Sunday, January 20, 2013

Non-Towered Airports

Some pilots prefer to fly at non-towered airports. Airports where the FAA (or their contractors) are not watching you, and not controlling traffic. I am in the other camp. I prefer to fly to and at towered airports. The tower controllers try to help you stay safe, provide traffic advisories and control the air traffic flow. At non-towered airports you have to work cooperatively with other pilots to control and negotiate your own flow. Also, you have to watch for pilots that aren't working with anyone at all. The radio calls and position announcements recommended by the FAA are just recommendations and you don't have to have a radio to fly in the airspace around most non-towered airports.

An example, Friday I went up in the 182 to fly to Los Banos and Hollister, both non-towered airports, with the primary purpose of giving me more practice with descent planning and execution, secondarily work on my patterns and landings in the 182. It was an extremely hazy day. While the CTAF frequency for Los Banos (LSN) was very busy with calls from other airports, no one was in the pattern there. I still announced my position and intentions all the way around, I figured better safe the sorry. I landed and taxied back to take off for Hollister (CVH), which is also a non-towered airport.

Crossing the ridge towards Hollister I hear many planes in the pattern announcing their position and intentions on the CTAF frequency there. It was a busy place. I had some manifold pressure and altitude I needed to reduce so I decided to fly north of and past the airport then come back in on the 45 for the 31 runway. That would also give me time to slow down and slot into the pattern with the other planes. By the time I came back in on the 45 there was only one plane active on CTAF.  A light sport with a female pilot (unusual) practicing an emergency descent over the airport. As I turned onto the 45 the light sport plane was abeam the numbers and going to do their touch and go. Both the light sport plane and I were announcing our position and intentions as recommended.

As I turned onto the downwind I saw the light sport plane on the roll from their touch and go. At the same time I saw another small, slow and low yellow plane, maybe a Piper Cub, flying the downwind direction seemingly right over the runway (from my perspective). I continued downwind at pattern altitude and the yellow plane was about 500 feet below me and continuing downwind too. He was not talking on CTAF and I had no idea if this plane was aware of my plane at all. Was he going to climb, descend, land or turn away from the airport? All I did know is I was overtaking him at a very rapid pace and if I didn't do something I'd be above him in seconds.

I decided to do a big 360 to the right away from the airport in my faster plane to give this yellow plane plenty of space to do whatever it was going to do. When I did, I announced what I was doing on CTAF and why to warn the light sport plane of the silent yellow plane in the area. I was halfway through my turn and I hear the light sport announce it was turning crosswind and staying in the pattern too. I saw the light sport to my left as I continued my turn to the right. I announced I had the light sport plane in sight and I'd continue my right turn onto the down wind, the light sport announced she would to a large left turn and slot into the downwind behind me.

I'm on downwind and trying to figure out where that yellow plane went when my eye catches movement at the end of the runway. A small yellow plane had just landed on the very edge of the Rwy 31. He taxied off the runway at Bravo. A nice landing it seems, except the runway threshold starts at Bravo at that airport. It seems this yellow plane has no regard for FAA recommendations or regulations. Oh well. I had more important things to do than worry about that plane. He was on the ground and clear of the runway. I completed my pattern, landed and cleared the runway. The light sport did a touch and go behind me and headed north. I taxied back and took off for home. I was pleased with how well I handled the situation while flying a new type of plane with a lot more to manage in order to fly at the same time as I managed the traffic situation in the air.

Non-towered airports certainly provide more opportunity for adventure. And it can be fun as long as almost everyone has their eyes and ears open and no one gets hurt. 


  1. I had a similar situation last summer at KMXO in Iowa. I was practicing pattern work and touch and go's at this non-towered airport. There were three of us in the pattern and a service vehicle (with radio) buzzing around on the taxiway. All three of us were doing standard landings or T&G's on 33. I am taxing back to the end of 33 on Alpha and I notice a little experimental airplane that looked like a small P-51 coming in under the glide slope for 33 appearing to want to land on the grass strip on 27. The three of us had been chattering away on the CTAF telling each other what is up. I told my instructor, "hey, look at that guy, I don't recall seeing him before". He busts across the glideslope for 33 and makes a left and lands on 27 which crosses Alpha. He just rolls across Alpha right in front of me (I stopped thinking we would see something really stupid). Still no radio talk from him. He then rolls right onto 33 and turns down the runway. Problem is, there was a plane landing at that time. He doesn't see this and the landing plane has to abort the landing and do a go around. They must not have seen him due to the timing of his crossing under them or something. My instuctor is fuming at this point. We are calling him on the radio, the other two pilots are calling him on the radio. Nada.

    Story ends with the service vehicle apporaching him and asking if he saw the other planes in the patter or landing or taxing. He said no and he hadn't turned on this radio because "no one is ever at this airport". Luckily a potential disaster was averted and perhaps he learned something.

    We went back to our home airport shortly after that (KDBQ) and I haven't seen him back at this airport.

    Isn't GA fun?!

  2. It's fun as long as no one and no thing gets damaged in the process. Our experiences should be warnings to all that the eyes need to be open at all times for the unexpected!