Telluride

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.

Telluride

When preparing to land at an unfamiliar airport, there is a lot to consider.

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.

Joe Framptom
Latest posts by Joe Framptom (see all)
18 replies
  1. Darshan Subramanian
    Darshan Subramanian says:

    Mr. Framptom

    Great article and I enjoyed it. We always can strive to do better OA myself included.

    Fellow C-130 WO.

    Reply
  2. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    Well written and educational article. Thanks. I’m retired from the airlines now, but I still do some on-demand 135 freight flying in Metroliners and Lears, as well as prescheduled passenger flights in the shorter Merlins. We often get calls in the evening hours to launch quickly – with no time to pre-brief – to fields we have either never been to or haven’t been to in years. Many of the arrivals to these fields are in the early morning hours after having been up all night. The best way we know of to avoid nasty surprises while arriving so early in the morning and while so sleepy is to brief while enroute and fly STARs (if available), and an instrument approaches. Load them, brief them, fly them. It takes the guesswork and the surprises out of the equations every time. And we never feel like the “outcasts” we really are in our raggedy freight-dog uniforms…

    Reply
  3. Eran Moscona
    Eran Moscona says:

    Great article. That would have been nice to have during my corporate flying days. I’m going to add it to the toolkit. Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Richard G
    Richard G says:

    Reminds me of when I first started flying over seas. I liked the Caribbean AOPA picture books of those airfields I needed to fly into on remote islands. They gave an idea as to what I was getting into.
    It was just an idea because airports could open or close on a moments notice without a NOTAM. It was always best to have at least two places to get gas, if not more. Even worse… people would construct antennas several hundred feet tall without notice… and some would even transmit on frequencies that were so close to navigational NDB frequencies it would throw people off course, heading in the wrong direction before GPS.
    I found I needed to talk to pilots coming from where you were going to get a better idea of everything from weather (where there was little to no weather reporting at lower levels) to airports runway or gas situations.
    It was always an adventure.

    Reply
    • Robert Henderson
      Robert Henderson says:

      Photo at beginning of article is, I believe, at Telluride, CO. Located at mouth of box canyon. Very high terrain all around except to the west…..similar to Aspen’s infamous airport

      Reply
      • Alex K
        Alex K says:

        It is indeed Telluride where I keep my plane in spring and autumn . 9070ft….so always watching density altitude and swirling winds from the south (left side of photo)!

        Reply
  5. Dan Masys
    Dan Masys says:

    There are some newly available technologies that can help quite a bit with both Objective Area and Terrain. The first of them is using the satellite view of the destination airport in Google Maps or a similar satellite-imaging equipped online mapper to and zoom in as far as possible. Usually this will get you close enough to even see the pumps at the fuel island. In some locations this will even transition to Street view where one can look around 360 degrees at the surface environment.
    The second, which is pricier but worth it if one has powerful enough computer gear, is to fly the arrival using Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 while wearing a virtual reality headset such as the HP Reverb G2, which puts you in the cockpit with the same views out the windows as you look around that you will get during the actual flight. Terrain in particular is dramatically different with the 3D VR goggles than viewing it via a flat monitor. When planning a flight to an airport I have never been to, doing a VR approach and landing is now on the regular flight planning checklist. It also helps ining pick up the airport visually at a distance, particularly in hilly or mountainous terrain where the destination may not appear until more-or-less the last minute of the flight. And you can just circle the destination airport at low altitude as much as you want to see it from all angles in VR, without creating any traffic pattern commotion like you would at the real thing!

    Reply
  6. Dan Masys
    Dan Masys says:

    There are some newly available technologies that can help quite a bit with both Objective Area and Terrain. The first of them is using the satellite view of the destination airport in Google Maps or a similar satellite-imaging equipped online mapper to and zoom in as far as possible. Usually this will get you close enough to even see the pumps at the fuel island. In some locations this will even transition to Street view where one can look around 360 degrees at the surface environment.
    The second, which is pricier but worth it if one has powerful enough computer gear, is to fly the arrival using Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 while wearing a virtual reality headset such as the HP Reverb G2, which puts you in the cockpit with the same views out the windows as you look around that you will get during the actual flight. Terrain in particular is dramatically different with the 3D VR goggles than viewing it via a flat monitor. When planning a flight to an airport I have never been to, doing a VR approach and landing is now on the regular flight planning checklist. It also helps in picking up the airport visually at a distance, particularly in hilly or mountainous terrain where the destination may not appear until more-or-less the last minute of the flight. And you can just circle the destination airport at low altitude as much as you want to see it from all angles in VR, without creating any traffic pattern commotion like you would at the real thing!

    Reply
  7. John Butler
    John Butler says:

    Very good checklist for flying into an unfamiliar airport. I have shared this with my students and pilot friends.

    Reply
  8. Gary Hagan
    Gary Hagan says:

    Joe,

    28 year vet fixing those Hercules. Enjoyed your article about preparation for the flight. I remember that the OPS folks made a big deal about pre-flight and planning, what with the large Weather brief area and the separate planning space. I was all about watching how they used “MY” instruments(COM/NAV). The more I watched, the more I learned that the old, “kick the tires and light the fires” bromide was just an other way shorten the actual time it took to explain the process that it took to have a successful flight. Thanks, from a Sim pilot who “flies” his very own X-Plane C-130 H2..

    Reply
  9. Chris Campbell
    Chris Campbell says:

    Excellent article! I was a fighter jock in the USAF, we didn’t usually go into such remote locales that we needed to extensively plan our landings, but we absolutely did plan our mission, i.e. knocking down an enemy or delivering bombs on target. It’s the same process of detailed flight planning. As good ‘ole Sun Tzu said “Know your enemy, and know yourself, and in a thousand battles you will never be in peril”. Perhaps put in GA parlance, “Know your destination, and know yourself and your limitations, and you’ll never be in danger of a CFIT”!

    Reply
  10. Russ
    Russ says:

    Great article!

    I’m a longtime GA pilot/CFII, and I have practiced your advice for over 50 years.

    One thing, though. There is no way that I’ve found to keep ForeFlight from alerting on towers, even though I already know about them, especially ones that are nearby while landing. I worry only about alerts on towers I didn’t know were there – that’s when I know I should have done a better preflight.

    Reply

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