may be more than one airplane of your type in the pattern, which is just going to lead to confusion.

On wrong-side pattern entries: law of primacy (I think?)-- when I learned to fly in the 1980s, the way I learned to do it was to cross midfield at 500' above pattern altitude, and turn to the downwind. Very simple. Apparently, according to the latest FAA guidance, you are supposed to either do the teardrop method or turn directly onto downwind, but do the overhead cross AT pattern altitude.

This Advisory Circular has the latest from the FAA on all of this:

https://www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/AC_90-66B.pdf
 

Ron86654

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#17
A very interesting thread. I gave a presentation to our local EAA Chapter on "Non-Towered" airport patterns that required a lot of research as to what the FAA "suggests".
The one thing that I have come to believe is that most pilots don't know how far they are from the runway at any point in the pattern. The FAA "suggests" that the pattern should be flown from 1/2 to 1 mile from the runway on downwind at between 70 and 80 kts (for light aircraft).
There is a SkyCatcher at my home airport that routinely flies a pattern that is at least 2 - 2 1/2 miles from the runway. If asked how far out he is he will say "about a mile."
The SkyCatcher is not by himself at 2 miles from the runway when turning base. Most of the training 172s also are out there.
This raises the question, if the preferred method of entering the pattern is to cross mid field at pattern altitude + 500', fly 2 miles past the runway then make a teardrop back to the 45* entry, then what happens when you come face to face with the 172 on downwind 2 miles out from the runway?
500' above the light plane pattern altitude is also the pattern altitude for jet traffic.
Sometimes common sense and situational awareness should trump any "official" "suggestions".
Any Traffic in the Area Please Advise.:confused:
 

Bob Turner

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#18
I don't know why that phrase is considered so obnoxious, and why students are being taught never to answer queries.

I use "anybody in the pattern at Benson?" If nobody is there, fine, but if somebody is, they can say ""yeah, using runway 26. Winds are pretty strong, and the fueler went to lunch."

I have the AOPA handouts I use for flight reviews on the table, and will give some excerpts.

I have no idea how I would tie an N-number to a particular airplane when approaching on the 45. Somebody tell me how I would visually spot Cessna 123 on downwind if both he and Cessna 456 have reported downwind with an AIM-approved callout. Get real close and read the N-number?
 

Ron86654

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#19
From FAA Advisory Circular 90-66b;

Note: Pilots are reminded that the use of the phrase, “ANY TRAFFIC IN THE AREA, PLEASE ADVISE,” is not a recognized self-announce position and/or intention phrase and should not be used under any condition. Any traffic that is present at the time of your self-announcement that is capable of radio communications should reply without being prompted to do so.

The point is, you should listen before making your first self-announced position/or intention call. This will normally answer the above with out clogging up the airwaves.
 

Clifford Daly

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#20
I don’t answer the “anybody in the pattern” question but will call my next move soon after. So instead of saying yes I am here and then 20 seconds later call turning crosswind, I’ll just not answer and call crosswind. Kinda proves that if you just listen out, you don’t have to make that call and clog up the frequency.