Dorothy Schick is the owner of TakeWing, a Cessna Pilot Center located at Hobby Field Airport (77S) in Creswell, Oregon. A CFI with 2,800 hours of flight instruction, she is a member of SAFE (Society of Aviation and Flight Educators) and a FAASTeam representative. She says:
Training for a private pilot certificate will eventually take you to both nontowered (uncontrolled) and towered (controlled) airports. And, while towered airports offer bigger runways and anonymous radio voices telling you exactly what to do and when to do it, there are some drawbacks. The aircraft Hobbs meter keeps ticking away whether you are on the ground or in the air, and towered airports always require more ground time. So, if you don’t mind paying for driving lessons in your three-wheeler, that’s fine, but most of us want to spend as much time as possible using our wings.
While the amenities and infrastructure at smaller, nontowered fields can be antiquated, I have been to some absolutely beautiful nontowered airports with modern facilities and all the amenities you could ever want. The atmosphere also tends to be more relaxed and friendly.
At nontowered airports you follow recommended approach and departure procedures just like at towered airfields, but you do have more freedom in this regard. With that freedom comes responsibility. You’ll have to actively engage with your fellow pilots in the air-to-air communications, learn to be highly vigilant for other nonstandard traffic and learn to make more decisions about wind direction and speed.
Communicating over the radio seems to be one of student pilots’ greatest fears. Unless you were a radio personality before you started learning to fly, you will be apprehensive making radio calls to ATC and to other pilots whether or not you are training at a towered or nontowered airport. However, nontowered airports don’t require communications, so if you freeze up on the mike or miss a call, it’s no sweat.
Finally, pick up a sectional and tell me this: Are there more towered airports or nontowered on it? If you are choosing the life of a pilot, you are going to need the skills required for both nontowered and towered airports, but until you get your air carrier wings, the statistics are in favor of you landing at more nontowered airports than towered.
Which is better for learning to fly? The answer more often really comes down to your proximity to the airfield and the flight instructor or flight school you choose.