The Considerate Pilot: Flying at Non-Towered Airports

“Use Ya Blinkah.” This phrase, with its Boston accent spelling, was viewed by Massachusetts drivers along the side of Mass state highways last summer. Using the portable LED signs that usually warn of road work ahead, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation used signs to make a point about using the directional signal when changing lanes on the highway. State law in Massachusetts and most other states requires driver to signal when changing lanes or making turns. So, while this is a state law, it is also a courtesy to the driver behind.

Whether it is a state law, a recommendation, or a courtesy, it promotes safety and reduces frustration to other drivers. The same can be true of pilots. Some pilot requirements are mandatory, some are recommendations, and some are a courtesy to our fellow pilots. We know that we need a clearance to enter Class B airspace, this is mandatory. We know that the AIM recommends using radio frequency 121.5MHz for distress or urgent communications. And, we should know that it is a common courtesy to avoid starting an airplane engine and then increasing throttle if there are people who are standing behind the airplane (even behind the airport fence) who might be “prop blasted.”


A pattern full of considerate pilots is a more enjoyable traffic pattern…


The AIM is commonly thought of as advisory information. It is wise to know that “the publication, while not regulatory, provides information which reflects examples of operating techniques and procedures which may be requirement in other federal publications or regulations.” (Aeronautical Information Manual, Federal Aviation Administration)

So, do you know which information is “advisory” and which information is “regulatory?” Why not treat the information in the AIM as the FAA intended? And, that is “to provide the aviation community with basic flight information and ATC procedures for use in the National Airspace System.”

In this Part 1 of the Considerate Pilots discussion, let’s talk about the traffic pattern at a non-towered airport. The AIM recommends a standard left-hand traffic pattern and “all turns must be made to the left unless a traffic pattern indicator indicates that turns should be made to the right.” (AIM, FAA, 4-3-4 c.) So, you have to wonder why someone at a non-towered airport would amend the recommended traffic pattern and make a right base approach to the airport. Possibly there is some urgency onboard that would dictate an amended approach. Or, the pilot is approaching from that direction and a right base is the shortest line to the airport. This becomes an issue when there is a student pilot up ‘soloing’ and while ready to turn left base hears a radio call from someone turning a right base. We can argue back and forth about the safety issues involved and that left traffic is a recommendation, but to the student pilot it is a discourtesy. Actually, I would consider it a discourtesy to any pilot. The pilot on the left downwind has enough to consider, they are watching their airspeed, their altitude, their power setting, etc, and now they need to worry about the other plane on the right base.

While the pilot on the right base probably doesn’t think anything of his amended approach. He/she thinks that they are being efficient and avoiding others in the upwind, crosswind, downwind. But, what most people want is some consistency and predictability in their life and in their flying. This is also true of the pilot who calls a 3 mile 45° entry to the downwind, but they are actually on either a straight in to the downwind or on a 110° entry to the downwind. I often witness the 110° entry to the downwind. This is the pilot who does not want to fly an upwind/crosswind pattern, they are considerate enough not to enter a left base, but they should not announce over the radio that it is a 45° entry. Because if the pilot says 45° entry, then other pilots will be looking for an airplane on the 45° entry, not a 110° entry. Essentially making a U-turn entry into the downwind leg.

Not all aviation flying ‘rules of the skies’ are in the CFRs or the AIM. The FAA published several books on aviation. One of those, the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8803-25A) recommends that “If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out, or exit with a 45° 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.” How many times have you witnessed an airplane turn left on take-off just 100 feet above the runway to ostensibly expedite their downwind departure? Again, I will use the example of a student pilot doing solo practice who takes off in front of the airplane that turns left mid-way down the runway. When that student pilot turns from crosswind to downwind, they are not expecting to see an airplane coming from their left turning in front of and slightly below them on the downwind.

If you are reading this blog, I suspect that I am “preaching to the choir.” Courtesy in the traffic pattern at non-towered airports is a welcome commodity. I have been the recipient of many courteous acts from considerate pilots and it is appreciated.

You might be asking if some of this can be helped by proper radio technique. Righty-o, concise, clear, consistent radio communication can add to courtesy and reduce stress. We’ll discuss proper radio communication in my next post to ReviewBeforeFlight.

-Fly Safe, JQuinn1B9


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