Pilots don’t like surprises. Surprises usually mean bad things, like an unexpected obstacle on short final or a closed runway that we don’t detect until too late. We especially disliked surprises in my prior life as an Air Force transport pilot, where we frequently operated in non-routine environments with a high chance of receiving an unpleasant surprise. We sometimes spent hours flight planning a single flight to mitigate surprises.
During my career, I flew to remote airstrips in places like Ethiopia and New Guinea, and busy airports like Bogota, Colombia, where nobody I knew had been. My crew and I had to study these places on our own to ensure that we could safely accomplish our mission. In military jargon, we called this preparation “objective area analysis” and used a mnemonic, called OUTCAST, to guide our preparation. After these missions, we debriefed our analysis by asking ourselves “were there any surprises about the airfield.” We took it seriously.
So imagine my recent displeasure at being surprised while landing at an unfamiliar airfield. I was flying from Arkansas to the Northern Rockies in my Cessna 180. I try to make this trip every year, and I typically stop for fuel in Kansas or Nebraska. On this day, I was making a VFR arrival to an airfield with the perfect combination of cheap fuel and a grass strip aligned with the wind. While on left base, I looked right to clear final and I saw a 400-foot tower, about my altitude, that I didn’t know was there. I was not happy. Post-flight analysis showed that I flew about 5000 feet east of the tower at about the height of it. I wasn’t particularly close to hitting it, but I would have liked to know it was there. I kicked myself as I pumped the cheap fuel.
And I thought back to the OUTCAST mnemonic that is designed to prevent exactly this type of surprise. I offer it here for your consideration, with a GA twist.
O: Objective Area. Take a big-picture look at the airfield. Start with a sectional chart, an aerial image, and maybe an approach plate. Then, drill down to specifics. Where is the airfield relative to nearby cultural features? What is the runway orientation, and what is the length, width, elevation, and slope of each? What is the surface, and what condition is it in? What markings do you expect to see? What is the taxiway arrangement, and how will you get from your touchdown point to your parking spot?
U: User. In the military, this meant “who are we supporting.” That still applies here, although in many cases the user is you. Some things to think about: Who are you meeting and where will you meet them? Do you have ground transportation? What about food, customs, fuel, parking/hangar space, fees, or services such as oxygen? Is there maintenance available? What about Wi-Fi or cell service?
T: Terrain. This is a big one, given that many CFIT accidents occur near airports. What is the surrounding terrain, and does it require modification of any traffic pattern procedures? Are there any towers nearby that you need to identify? How about power lines or high-tension wires? Will the terrain do weird things to the weather, like funnel the winds in a particular way? What is a minimum safe altitude, and can you climb to reach it? Is there a density altitude concern?
C: Communication. Who do you need to talk to? Is there a control tower? If so, will it be open when you arrive? How will you get the weather or close a flight plan? If you need to talk to approach control, what frequency will you call them on and what service can you expect? If you need to pick up an IFR clearance or cancel a flight plan, how will you do so? Is this airfield frequented by aircraft like gliders or ag aircraft that might not be monitoring a common frequency?
A: Airspace. What class of airspace is the airport in? Is there a different level of airspace overlying it that you need to know about? Are there any TFRs or Special Use Airspace areas around the airfield that you need to be concerned about? Are there any special pattern procedures such as right-hand traffic or non-standard traffic pattern altitudes that you need to be concerned with? How about any unique procedures for the airfield that might be published in a NOTAM or in SFAR Part 93?
S: Solar/lunar illumination, and lighting. What time does the sun rise/set, and will you be operating directly into a rising or setting sun? If you’re operating at night, will the moon be up? How bright will it be? Is there nearby cultural lighting that will help illuminate the airfield? What kind of lighting does the airport have, and how will you turn it on?
T: Threats. In the military, this meant “who might be shooting at us.” That shouldn’t be a problem in our GA flying, but I encourage you to think of this as “hazards” to your operation. Some examples: Are there parallel runways that could be confusing on arrival? Are there any hot spots on the airfield that warrant attention during taxiing? Are there nearby airfields with a similar runway arrangement that might cause confusion? Is there traffic that you need to be particularly aware of, like military/airline traffic or traffic from a busy flight school?
There it is… the OUTCAST mnemonic. After your flight, compare what you expected to the actual conditions you found. Were there any surprises? For example, if you joined a left downwind only to find that other aircraft were on the right downwind then you probably missed something in the Airspace section! Make a mental note to do a better job next time.
Of course, many of us fly with electronic systems that help us identify towers or terrain hazards in time to avert an accident. However, I never want to rely on these systems, and I hope to never hear them alert in flight. That’s where OUTCAST can help you be a safer pilot. Hopefully it will help you avoid any unexpected towers… ahem, surprises in your flying.