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Radio Communications at Uncontrolled Airports

By Robert M. Wright, for Light Plane World

Bob Wright
Bob Wright

Flying at a busy uncontrolled airport, particularly one with intensive flight training, requires precise communication and constant situational awareness. The former so that you’re instantly clearly understood, the latter because you’ll encounter many who have no awareness of the situation. Some will be inexperienced primary students who are either ignorant or mentally overloaded, or both. It’s incumbent on certificated pilots to behave so as not to cause, contribute to, or to increase their confusion.

It’s also incumbent on all pilots not to confuse or unnecessarily divert the attention of all other pilots operating in the same area. This can be accomplished by knowing how to communicate and how to correctly maneuver in busy uncontrolled airspace. Keep in mind that correct communication and correct maneuvering create good situational awareness among all concerned. This is critical in the uncontrolled environment.

There’s no quarterback in a tower giving directions, watching over you, and spoon-feeding you situational awareness. Uncontrolled airspace close to a busy uncontrolled airport is one of the most dangerous and difficult flying environments. We are our own quarterbacks. Safety for himself and others is each pilot’s responsibility, and safety should always come before convenience. Consider the following:

Format of All Calls

Who you are calling – “(Airport name) traffic”
Who you are – Description sufficient to allow other pilots to identify you and judge your speed. For example, “Remos high-wing light-sport 123.”
Where you are – If not on the ground mileage out, give altitude and compass quadrant of your course. Don’t make this complicated. Hit the “nearest” button on your GPS for mileage out and look at the bottom of the DG for the quadrant into the airport or the top of the DG for the quadrant out from the airport. For emergencies, don’t worry about landmarks or towns; just hit “nearest” and give ATC the mileage and compass course to the nearest airport. You’ll be found  quickly.
What you are going to do – Inbound to land, overfly, crash, whatever.
Who you are calling – The repeat of the airport name (closing call) is important. Others may miss it on your first call, and then, based on your position and intentions, realize you may be a problem and start a panicky search for you which diverts their attention from flying their airplanes. Remember the inexperienced primary student previously mentioned? Nothing will start mental overload like fear of a collision. All you had to do was repeat the closing call, and the fledgling and everyone else would realize you were at a completely different airport. My home airport has at least six airports that are regularly heard on the CTAF including one with the same runway numbers. The repeat closing call is critical.

Taxi and Departure
Announce ground movement in accord with AIM 4-1-9 and AC 91-73A. At a crowded airport there will be lines of parked aircraft and perhaps T-hangars or other structures that block the view of taxiing aircraft. Before taxi, announce your location on the airport and where you intend to go before starting to taxi so others may look out for you. This practice is rarely observed.

Keep your eyes out of the cockpit during taxi. Don’t divert your attention by fiddling with the GPS, DG, switches, or any other cockpit device during taxi, or you’ll risk seemingly stationary objects such as hangars, parked airplanes, and gas pumps placing themselves in front of you.

Announce that you’re taking the runway prior to taking it. Give the direction of departure, and if you’re going to turn after departure, announce the direction of the turn.

For example:

“Greendrome traffic Skyhawk 203 departing runway 30, right-hand turnout, east departure. Greendrome.”  

As with all calls the point is to leave no confusion as to your intentions so other pilots can anticipate your movements and watch out for you. The concern isn’t only for pilots following you for departure, but more importantly, those inbound to the airport (particularly the guy flying into the crosswind leg who now realizes you may be coming right at him! Think about whether you should ever fly a crosswind from the upwind side to enter the pattern as opposed to crossing over the airport and avoiding departing traffic.)

Monitor the CTAF and keep your landing light on until you’re 10 miles out on your departure course.

Inbound to the Airport
Double-check that you’re on the correct frequency.

Report position and intentions 10 miles out (landing light on). This is the minimum report suggested by the AIM and the ACs. But it is not enough at a busy uncontrolled airport.Report again at 5 miles out, and if you’re over or abeam a known landmark, say so. Odds are there is converging inbound traffic near you. Don’t forget to give your altitude, and if you’re descending, say your target altitude as well.

Report entering the 45 and the length of your planned 45. For example, “(Airport) traffic Remos 123 entering a 3-mile 45 for runway 30 over the glue factory (airport) traffic.”

This call is not suggested by the AIM or ACs either, but youmight have two aircraft off your right wing intending to swing in behind you. You can’t be sure they see your little white light-sport. Of course, you’ve also noted whether the sun is bright and behind you relative to their location.

If you don’t get an expected response to your call, check the frequency again.

The Pattern
Report entering downwind, base, and final. More importantly, if someone enters downwind behind you, he should announce that he has you in sight. If he doesn’t, please make inquiry on that score. If he doesn’t report seeing you, tell him where you are on downwind (midfield, abeam the numbers, over the pig farm, or any other landmark because you’re now worried). Remember, not everyone flies downwind the same distance out from the runway.

The FAA standard is one-half to one mile out, and some are foolish enough to deviate from pattern altitude further impairing their ability to see other aircraft. Correct pattern altitude is for visual acquisition. Consider what happens when the trailing aircraft is high and faster than the lead aircraft, particularly when the lead aircraft is a little low. Neither can see the other and trouble looms, possibly creating a spectacular visual event for observers on the ground. If the trailing aircraft continues to report not seeing you, exiting the pattern may be the prudent choice.

Once on downwind at an unfamiliar airport, don’t forget to note emergency landing areas off both ends of the runway and something that identifies the one-third mark on the approach end of the runway. The latter is the point at which you’ll go around if not touch down. Right?

Turns in the Pattern
For those of us who fly small aircraft, safe radio practice is to report, if feasible, any turn before the turn is actually made. When a turn is called, eyes go to the area of the turn. When the wings go up, you’re the most visible. Once leveled after the turn, you’re hard to see, particularly in small aircraft. So call the turn early before the wings bank.

Clear all turns right, left, and behind (to the extent possible). Never extend a base leg for spacing. Never turn base until the aircraft ahead of you is on final and has passed your wingtip.

Radio Speech Practices
Frequency congestion is a concern, and for that reason we strive to use correct phraseology and be efficient in our calls. I disagree that frequency congestion requires us to eliminate, as some have suggested, any call that assists in identifying our position. Here are some of the things we all need to keep in mind:

Prevent faint calls. Use a mike muff to prevent extraneous noise and keep the muff touching your lips.

Don’t mumble. Some people think mumbling shows they are pros. It doesn’t. It’s ignorant, aggravating, and dangerous. It distracts, and any practice that causes distraction is dangerous to others and perhaps yourself.

Don’t use slang. There’s always the “cool school” that thinks it demonstrates experience and proficiency by using slang. It doesn’t. I once had a pilot on a BFR; instead of announcing he was turning downwind, he said he was “in the box.” Using this phrase for operations in the pattern can be confusing since “in the box” refers to an aircraft operating in a defined area called an “aerobatic box” for the purpose of performing aerobatics. Since an aerobatic box can be located over an airport, using this term while flying a traffic pattern could cause serious problems.

Unnecessary chatter. How many times have you heard someone using the CTAF to say hello to a friend and comment on how nice is the weather? The radio should be used only for necessary communications. Many times the chatterers are at a rural airport with little activity. They happily chat away not appreciating that very busy airports are on their frequency and they’re disrupting or preventing necessary communications

Speed of speech. Here’s the big one. Rapid-fire machine-gun calls are rarely necessary. Professional public-speaking instructors stress as a fundamental that you should consciously slow down your pace of speech when speaking in public because there’s an unconscious tendency to speed up when addressing a group. As we all know, radio transmissions are a form of public speaking. Everyone on the frequency is listening. The best practice is to slow down and speak up. Your pace of speech will sound normal, and you’ll be understood with no extra effort.

If you’re hearing another pilot who is violating the above rules, never guess at what he means. Ask him to “say again slowly” (or “louder,” or in FAA phraseology or whatever else is appropriate). And it’s okay to sound a little irritated. Don’t be an enabler by going along with poor and dangerous radio practice. In addition:

Always think safety before convenience!

Robert M. Wright is a CFI at Chesapeake Sport Pilot, located at Bay Bridge Airport, Stevensville, Maryland. Photo courtesy Karen Helfert.


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