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Tales of an ASI: Positional Awareness Is Not Just For IFR

by Al Peyus
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Now that winter is over (for those of us that had a winter), our hearts can return to our one true love. That beautiful winged creature has been sitting on the ramp waiting faithfully for our return while we stayed warm and toasty indoors. Now we are ready to take 'her' out to reacquaint ourselves.

So, off to that perfect little piece of heaven, that non-towered airport that has always been the perfect hideaway for those exciting and enjoyable touch-and-goes. The radios are humming and tuned perfectly as we head for the runway. Each and every suggested 'best practice' radio calls, starting from the start-up at the tie down, through taxi, and up to the run-up area are made with care and clarity. The run-up is completed and the perfect aircraft is ready for takeoff. Up to the hold-short line she taxis as a visual check of base and downwind areas is made.

Just before the radio call for departure can be made, there he is, screaming down at us with no warning, no radio call, no nothing! I know this guy! He keeps his airplane on the same ramp close to mine! I know he has a radio! So, why does he choose NOT to use it?

Everyone who has been flying for more than six months has had this experience at one time or other. It is one of the more frustrating occurrences at a non-towered airport. Now we can understand the 'NoRads' (aircraft with no radios) and the occasional new student pilot who forgets to make the calls. But, more and more, the problem of the lack of radio calls at non-towered airports is rearing its ugly head. Without radio traffic pattern reports, there is no positional awareness of other traffic. How can we produce that needed mental picture of the traffic if we have no idea where they are or what they intend to do?

What is positional awareness in aviation? It is the understanding and knowledge of where you are at all times in relation to navaids, route structure, terrain, and the surrounding traffic. This is a term that has been utilized primarily in the IFR environment, but most definitely is just as important for the VFR pilot.

So, what can be done about it? The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) publishes the recommended 'best practice' procedures for radio use at non-towered airports. (See AIM, Chapter 4, Sections 1, 2, and 3). It describes for pilots what is the RECOMMENDED procedure for using the aircraft radio. Yes, it is only 'Recommended!' Just like the pattern indicators by the windsock, wind tee, or tetrahedron. But these 'suggested procedures' are for everyone's safety and are based on sound, safe, 'best practice' procedures, (The website for the AIM and other air traffic publications is http://www.faa.gov/atpubs/).

The intent of the AIM is to keep all pilots on the same page, doing the same procedures, the same way, at every non-towered airport to minimize traffic conflicts and increase safety! If we are all doing the same thing and respecting each other's nights, safety increases. It is just like the vehicular traffic in the mall parking lot. We use the same procedures on that private property as we do on the public road. The mall property does not have enforceable rules for vehicular traffic. But, we all 'obey' the same rules of the road as we do on public roadways. It is easier, safer, and more practical. We are used to it. It makes sense! So, why not use the same philosophy for non-towered airports? And the 'rules' are already published in AIM!

A perfect example of one of the problems of missing communication and missing positional awareness at a non-towered airport happened to me while out flying recently. As I was flying in the traffic pattern of a non-towered airport, I heard a pilot, as he flew over the top of the airport AT TRAFFIC PATTERN ALTITUDE, make his FIRST radio call asking, ''who was in the pattern?' Both of us acknowledged we were in downwind with one about to turn base leg. The pilot completed his mid-field crossing at traffic pattern attitude, turned directly into downwind behind the first aircraft, and, directly in front of the second aircraft. I was in the second aircraft. (If this sounds familiar, I mentioned this incident in the last issue). The proximity of his aircraft to mine would have qualified as a 'near miss' at a towered airport. Now, where did he learn non-towered airport and radio procedures?

I had the opportunity to talk to this pilot shortly after he got on the ground along with the resident airport Aviation Safety Counselor. The pilot admitted that he heard the call for two aircraft in the pattern, but only saw the one he followed. After further questioning, he admitted he was taught to fly over the center of the airport at 1,000 feet MSL and to make his first radio call as he did. Further, he was taught to turn directly into the downwind leg for landing from this over-head approach. His instructor had taught him this procedure''right out of the AIM!'

Now, I see this as three different problems. First, did the instructor really teach this method of traffic pattern entry while citing the AIM? Second, why did the pilot blindly believe and follow the instructor's directions, even. As he admitted, after reading the AIM on non-tower pattern recommendations? Thirdly, was this pilot ever taught positional awareness?

There is a human issue that affects pilots. We all have a little more 'ego' then the 'average guy' on the street. Our time is more important. Our aircraft is more expensive, faster, burns more fuel, and, therefore, should have the right of way. Or we are better pilots than the next person so we can do the 'unusual' non-standard pattern entry safely getting us ahead of the other guy. There are even those occasions when I hear, when the weather is CAVU (Clear Air, Visibility Unlimited). 'With all this visibility, I don't need to use the radio. I can see all the traffic!' That statement has always failed to give me that warm and fuzzy feeling! Too many mid-air accidents occur in CAVU weather!

No matter what the reasoning or rationalization, when we use a different pattern entry than what is offered in the AIM and/or the Airport/Facility Directory, we are betting on safety. We take a chance that what we are doing will be accomplished without causing harm, damage, or infringe on someone else's right to the airport's airspace.

Remember back to your student pilot days. Your instructor told you to use the same procedures in downwind, base, and final for each landing so there will be little that has to change no matter what you are doing. Why not take that same philosophy and apply it to the non-towered airport traffic pattern work?

If we all fly the recommended departure, entry, and patterns offered in the AIM (Chapter 4, Sections 1, 2, and 3), there would be little or no confusion of where everyone is, what they are doing, or how they plan to accomplish the departure or landing! This provides protection for all of us by letting us know where an aircraft is suppose to be when entering the pattern, flying over the top, entering downwind, or going in on final. It also makes it easier for all of us to keep our positional awareness accurate.

So, what is the recommended entry into a non-towered airport? Let's all get on the same page in the AIM to begin this refresher. I am going to start at paragraph 4-1-9, 'Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers.' (If you are using a paper version, it is on page 4-1-2 in the AIM). First and foremost, there is no greater way to increase safety then through the use of the radio announcing our intentions and location! Without communication, the next guy will have to use ESP to know where we are and what we intend to do. At every non-towered airport there are at least three ways to utilize the aircraft radio.

  • Communicate through the local Flight Service Station (FSS).
  • Communicate through the local UNICOM and the FBO (Fixed Base Operations).
  • Communicate through the local MULTICOM broadcasting in the 'blind.'

All we have to do is make sure we are using the correct published radio frequency. It is listed in the Airport/Facility Directory, as well as printed on the sectional near the airport symbology, along with the other pertinent airport data. No matter the means, the more we use the radio, the better the other pilots around us will have positional awareness, as we increase our own positional awareness.

So, when do we make the first call? The AIM is still our 'best practices' guide. Let's break it down to three specific areas of flight. First is outbound, taxiing from the tie-down. AIM recommends that we make a call before taxiing and before taking the active for departure. We can add to the departure call what direction and altitude we will be departing. Also, it is recommended that we listen to the radio for that airport for the next 10 miles for inbound traffic, unless there is a need to talk to ATC because Flight Following, Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) control, Class B airspace avoidance/penetration, or what ever is needed.

Next is the transit aircraft. If you are passing through the area above the traffic pattern, but you will be in or close to the airspace around the airport, it is always a good practice to monitor the traffic frequency while in that airspace. Surprises in aviation are best saved for the time spent on the ground doing our 'hanger flying.'

The last is inbound. AIM requests that as we fly to a non-towered airport, we make the first call 10 miles out. What a great time to make that call! We are now listening to the frequency, getting the most recent weather and traffic pattern, and broadcasting our intentions. A perfect chance to update our positional awareness! That puts us all on the same page.

While you have the AIM out, look at Table 4-1-1, Summary of Recommended Communication Procedures (top of page 4-1-3 in paper version). It describes the different locations for the recommended radio calls for outbound traffic as well as those inbound. As you look at this chart, a pattern develops that is hard to miss.

When outbound, we call taxiing, ready to take the active, and departing the active. During this transmission we would also tell those listening which way we will depart the area and at what altitude to alert them of our intended actions outbound from the non-towered airport. Now, no one can say they did not know where or how we are 'getting out of Dodge.' If someone is coming into the airport from the direction we will be departing, it gives them a chance to let us know they are coming in from that location and what their intentions are. With these transmissions, all in the area have a better idea who is where.

Inbound traffic should start making the calls 10 miles out on the appropriate frequency. That is, only if we are not committed to talking to ATC for Flight Following or other needs of ATC. The next call recommended is our entry to downwind, then base, and lastly, final. If there are several aircraft in pattern, it also might be safe and courteous to make a call as we clear the runway.

There are going to be several pilots out there who will still refuse to use their radio in VFR conditions because they 'can see all the traffic.' At least the rest of us will be doing every thing that can be done to be safe, keep every one aware of where we are, what we intend to do, and how we are doing it. That keeps the positional awareness mental picture of all the traffic clear in everyone's mind. And that makes for safer flying!

One thing we as pilots can do to help promote communication is always talk radio use with other pilots every opportunity. This is our chance to discuss radio usage, the 'best practice' of making those radio calls, and keeping the skies safe. Isn't that what it is all about? We can all use the same airspace, enjoy the magic of flying, share it with others, and still be safe, courteous, and respectful of the other pilot's needs and rights to enjoy themselves. What a concept!

AL Peyus is an Aviation Safety Inspector in the Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division.