Uncontrolled airports


Well-known member
Apr 3, 2018
Tacoma, WA
I prefer to call it wisdom, or it might just be a case of being old and set in my ways, but either way I'm with Bob on most of this.

Straight in approaches? Just "No".

Long straight in approaches are necessary for most instrument practice, but way too many pilots seem to thing reporting in on the CTAF 6-7 miles out AND calling it a 6 or 7 mile "final" approach is acceptable. It really isn't, especially when there are other planes approaching or in the pattern.

Most pilots are notoriously bad at estimating distance. Worse, if the expectation is to call in 6-7 miles out and they forgot, there is a temptation to call it 6 or 7 when it's really only 3 or 4 miles. That makes a difference to a pilot on downwind thinking he has time to make his base turn and come down final and land before the other plane is in the pattern. Worst case you have a mid air. Best case, the guy on downwind, who is technically closer to the runway than even if the guy reporting "6 mile" final is only 3 miles out, has just been cut off by a jerk who thinks a long final is ok.

It's both safer and much more courteous to do an upwind entry and see for sure who's in the pattern and where.

Extended base to landing? An even bigger "No".

Again it's a set up to cut people off in the pattern, especially aircraft that are no radio that you may not know about.

Instead of calling in on base 6-7 miles out, maneuver 45 or so degrees left, descend to pattern altitude, turn 90 degrees right and and enter at a 45 degree angle to the downwind, yielding and adjusting if needed to any traffic on downwind.

IMHO, both lead to other bad habits.

I was always taught to fly the pattern in a single engine airplane close enough that I could make the runway if I lost the engine. Yet I see at least half the traffic at most uncontrolled airports with long runways flying the downwind leg a mile or two away from the runway, and flying the downwind leg 2-3 miles past the runway threshold. In the event of an engine failure in the "traffic pattern" (and I use that term loosely in their case), they are landing off the runway and quite possibly entirely off the airport.

It's annoying to take proper sequence behind an airplane on downwind, and then watch that plane fly 3 miles past the runway before turning base for a 3 mile final. I end up having to fly well beyond my own safe gliding distance in the pattern ti stay behind them, even if I slow way down. Slowing way down would also create a cascade effect if there is anyone behind me.

Don't get me wrong, there is a place for the 3 mile final. For example, with a 3 degree glide slope you descend about 300' per mile, and for a non precision approach or at night in less than stellar visibility, knowing when you are on the glide slope and can start the descent to the runway on final can be handy to prevent a premature descent into an intervening object.

However, way too many pilots seem to think they need to roll out of their base turn onto final and be on glide slope in severe clear VFR conditions. That leaves them turning base 2-3 miles past the threshold.

The fact is, in a light aircraft in an uncontrolled airport traffic pattern in VFR conditions, you need to pretty much ignore the VASI/PAPI lights.
This thread has been a great discussion and this post contains a lot of "what is wrong with aviation these days".

In my opinion a lot of the bad habits we are talking about at non-towered airports come from those of us who fly at airports with towers.
"Make right traffic"? Check
"Report on a 2 mile left base"? Check
"Enter on the downwind"? Check
"Depart on the upwind leg"? Yep
"Make straight in. Report on a 2 mile final" All day long

See the scope creep? As instructors we don't do a good job of pounding on the differences between towered and non-towered arrivals and departures. Radio calls? Sure, we teach that. And we do a pretty good job of coaching students on what instructions the tower might issue us depending on the direction we're approaching the airport from (for example, I can say I have NEVER been issued a teardrop entry at a towered airport).

IFR traffic
We also do a poor job of explaining why it's okay for some guy to call six miles straight in over some mysterious waypoint we hear on the radio but it's not on our sectionals. At towered airports we can just mind our own business and follow instructions but at a non-towered airport many pilots think a King Air on a 6 mile straight in is just being an a**. I can remember being a complete cherry working the pattern and doing some go arounds. The plane on final called a "missed approach" and was given instructions, so I asked my instructor if I should be doing the same. He looked at me like my hair was on fire and said "no, that's an instrument thing". At first he said "they'll figure it out", but then later taught me the aviate, navigate, communicate thing and how I might have the bandwidth to key the mic and say "going around" after I have positive rate on that last notch of flaps.

Size of the traffic patterns
Different subject than direction of arrival and comms, but you struck on my major pet peeve. At my airport we have one large mom & pop FBO and an ATP school. All of us not wearing epaulets joke about the 2 mile wide patterns flown by ATP pilot candidates. They're seriously in another county when they turn base. The FBO isn't much better. Look, we were all students at one point and we all sucked at flying the pattern. I was taught to put the runway through the middle of my wing strut at 1000' AGL and turn base when the numbers were 45 degrees behind me. Of course I was task saturated and that seemed like a lofty goal in the early days.
But if you're working on your commercial rating you should be able to keep it "high and tight" and stay within slam dunk gliding range should the fan quit. We don't get that from ATP or most of those other FBO products.
Here's a historic tidbit that most modern pilots would freak out over: Back in the day, the standard traffic pattern for a DC-3 was 800' and a 1/4 mile out on downwind. A tight pattern was 600' and 1/8 mile. I could fly a 600' 1/8 mile pattern in my Citabria no problem, but the T-6? My seat cushion would need a real good ironing to get the crease out.

We've pussified pilots to be scared of 20 degrees of bank, we teach canned stall procedures that have NOTHING to do with the stalls the actually kill people - and the ACS has made it worse. People now use the expression "stick and rudder flying" like it's an add on skill.


Bob Turner

Well-known member
Apr 4, 2018
Guess you all know I am 100% in agreement with the last 3 posts.

We laugh - in the taildraggers we cut the power abeam and do a normal pattern if we are cleared #1. The Cherokees (and there are a lot of them) will ask for short approaches. Stupid, if you are not #1, since the tower will say no. But if you are #1, the answer is "approved." Then, instead of a 3 mile base leg, they reduce it to 1 1/2 miles! I kid you not!

I have asked the tower, and the kind folks at stuckmic and dash 65, and nobody has a definition of a short approach. Obviously, if the tower asks for one, it is point the nose at the threshold and hustle, but other than that, I personally never ask for a short approach.

A Citation came in last week and did a Stearman approach to our 60' wide runway. Had to be a Cub pilot. Well inside the "Cherokee short approach."


Well-known member
Feb 20, 2020
/...Different subject than direction of arrival and comms, but you struck on my major pet peeve. At my airport we have one large mom & pop FBO and an ATP school. All of us not wearing epaulets joke about the 2 mile wide patterns flown by ATP pilot candidates. They're seriously in another county when they turn base. .../
You've identified the key problems with flight instruction today, unfortunately the training systems and standard have made many of those problems self replicating.

My initial instructor was a crop duster who taught me to fly in his newly restored Super Cub. It had an old Narco Mk III radio with a speaker and a handheld microphone. The airport was uncontrolled and was a WWII era B-25 training base that still had two of the original three 5,000 x 150 foot runways in use, and there were a number of short grass strips in the area. 800' was the pattern altitude at the time and I was taught the "half way up the strut" method of spacing the downwind leg as well as the 45 degree key point for the base turn. Approaches were power off from abeam the numbers. Stick and rudder skills were the primary focus of the training and the actual standards were secondary.

In terms of traffic pattern, the turn to the crosswind leg occurred at the end of the 5000' runway, or at 500' or the end of the runway, whichever came first at shorter grass strips, with the idea being to always stay close enough to make the runway if the engine quit. Since there wasn't much traffic at the airports we used, I could always rely on the engine "failing" if I ever strayed too far from the runway. It only takes 1 or 2 incidents where you have to admit defeat and add power to make the runway to hammer the point home.

A few years later and a half state away I started working on my instrument and commercial ratings at an airport with an approach control and a tower. I was in a Part 61 track due to my total time, but it was a Part 141 school with the usual Part 141 focus. In short, they trained students to fly Cessna 172s like they were DC-9s with DC-9 patterns and procedures in terms of when and where to add flaps, etc.

One of the first clues that things were different was when an instructor on my first flight with him, and with the school in general, admonished me for looking around in the pattern. He stated "don't be turning your head and looking around, it will make the passengers think we are about to get shot down by a Zero." "Hmm...ok....will I only be flying passengers into controlled airfields?" His response "Of course not! What does that have to do with it?" He was a Part 141 instructor that had been hatched and raised entirely in a Part 141 program. To him the priority was being very smooth on the controls and giving the passengers the best possible ride. (Even if it is to the site of the eventual midair, apparently.)

Aside from being nervous about radio calls in a controlled environment everything else in my PPL training and subsequent experience left me leaps and bounds ahead of the Part 141 students with similar total time - experience in a number of aircraft types, experience at a large number of different airfields, and short field and grass strip experience that most of them never had. The school used one 3000' x 100' grass strip with no obstacles at either end. It was certainly shorter than the 7000' x 150' and 11,000' x 150' paved runways where the school was located, but it never gave a short field experience.

That's a training environment that creates pilots who are not well suited to an uncontrolled airport, general aviation environment.

It's also a training environment that ensures those pilots replicate themselves. The instructors there were all focused on building time to get an ATP and then depart for the airlines. Most were also intent on getting some charter flight experience while there. One had been accepted for national guard flight training and was looking forward to flight school and an F-16 pilot slot, and figured the additional flight time and turbine experience would give him a leg up in landing an airline job.

With those career goals, the Part 141 program wasn't a bad choice as it did a good job of prepping them for that eventual goal.

However, it made them really poor CFIs when it came to training general aviation pilots. And, given the downturn in the airlines and airline hiring that occurred not long after that, that's exactly what each and every one of the students graduating from that program did.

It's even worse now given the FAA's focus on checklists and procedures over stick and rudder skills. CIGAR isn't enough anymore, I need to have a checklist in my hand, even if it's just the same CIGAR to show I am using a checklist. I suspect a fair number of those part 141 hatchlings have found there way into the FAA and are now writing regs and advisory circulars even though they still have no clue about what should be the priorities in GA.

The irony is that GA pilot in a light aircraft today will now be far more likely to be head down in the cockpit focusing on his checklist in the pattern, and/or will be head down and/or preoccupied with trying to program his or her GPS rather than looking for traffic and flying the plane.

That's less of an issue I guess if you are on a 10 mile final, or 3 miles away from the airport with plenty of time before you turn base 3 miles past the runway.

Bob Turner

Well-known member
Apr 4, 2018
Finished what may be my last Cub X-C today. Over 20 hours of more or less enjoyable flying, but ending the first day felt like I was a dead man walking. Motel advertised .7 miles from the airport - Nut Tree, Ca. Yeah, but a freeway makes that leisurely stroll more like 3 miles. And no restaurants. Boo!

But I wanted to tell you, the easiest uncontrolled airport was Santa Paula. Everybody identifies themselves by type and color, not N-number, and everybody takes pains to make it work. Very professional.

Worst was San Martin, where everybody does standard callouts and talks so fast you are not sure which airport, even when they say it twice in each callout.
One aircraft had a girl and a guy, and they were both alternating callouts. So I am looking for two Cessnas on upwind, when it was just one, making double callouts.
Finally figured it out on final - guy makes standard callout. I tell him I am following him. Girl then makes standard callout. I don't see her, and told her so. Guy explains that both are in the same airplane. Yow!