Talking at non-towered airports

During the last several months, I traveled around the country presenting an AOPA safety seminar on non-towered airport operations.

We spent a good portion of the two-hour presentation talking about overall flight operations, communication requirements, and radio etiquette at non-towered airports. We then looked at several real-world accidents, where poor communications were cited as contributing factors by the NTSB.

I had some pretty interesting encounters/discussions with other pilots during my seminars. This subject seemed to inflame the passion in a lot of folks. I’d like to share some of my observations with you.

There’s a lot of guidance on non-towered airport operations that folks are not aware of, or at least, haven’t looked at in a long time: 14 CFR Part 91 (especially 91.126 and 91.127); Chapter 4 of the AIM; the Airplane Flying Handbook; AC 90-42F, Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers; and AC 90-66A, Recommended Standard Traffic Patterns for Aeronautical Operations at Airports Without Operating Control Towers.

Many folks don’t consider the radio communication recommendations in the AIM to be adequate or appropriate. When I pointed out that in the AIM, Table 4-1-1, Summary of Recommended Communication Procedures, the FAA only lists five calls for inbound aircraft, and two calls for departing aircraft, many were incredulous, and a few verged on belligerent. One gent even said I was not welcome to fly at his airport if I only made five radio calls.

The problem with pilots developing their own tactics, techniques and procedures for communicating at non-towered airports manifests itself repeatedly. It seems many were taught by an instructor, way-back-in-the-day, to make a myriad of position reports, using a variety of formats. It made sense to them, and they’ve never had anything bad happen that would cause them to change their habits. Several times, I heard, “I always make A, B, and C radio calls!” followed shortly by another’s “Well, I always make X, Y, and Z radio calls!” In fact, I heard several “I always… ” and an equal number of “I never…”

Which brings me to my point: When everyone invents their own standard, there is no standard.

Many were stuck on the idea that the more you say on the radio, the better everyone’s situational awareness will be, and therefore, safety must increase.  I had to keep reminding them that radios aren’t even required at these airports.

Flight instructor in cockpit
More talking does not equal more safety.

Some of the critics were silenced after discussing our first case study: a fatal mid-air collision between an Arrow and a Tri-Pacer.  Even though the accident was the result of failure to see and avoid, the NTSB found contributing to it was “both pilots’ failure to adequately monitor other aircraft position reports while in the pattern.”  Meaning, they didn’t, or couldn’t, determine from radio transmissions, that there was an immediate threat in the vicinity.

Unfortunately, during the last 2:18 of that flight, there were 23 transmissions, from 10 different aircraft, including 20 position reports. That’s one every seven seconds. In fact, of that last 138 seconds, 20 seconds were completely “comm jammed” with nothing said being discernible. Pretty tough to pick out, and process, what’s important to you, in that environment.

Just to revalidate what I subscribe to — follow the official published guidance, unless you can’t. I took a short flight to my favorite local non-towered airport for some pattern work. The radio was fairly quiet on my way there, and the limited calls I heard were consistent with what’s in the AIM.

But, sure enough, as I taxied out after a brief pit stop, I heard a Cessna 185, make a “10 miles south” call.  Then, from his initial call to his full-stop landing, he made another 14 radio calls! Fortunately, this airport’s CTAF is the little-used 123.00; if he had been on the hugely-congested 122.8 or 122.9, he’d have been talking to/over dozens of airplanes at multiple airports.

Just sayin’.

31 Comments

  • Thanks for pointing out this chart, I have been looking for this and didn’t know where to find it. Generally I will make a 10 or 5 mile out call and then wait to hear other traffic in the pattern. If no one else is present I will call my entry to downwind, then either base or final, but not usually both. No need to take over a busy CTAF with useless radio calls.

    If there are other aircraft in the pattern I tend to make more radio transmissions, but only as many as are needed to keep up SA. I also call aircraft in front of me in sight, as I view this as a courtesy. When someone is behind me on downwind and do not say “number 2” or “in sight” I get worried that they don’t see me and might run over me. Another pet peeve is people who do not speak up with their position when they hear me entering the pattern. If I hear nothing and see nothing I will assume nobody is there. Please make a position call if you hear someone enter!

  • Roca;
    Thanks for your comments!
    I think your techniques are pretty consistent with what I would term ‘the middle ground’ approach.

    At each of the seminars, the idea that the FAA’s recommended 5 inbound/2 outbound calls, were sufficient in ALL cases, was, of course, rejected out-of-hand.

    Certainly, if in the dynamic environment you’re flying in, at the time, based on your judgment, you determine additional radio calls are appropriate–make them. Just realize that what you’re transmitting, may not be received, understood, or
    responded to, by the ‘audience’ it’s intended for.

    I think the general consensus is there is way too much superfluous, inappropriate, unnecessary comm at these airports-as opposed to not enough ‘good’ comm.

    The really lively debate everyone wanted to get into was ‘call sign’ use at non-towered airports. Holy Cow!!!! We’ll save that for another article!

    Sent from my iPhone

  • Good article. One thing I would suggest as a CFI and airline pilot is to include the airport or city name as the last word or phrase in your transmissions. EX. “Indianola traffic, Cessna xxxxx is ten miles northwest. Will enter left downwind runway 3-6, Indianola. Much of the time, the intended recipients of your transmissions are not primed to listen until after a few words have already been spoken. Therefore, the airport in question is often missed initially. “What airport did he say?” “I don’t know; I didn’t catch it.”

    • That’s a valid point, but maybe it should be matched by omitting the airport name at the beginning. Anything that keeps the transmissions shorter will help at a busy airport.

      (Off topic, but a similar issue is an ATIS recording that goes on for several minutes reciting NOTAMs about taxiway closures, towers, and other items that some lawyer thought should be in there, thus preventing you from hearing what the tower is saying.)

      • Stephen Leonard. “omitting the airport name at the beginning. Anything that keeps the transmissions shorter will help at a busy airport.” That would have some significant downsides. At my airport, I regularly hear transmissions at three other airports. Hearing the airport name at the beginning, and we clearly hear it 98% of the time, lets us disregard the transmission when it is not local. Not having a name at the beginning would increase our listening time three times over – actually more because there are still other airports less frequently heard on our frequency. Having a twenty-five percent chance that the transmission is local, pilots would probably start missing or even ignoring transmissions until they heard their name at the end. Then they would have to ask the pilot to repeat. It would be a ‘mess’. The FAA’s guidelines are just right – the name at both ends.

  • The guy making 14 calls probably does not have his head out of the cockpit. I fly a Champ without a radio and have learned the head on a swivel is still a good way to see and avoid!

    • Carl, Great point! Today’s environment is a “heads down,” one driven by black boxes that suck the brain right out of a pilots head. Most pilots are encouraged to fly as though there is a 4 inch square of clear glass in front of them and all f the rest of the windows are painted flat black. (Bud Davidson quote). What should you be looking for? The airplane you can’t see.
      This will serve you better than any radio whether you are working with ATC or CTAF.

  • Good article. Brief, but filled with much food for thought.
    I have often wondered though about the need for pre-taxi announcements. Presumably, there would be no high speed movements on the ramp, so it should be about like backing your car out of the driveway; which is usually done without radio announcements and with reasonable safety.

    • Stephen, I agree, Broadcasting taxi “instructions,” is a total waste of frequency time. Imagine if you did that in your car at your local shopping mall on one frequency. People seldom run into each other at a mall and they don’t have any radios.

    • I make the pre-taxi announcement. I know plenty of others who don’t, but I’d rather know when someone is out of sight on the other side of the hangar and we’re about to meet suddenly at the corner. It could also make coordination much easier where an inbound on a single taxiway will need to clear before you can take that taxiway outbound, many times which is not in sight until you have cleared the parking area.

    • It also helps in a variable or cross wind situation if you are arriving (about to make your 10 mile call) or about to taxi yourself to know what others at the airport are planning to do.

  • Follow the AIM. ✈️ Maybe you can get by with that in small non-towered airports. But very frustrating to be stomped on because of a pilot who has consistent “diarrhea of the mouth.”

  • I’m not much worse that this, but I do also make a 5 mile call since I’m a slow plane. The time between 10 miles and downwind seems to long. I also make a 45 to downwind call sometimes. So a couple of calls that maybe aren’t necessary, but make me feel people know exactly where I am.

    I, however, don’t make taxi calls unless I’m crossing a runway. I feel other planes on the ground can see me and I don’t want to be broadcasting that I’m moving on the ground when planes are in the air trying to communicate with each other.

    I absolutely hate the “any traffic in the area please advise” call. The AIM specifically says not to use this phrase as it’s counter-productive. You announce, and if other traffic feels there is a conflict, they will announce their position/intentions. Asking them to do so wastes time.

    • Totally agree about “any traffic in the area please advise”. Unfortunately, my local airport is the home base for a prolific regional airline. Many of their pilots make exactly that call as they make a visual approach to land.
      The 5 incoming calls are usually adequate. As a slower plane, I tend to make a 5 mile call, especially when there are other aircraft in the vicinity. Frustrating on a busy day to hear multiple planes at multiple nearby airports and there’s always one pilot who talks too much without thinking first, and locks up the 122.80.
      Sunday mornings are my favorite time–but we have to pay close attention to the skydive planes at three area fields. The more those guys keep us informed, the better.

    • Jack, the funny thing is about that “any traffic,” call is that in my experience it is made mostly by professional pilots. They are payed to know better. Often times it is made by aircraft flying over the pattern altitude by a significant margin. Useless but, ubiquitous.

  • The only thing I wish would change is, that when folks are doing practice instrument approaches, their safety pilots would announce their position relative to something a VFR pilot can see on a chart. We don’t all fly with approach charts on our laps and telling me your on the ILS approach at such and such fix doesn’t do a VFR pilot any good. Now telling me that you are on the approach to runway XX and your XX miles out, then i know exactly where you are. Or maybe add approach fixes to the sectional.

    • Totally agree. Sometimes I’d like better communication from helicopters too. They can pop up anywhere, at any altitude, and their calls don’t always mean much to a fixed wing pilot. I honestly don’t know if they are standardized, or those guys just make it up sometimes.

  • Like almost everything in aviation, the real answer is “it depends on the situation.” I don’t like to make position calls 10 miles out. I’d rather listen and see if there’s any traffic at my non-towered airport.. But my airport (CHN) has very little traffic. So sometimes, I ‘ll just announce the downwind and that’s all. Ground announcements to me are a waste of precious air time. If you can’t move you plane from the ramp to the run-up area without letting the world know, then something is wrong with your taxi technique. Why chew up the airwaves with calls that add nothing to safety. One thing that I find very annoying on Unicom is when pilots use their N Number. The type of plane you’re flying is relevant and important. N Numbers are not! I was flying in to North Palm Beach (F45) some months back and this airplane announced they were on the downwind when I was about 4 miles out on the ILS to 8R. Now had they said that they were a gyrocopter I would have known to slow my Bonanza because at 130kts. I was going to cover the final 4 miles before they were going to touch down. It’s the spacing that’s important and getting a visual idea of the traffic and the speeds they’ll be flying is what’s necessary.

  • Tom, great article on a subject that needs scrutiny. I have too much to say so I will bullet point.

    1. CTAF is not ATC. Pilots are not ATC controllers and shouldn’t try to be one in the cockpit.
    2. The “A” is for advisory. Advice can be good or, it can be bad. You don’t know until sometime after you receive it. This goes for all advise, financial, emotional, and CTAF.
    3. ATC corrects most bad “advice.” “ Cessna 123 is 10 mile north,” ATC responds after an Ident, “no sir, I show you 10 miles south.” “Oh, thats what I meant.”
    4. Errors transmitted on CTAF go unchecked so a receiver can be distracted or mislead by it.
    5. There is way, way, too much garbage transmitted on UNICOM, more so than a tower frequency being used as CTAF.

    None of the above is addressed by any of the official documents that you linked to in your article. All of them have a measurable negative effect on safety. After decades of experiencing all of the erroneous and unnecessary transmissions on UNICOM, none of which is heard by an airplane with no radio, or by an airplane on the wrong frequency, or by an airplane on the right frequency but, with the volume turned down, or switched off, or selected to the wrong radio, I teach my students to take what they hear with a grain of salt.

  • I have flown VFR cross county (helicopter) over much the US, and my pet peeve is when someone makes a radio call and doesn’t use the proper name of the airport as depicted in the FAA charts or database. For example, Erie-Ottawa International airport is in Port Clinton, Ohio. Most of the radio calls go out as “Port Clinton traffic”, so someone like me, far from home, has no idea that they are actually doing a call for the Erie-Ottawa that is depicted on my GPS. I’ve run into this quite a few hundred times, and it does me no good when someone uses the local vernacular if I’m not from your area. Just my 2-cents worth!

    • Heh…it’s actually worse than that. Before the airport in Port Clinton was Erie-Ottawa International Airport, it was Carl Keller Field. My last trip in the pattern there, I heard inbound pilots using all three names!

    • I agree with you on people using their own names for an airport rather than their official name. On a recent trip to Jefferson City, MO I used the name on the chart when talking to ATC and they answered with a local name that I did not know, so I stated that I was landing at a different airport and they came back with the local name and said it was the airport I was going into. I did’nt know what name I should use so I continued to use the one on the chart. Also, I was going to Jefferson City to see the total eclipse and discovered several hundred other airplanes had the same idea. Although this was a towered airport the tower announced not to make taxi calls, and just announce when you were number one for take-off. I didn’t see anyone come close to hitting anyone and was very impressed with how fast everyone got airborne after the eclipse. So I think the taxi calls at an untowered airport are not necessary and I will no longer do them unless I see a conflict.

  • The wisest aviator I ever knew reminded me years ago that airplanes fly because of a principle described by Bernoulli, not Marconi. He suggested the safest practice is to keep your eyes open, shut up and listen. Over the years both the number of transmissions and the length of each transmission have more than doubled. Ten miles out … five miles out … on the 45 … midfield downwind … downwind abeam the numbers … turning base … base to final … short final … clear of the active … and of course repeating “XYZ Airport traffic” twice with each transmission. Add half a dozen airplanes and several nearby airports on the same unicom frequency and all you get is unintelligible babble and feedback squeals.

    Never mind N numbers, that no one can see anyway, identify yourself as “blue and white Cessna,” or whatever. I submit it was a whole lot safer years ago when the procedure was to listen starting ten miles out, announce your presence once as you were about to enter the pattern or turn downwind, and then listen carefully, keep your eyes wide open, and speak again only if you were unsure or saw a problem.

    And as Ron Reese points out above, it serves no possible safety function to transmit anything about your taxi movements on the ground. Taxi slowly and keep your eyes open.

  • Great insight written in your article. Pilots flying at one of Southern California non towered airport report their aircraft basic 2 colors, Make and partial N number such as Hemet Traffic Red and White Cherokee 12 Xray entering 45 for runway 23 Hemet. Taxi communications alert inbound aircraft which runway is in use and the amount of traffic getting ready for departure.

  • Wow! Interesting comments all around; I hope we can keep the discussion going. In a civil manner. Obviously, the non-towered airport call sign issue is a topic that pilots feel strongly about–for good reason. There are other articles in the Air Facts Journal archives that get into it–and they’ve all had extensive comment threads.

    My own opinion: It is certainly an area where there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution; and even if the FAA published/mandated one in the FARs, it would probably not be followed…..consistently.

    I agree with the limited utility of using your registration number (N#) as a primary means to accurately identify yourself at a non-towered field. As Mr. Collier points out, some combination of tail number and aircraft “characteristics” is probably the most feasible solution.

    However, things to consider: Using color combinations, and/or specific aircraft type, make and model, etc., still has limitations.

    Unfortunately, pretty much every Cessna, or any other certificated airplane ever built, is painted “something on white” at the factory. Except for Cubs. And for reasons I’ll mention shortly, just like I probably can’t read your 12″ N# when you’re on downwind and I’m on final, it’s tough to tell if that factory “swoosh’ is black, gray, or forest green. From over 500′ away, it just looks “dark”.

    Of course, just saying “Cessna” could mean anything from a 120 to a 206 to a Citation. So we’re pretty much forced to add, or use instead, those second-level discriminators (my term-not the FAA’s) right off the bat: “150”, “Skyhawk”, “Stationaire”, “Sovereign”….etc.
    (BTW: To my knowledge, no one has ever said the words “Cessna Commuter” on the radio!)

    And how about those Cessna 162 Skycatchers? They’re still around..but are they a “Cessna”, or a “Skycatcher”, or a “Light Sport” (which they are), or “that piece of junk from China” (which they are not!). I’ve heard them all.

    We assume all pilots are familiar with most airplanes, and have some knowledge and appreciation of their physical and performance characteristics. Hhmmmmm.

    We ALL know a “CUB” is a CUB, and all that goes with it; but do you call your Citabria a “Champ”? (Yours may even be a Bellanca, but “Champ” does have fewer syllables…) Or do you call yourself a “Taildragger”?

    If you’re flying something unique, like a gyrocopter, or perhaps a warbird (I am available!), I would definitely state that. On the other hand, by just saying “Experimental XYZ”…you could be anything from any Van’s RV, to a KitFox, to a 3/4-scale Sopwith Camel, to a Molt Taylor Mini-Imp…or a Bede Jet.

    Regardless, even these ‘big picture’ discriminators require enough vision/visual acuity, to identify that “Blue and White Cessna” at some distance X, sometimes in less than optimum atmospheric conditions (MVFR, dawn/dusk/night, etc.).

    If we had standardized arrival & departure procedures–published for each non-towered airport (which I’m sure no one wants)–like the ones in effect for all the major Fly-Ins…it’d be easy!

  • Great article Tom. Thanks, I took your class but still appreciated reading your article. The comments below were all interesting and reminiscent of the class itself. When I took the class I was a student pilot but am newly licensed. It’s so good to have access to all of the experiences of others in the aviation community.

  • As mentioned in the article these frequencies can be very congested. Here in New England I have heard transmissions from as many as six different airports at the same time. Some are more than 50 miles away.

    As a boater and a flyer I have always wondered why aviation doesn’t steal one from the maritime playbook. Marine VHF radios have low and high power transmit switches. When in port vessels transmit on low power to minimize stepping on other transmissions.

    It seems to make sense that avionics would have a similar function. High power for enroute and a low power terminal option. Today’s COMM/NAV/GPS units could easily do the switching automatically for us.

  • Interesting. My primary flight training was at a small non towered airport just south of the Canadian border. Talk about confusing. Trying to make the minimum but sane position advisories could get very confusing, especially with all the cross border Quebec and English transmissions, on the same unicom frequency due to the close proximity of several other non towered airports. “See and Avoid” is the key here. Same might be said at my now home airport. Even though non towered, there are large aircraft using this airport, as well as small (J-3) type planes, and a large towered airport a few miles away. Keep one’s head on a swivel, and pay attention OUTSIDE the cockpit as much as possible.

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