Navigating Airports Without an Operating Control Tower

The current sequestration that the U.S. Government is now working under will have a dramatic impact on how we will be flying in and out of our favorite Tower Controlled Airport in the coming months.  As it was explained by the FAA, there will be several closures of Control Towers as well as reduced hours at specific Control Towers. More information is available at the FAA website.

Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation, and Michael Huerta, FAA Administrator, offered a glimpse into what will happen on or after Month, Day, Year.  An excerpt of their letter to the public states:
“Safety is our top priority, and in the course of implementing the operational changes described below, we may reduce the efficiency of the national airspace in order to maintain the highest safety standards.
Among the changes that we are considering that will have an impact on FY 2013 operations are:
  1. Furlough the vast majority of the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees (including all management and non-management employees working within the Air Traffic Organization) for approximately one per pay period until the end of the fiscal year in September, with a maximum of two days per pay period.
  2. Eliminate midnight shifts in over 60 towers across the country.
  3. Close over 100 air traffic control towers at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations or 10,000 commercial operations per year.
  4. Reduce preventive maintenance and equipment provisioning and support for all NAS equipment.
All of these changes will be finalized as to scope and details through collaborative discussions with our user and our unions. We will commence furloughs and start facility shut-downs in April.”
How will this affect how we fly?  Well,  at airports that have operating towers, during the published hours, we will see no changes. But, when the tower is closed, we will need to communicate on the CTAF frequency our intentions while navigating around and on that airport.
We will follow the AIM on how to enter and exit the airport.  When making position calls always include the following information:
  • What airport you are intending to land / takeoff from
  • Who you are
  • Where you are
  • Altitude
  • Intentions
From the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) we find the following:
FIG 4−3−3
Traffic Pattern Operations
Parallel Runways
EXAMPLE−
Key to traffic pattern operations
1. Enter pattern in level flight, abeam the midpoint of the runway, at pattern altitude.  (1,000’ AGL is recommended pattern altitude unless established otherwise.)
2. Maintain pattern altitude until abeam approach end of the landing runway on downwind leg.
3. Complete turn to final at least 1/4 mile from the runway.
4. Continue straight ahead until beyond departure end of runway.
5. If remaining in the traffic pattern, commence turn to crosswind leg beyond the departure end of the runway within 300 feet of pattern altitude.
6. If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out, or exit with a 45 degree turn (to the left when in a left−hand traffic pattern; to the right when in a right−hand traffic pattern) beyond the departure end of the runway, after reaching pattern altitude.
7. Do not overshoot final or continue on a track which will penetrate the final approach of the parallel runway.
8. Do not continue on a track which will penetrate the departure path of the parallel runway.
Additional Information can be found in the Aeronautical Information Manual. This manual advises us the following at a non-tower (uncontrolled) airfield.
4−3−4. Visual Indicators at Airports
Without an Operating Control Tower
a.  At those airports without an operating control tower, a segmented circle visual indicator system, if installed, is designed to provide traffic pattern information.
REFERENCE:
AIM, Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control
Towers, Paragraph 4−1−9.
b.  The segmented circle system consists of the following components:
1.  The segmented circle.  Located in a position affording maximum visibility to pilots in the air and on the ground and providing a centralized location for other elements of the system.
2.  The wind direction indicator.  A wind cone, wind sock, or wind tee installed near the operational runway to indicate wind direction. The large end of the wind cone/wind sock points into the wind as does the large end (cross bar) of the wind tee. In lieu of a tetrahedron and where a wind sock or wind cone is collocated  with a wind tee, the wind tee may be manually aligned with the runway in use to indicate landing direction.  These signaling devices may be located in the center of the segmented circle and may be lighted for night use. Pilots are cautioned against using a tetrahedron to indicate wind direction.
3.  The landing direction indicator.  A tetrahedron is installed when conditions at the airport warrant its use. It may be used to indicate the direction of landings and takeoffs. A tetrahedron may be located at the center of a segmented circle and may be lighted for night operations. The small end of the tetrahedron points in the direction of landing. Pilots are cautioned against using a tetrahedron for any purpose other  than as an indicator of landing direction. Further, pilots should use extreme caution when  making  runway  selection  by  use  of  a tetrahedron in very light or calm wind conditions as the tetrahedron may not be aligned with the designated calm-wind runway. At airports with control towers, the tetrahedron should only be referenced when the control tower is not in operation. Tower instructions supersede tetrahedron indications.
4.  Landing strip indicators.  Installed in pairs as shown in the segmented circle diagram and used to show the alignment of landing strips.
5.  Traffic pattern indicators.  Arranged in pairs in conjunction with landing strip indicators and used to indicate the direction of turns when there is a variation from the normal left traffic pattern. (If there is no segmented circle installed at the airport, traffic pattern indicators may be installed on or near the end of the runway.)
c.  Preparatory to landing at an airport without a control tower, or when the control tower is not in operation, pilots should concern themselves with the indicator for the approach end of the runway to be used. When approaching for landing, all turns must be made to the left unless a traffic pattern indicator indicates that turns should be made to the right. If the pilot will mentally enlarge the indicator for the runway to be used, the base and final approach legs of the traffic pattern to be flown immediately become apparent. Similar  treatment  of the indicator at the departure end of the runway will clearly indicate the direction of turn after takeoff.
d.  When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the pilot of the aircraft  at the lower altitude has the right-of-way over the pilot of the aircraft at the higher altitude. However, the  pilot operating at the lower altitude should not take advantage of another aircraft, which is on final approach to land, by cutting in front of, or overtaking that aircraft.
FIG 4−3−2
Traffic Pattern Operations
Single Runway
EXAMPLE:
Key to traffic pattern operations 
1. Enter pattern in level flight, abeam the midpoint of the runway, at pattern altitude. (1,000’ AGL is recommended pattern altitude unless established otherwise.)
2. Maintain pattern altitude until abeam approach end of the landing runway on downwind leg.
3. Complete turn to final at least 1/4 mile from the runway.
4. Continue straight ahead until beyond departure end of runway.
5. If remaining in the traffic pattern, commence turn to crosswind leg beyond the departure end of the runway within 300 feet of pattern altitude.
6. If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out, or exit with a 45 degree turn (to the left when in a left-hand traffic pattern; to the right when in a right-hand traffic pattern) beyond the departure end of the runway, after reaching pattern altitude.

To recap:  Due to US Government Sequestration, we in all likelihood will be affected by this. As changes happen we will want to stay vigilant on staying up with the NOTAMs that will be affecting the towered airports we fly out of and into.
 As always, stay alert; be aware of your surroundings, and safe flying.

About the Author: Tom Letts is a Functional Analyst at Jeppesen and is a native of Colorado, born in Durango. He learned to fly while in college at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he received a BS Degree in Aviation.  Tom holds a Commercial Certificate ASMEL, I-A. In addition, he also holds a CFI-ASE, an Advanced Ground Instructor and FAA 121 Dispatch certificates Tom is currently the Director of Safety for Jeppesen Employees Flying Association (JEFA),  as well as a FAAST team Representative. Tom's passion is promoting aviation to the next generation of pilots.

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