The Hazards of Uncontrolled Airports
Most of us here in the Bay Area have learned to fly at airports with towers, though almost everyone has had some experience in flying into and out of non-towered or “uncontrolled” airports. But what with the closing of a number of towers due to “sequestration,” you may find yourself flying into or out of uncontrolled fields more that you have been accustomed to. It’s certainly no more difficult to fly into uncontrolled fields than controlled ones, but it may take a little more work for you to decide which runway you will use and how to enter the pattern for the field. But not everyone will make the same decisions that you would, and that can create some potential hazards that you need to be aware of. So.....I thought it might be instructive to hear some cautionary tales about some interesting situations that I have encountered at uncontrolled airports.
When they were learning to fly, most folks learned from their instructors that they should land and take off into the wind. At a towered airport they tell you which runway to use, but at an uncontrolled airport you can use any runway you want. Most pilots still land and take off into the wind but, it seems, there is a significant percentage who want to land or take off on the most convenient runway for them, regardless of the wind direction or the direction being used by other aircraft. You need to be very vigilant for conflicting traffic at uncontrolled fields. Here are just a few examples.
The Mammoth airport has an East-West runway. In the mornings the wind generally favors Runway 9 and in the afternoon Runway 27. I was standing on the ramp at the Mammoth airport one afternoon, chatting with the airport line guy, Greg, when a Mooney taxied out to Runway 9. Greg and I were a little concerned because the winds were about 270 at 15 kts with some higher gusts. We decided that maybe we should call the Mooney on the handheld and advise him of this, and suggest that he might consider using Runway 27. He didn’t take too kindly to this, saying that he was headed south and that the runway was downhill in that direction (it was--but only slightly) and he was taking off on 9 regardless of our advice. We watched as he used about two thirds of the 7000 foot runway to take off, but then his climb gradient was very shallow because of his increased groundspeed. Nonetheless, he did make it off safely.
So, given this scenario, you can foresee another incident at Mammoth that didn’t end quite so happily. The winds that afternoon were favoring Runway 27 and I had just landed, following a Mooney flown by a woman who had made very clear and precise radio calls. She was just picking up a passenger and then departing again. As I taxied to the hangar, she announced that she was taxiing to Runway 27. Shortly thereafter a Piper Comanche announced that he was taxiing to Runway 9. At that time you could not see the other end of the runway from whichever end you were at (they’ve since remedied that with a new runway). I thought maybe I should give a call to say that there were departing aircraft at both ends of the runway, but I was just shutting down and thought they would have heard each other and would figure that out. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened. I watched as both aircraft departed in opposite directions at the same time. The Comanche pilot had just lifted off when he saw the opposite direction Mooney and panicked. He pushed forward hard on the controls and the plane slammed onto the runway hard enough that the right main gear collapsed. The plane went off the runway in a cloud of dust and ended up against the fence separating the airport property from Highway 395. There were two men in the plane, a father and his son and, fortunately, they got out uninjured and the plane was not too badly damaged. The son, an inexperienced pilot, was apparently flying, and said that he had never heard any radio announcements from the Mooney (though, given what I heard, I think she did announce her departure). The Mooney pilot probably did not even see the Comanche because she, having taken off into the wind, was well above him. All he really had to do was continue and offset a little to the right and she would have passed harmlessly above him.
I have encountered this situation where there is an opposite direction aircraft using the runway a number of times, and I always try to call them on the radio and usually offer to delay my takeoff until they have departed and the runway is clear. This situation can also occur on landing, and sometimes even talking to the other airplane doesn’t solve the problem.
I was landing at Byron one afternoon, following two Cessnas landing on Runway 30. I had called on downwind and, just as the second Cessna was touching down, I announced that I was turning base for Runway 30. At that time a twin announced that he was departing Runway 12. I called and said I was about to turn base for 30, but would extend my downwind if the twin wanted to depart. He said: “Oh, you don’t have to do that. We’re rolling and we will be turning south and be out of your way by the time you turn final.” That turned out not to be the case. I decided to extend the downwind anyway and when I turned final I did so early to avoid being directly in line with the runway, and so I could better see the departing twin. He was only lifting off after I turned onto the extended final and proceeded straight out with no turn to the south until after he passed me. If I had listened to what he said and had not extended my downwind, I would have been looking right at him lifting off Runway 12 as I was on short final for 30. As it was, he passed by me to my left about 150 feet above me.
One of the dangers of uncontrolled fields is that people will fly non-standard patterns, or give incorrect position reports. I have flown frequently into the Nut Tree airport at Vacaville, where the published pattern altitude is 1117 feet. My general procedure is to fly over the top of the field at about 2000 feet and descend to the NW and circle to enter a 45 for the active runway. As I called out my position over the field at 2000 an Eclipse 500 (a small business jet) called that he was downwind for Runway 20. I said I was looking, but did not have him in sight. I continued out about a mile to the NW of the airport and said I was starting my descent and where was the Eclipse? About a mile and a half from the airport, as I started to turn to the left to circle back to the right 45 for 20, I found myself almost face to face with the Eclipse at about 1700 feet just entering (what I would consider to be) the downwind. I don’t think the guys in the Eclipse ever saw me, but they sure weren’t where I expected them to be.
Flying down to Hollister for lunch one day I was following a string of several aircraft entering the left 45 for Runway 31. As I called inbound on the 45 there was a Grumman Goose that reported about 2 miles to the east who said he was going to fly over the field to join the left downwind. I reported turning downwind and he said he would follow me. I was startled to see him coming across the top of the field and turning downwind right in front of me, so close that if the brakes would have slowed me down, I would have been using them. He and I had a little conversation about how he said he was going to follow me and then turned directly in front of me. He apologized and said he thought that I was the aircraft in front of me that I had been following. He apparently didn’t even see me before he turned onto the downwind.
Finally, here’s a cautionary tale for you IFR pilots. In VFR conditions there are no restrictions on conducting practice instrument approaches to uncontrolled fields without obtaining a clearance to do so. In fact, we used to do that all the time at Bishop because there’s no approach control and center can’t see you on radar when you are below about 13,000 feet. When I was over in the Eastern Sierra I would occasionally fly over to Merced to do some practice ILS approaches, because Bishop doesn’t have one. Merced is a pretty quiet airport and, though it does not have a tower, it is served by NorCal approach. Almost all of the aircraft making practice approaches do obtain a clearance from NorCal, mainly because it’s a good practice to do so. Generally, they are not too busy, but occasionally there can be several aircraft conducting approaches there, so there can be some short delays. Merced has several approaches, plus you can practice holding at the El Nido VOR. On the day in question, there were only two of us doing approaches there. Both of us were talking to NorCal. The other aircraft was holding at the VOR as NorCal cleared me for the ILS approach. I was under the hood. Shortly thereafter, the other aircraft said they were done holding and requested another approach. NorCal said they could not approve an approach at that time because they already had one aircraft (me) on the ILS approach. The other aircraft then said that, in that case, they would do the approach on their own. NorCal said that was at their discretion and cautioned them that there was already an aircraft on the ILS approach. I wasn’t very happy with this situation and advised my safety pilot to keep a sharp lookout for the other plane. I was also listening to both the approach control frequency and the CTAF. As I was coming up on a six mile final the other aircraft announced that they were on a six mile final for Runway 30. I immediately told them that I was also on a six mile final, that I did not have them in sight, and that I had been cleared for the approach and was under the hood and could not look for them, and I didn’t much appreciate them causing a potential mid-air collision when they knew I was cleared for the approach. They (albeit reluctantly) said they would break off their approach. We never did see them. Since then I have preferred to do my practice ILS approaches at towered airports if possible.
I hope these tales have been interesting for you and that they will help you think about the hazards when you fly to uncontrolled airports. Fly safely and bring the plane back in one piece!