Towered Airport vs. Non-Towered Operations

When learning to fly, the type of facilities you fly into can become overwhelming without preparation.

Training out of a towered airport and then heading to a non-towered facility can lead to apprehension for some learners. [Photo credit: Wayman Aviation]

"I don't want to fly there because there's no tower."

"I don't want to fly there because they have a tower."

Flight instructors hear these phrases often. If the learner is doing their training out of a towered airport, heading over to a facility that is "pilot controlled"— or non-towered—can lead to apprehension. Conversely, learners who train at non-towered facilities can become overwhelmed in a towered environment.

Towered to Non-Towered

It is up to the CFI to make communications at both types of airports "non-events" for their learners.

Your flight training should include operations at both towered and non-towered airports (Details can be found in the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, Chapter 14).

Airports have towers because they generally have the traffic to support them, just as busier streets have traffic lights instead of four-way stops. However, there is a misconception among some people that towered airports are automatically safer because a controller is on duty.

There is more oversight at towered airports. At a towered airport, you also have to get permission to taxi, be it a repositioning request to obtain fuel, or to the active runway. Don't forget to listen to the automatic terminal information service (ATIS) first.

You don't need this permission at non-towered airports, although many pilots self-announce as a precaution when they reposition, because they don't want to be the guy who comes out from between a row of hangars and T-bones another aircraft.

Figure 14-1 in the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge recommends self-announcing on the common traffic advisory frequency before taxing to the runway, departing the airport, and during approach.

There is airspace and there are airports, per the Federal Aviation Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual (FAR/AIM), where a radio and communication are not required; however, it is a good idea to at least keep your ear on traffic while your head is on a swivel. 

Not all aircraft have radios—if what you are flying was certified without an electrical system (think vintage airframes), it probably doesn't have a radio unless you bring one with you. Many vintage aircraft pilots opt for a battery-powered handheld radio which they keep clipped to a side pocket or seatbelt to at least keep an ear on traffic, while others carry portable battery-powered intercoms to facilitate the communication process.

Any approach to an airport should begin with listening to the automated weather if it is available. At non-towered facilities, the pilots listen to the automated weather for information on wind, visibility, altimeter setting, etc., but there is usually no indication of which runway is in use beyond which way the wind is blowing. On calm wind days, pilots should listen for other traffic in the pattern to avoid head-on conflicts.

When working with an ATIS at towered airports, note the designation (example: Information Yankee is current) and reference it on the initial call up with the phrase, "with information yankee" so the controller knows you "have the weather."

Procedures for B, C, and D

You will learn how to request entry into Class Bravo, Charlie, and Delta airspace. Class Bravo is the most congested, and FAR 61.95 has the details on how to legally enter the airspace. You can expect special training and an endorsement if you are a student pilot who wants to operate in Class B. Please keep in mind that the endorsement for a student pilot to operate in Class B is geographically specific, meaning if you are signed off to fly in the Seattle Class B, the endorsement does not transfer to other Class Bs because each one has its own special nuances.

If you desire privileges in another Class B, such as Orlando, Florida, you will need training in that Class B and another endorsement.

While not as congested as Class B, Class C and D can also present a challenge. You will learn when and how to request permission to enter or transition Class D or Class C airspace. Often the VFR terminal area chart will have callout boxes to let the pilots know when to contact the tower, and often it is within 20 nm from the airspace. For transitioning the airspace, the tower will often supply an altitude restriction that puts transitioning aircraft at least 500 feet above traffic in the pattern.

For Class Delta, there may be specific information for VFR pilots at that particular facility published by airport officials. These often can be downloaded from the airport website. They often include a known ground reference point such as "report over the bay" or "within 10 nm of the airport".

Beware Instructor Bias

The instructor can subconsciously inject their personal bias into what they teach their learners about controlled versus non-controlled airport operations. 

I have seen this manifest in cross-country flights where the learner plotted a course that zigged and zagged with some strange altitudes to avoid Class D and then Class C airspace. The learner was operating out of a non-towered airport and claimed his regular instructor taught him "to avoid towers."

I was hoping something got lost in translation, and as the fill-in instructor that day, I taught the learner how to do both Delta and Charlie transitions. Learning took place. 

Later, I asked the CFI if he really did teach the learner to avoid talking to towers. The instructor replied with a smirk and shrug, saying, "I don't like talking to towers."

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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