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Airport Surface Operations At Non-Towered Airports And Airports When The Tower Is Closed

The following information comes from Advisory Circular 91-73. Part 91 Pilot and Flight Crew Procedures during Taxi Operations and Part 135 Single-pilot Operations. This advisory circular provides guidelines for the development and implementation of standard pilot procedures for conducting safe aircraft operations on the airport surface. It focuses on the activities occurring on the flight deck/cockpit (e.g., planning, communication, coordinating), as opposed to the actual control of the aircraft (e.g., climbing, descending, maneuvering). Although there are many similarities, taxi operations for aircraft that require more than one pilot, present distinct challenges and requirements. This section is devoted to operations at non-towered airports and airports when the tower is closed.

The absence of an operating airport traffic control tower creates a need for increased vigilance on the part of pilots operating at those airports. There are also specific communications procedures that differ from those used at towered airports. As is the case at towered airports, planning, clear communications, and enhanced situational awareness during airport surface operations will reduce the potential for surface incidents at airports without an operating control tower. This section will focus on those aspects of airport surface operations that are unique to airports without an operating control tower.


The following should be considered when operating at an airport without an operating control tower:

  • Familiarize yourself with the local traffic pattern. Remember, not all airports use a standard traffic pattern. Don't forget to check the pattern altitude.

[Caution: During calm or nearly calm wind conditions, be aware that pilots may have a choice of what runway to land on or take off from, and that other pilots' choices may conflict with your own choice. Also, aircraft may be utilizing an instrument approach procedure to runways other than the runway in use for VFR operations. The instrument approach runway may intersect the VFR runway.]

  • If there is more than one crewmember, brief your taxi plans and be sure that all crewmembers have a common understanding of the plan.


While maintaining situational awareness is important in all circumstances, it is particularly important when operating at an airport without an operating control tower. To achieve situational awareness, you should be fully aware of your intended taxi route and be able to follow the planned route correctly. Without ATC to verbally tell you where and when to stop, you must rely on visual cues to maintain situational awareness and maintain your planned taxi route. These visual cues include airport signs, markings, and lighting, together with the airport diagram. Other things to consider that can help you maintain situational awareness while operating at an airport without an operating control tower:

  • Monitor the appropriate frequency. Listen to what the pilots of other aircraft on the frequency are saying.
  • If possible, monitor the approach control frequency to alert you to IFR traffic inbound to the airport.
  • Prior to crossing the hold short line or entering or crossing any runway, scan the full length of the runway, including the approach areas. Do not engage in any other flight deck/cockpit duties while crossing a runway. Give your full attention to crossing and clearing the runway.
  • Use exterior lighting to make your aircraft more conspicuous to other pilots.


Some of the most important guidelines for radio communications at airports without an operating control tower:

  • Ensure that your radio is tuned to the appropriate Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) or Unicom frequency. Monitor the CTAF frequency for a few minutes before beginning taxi to help you 'get the picture.'
  • Ensure that the frequency is available by listening before transmitting.
  • Transmit your intentions clearly, but be as brief as possible.
  • Always state the name of the airport at which you are operating at the beginning and end of your transmission.
  • Use your full call sign whenever there is another aircraft on the frequency with a similar call sign.

[Caution: Some aircraft operating at airports without operating control towers may not be equipped with a radio You must remain alert for them.]


Except for not having communications with ATC, taxi operations are the same as at towered airports.

For more information about operations at non-towered airports, refer to the current versions of AC 90-42, Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers, and AC 90-66. Recommended Standard Traffic Patterns and Practices for Aeronautical Operations at Airports without Operating Control Towers. Also, follow Runway Incursion Prevention Best Practices presented in Appendix 1 of A 91-73C. To obtain the advisory circular in its entirety it and other advisory circulars can be found at .

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