Who's in Charge Here?

Tom Benenson takes a look at towered airport operations and decides that the controllers really are our friends.


Way back in the early '70s, when I was writing the "Student Pilot" column for Flying I wrote one titled, "I'd Rather Do It Myself." In it I recounted my discomfort when approaching and landing at an airport that had no control tower. Airports without towers go by several names: uncontrolled, non-towered and perhaps most accurately, pilot controlled.

My unease about landing at a pilot-controlled airport was unusual. The majority of pilots take their flight training at pilot-controlled fields, but I earned most of my ratings at Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey, which had a control tower and, if you count the Pan Am Helicopter, scheduled commercial service. So, from an early time in my training, I worked with ground and tower controllers and learned to appreciate their help.

That Student Pilot column was about a short flight to Sussex County Airport during which I found myself missing a helpful big brother to watch over me. In it I wrote: "I felt a little like Wild Bill Hickok, sitting with my back to the door, not sure which direction to watch. I wished there was a control tower to advise me of traffic, someone to watch everybody and tell them where to go and who was where … ."

Since most pilots learn at uncontrolled fields, they're often uneasy when they have to deal with controllers. I was just the opposite. I think there are two basic reasons VFR pilots choose to avoid asking for help from controllers both at airports and en route for flight following. They're apprehensive about making a mistake while someone's watching and they're nervous about either not understanding a transmission from the controller or sounding like an idiot when they key their mic.

To try to make private pilot candidates more comfortable when operating in to fields with control towers, the requirements for the certificate were changed to include, under the solo requirements: Three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport with an operating control tower.

Unfortunately, for many pilots it's three flights and they're out … rarely to go where they ventured reluctantly and then only under regulatory pressure. It's a shame because controllers provide an extra set of "eyes" and increase the level of safety, particularly in congested airspace, and airports with towers are typically closer to where we want to go.

Josh Haviland, a controller at the Rogers Municipal-Carter Field in Rogers, Arkansas, has been perplexed about the change in traffic numbers since a control tower became operational there. "The airport was completely busy before we got here. But as soon as the tower came in it seemed to scare people away." Before the tower, he suggested, pilots would come to Rogers to practice instrument approaches because there was no one there to see how-and what-they were doing.

Haviland was dismayed by the response of pilots to the opening of the tower. "We're there for a reason and it's to be helpful. Whenever I meet with pilots and tell them I'm a controller, they tell me they feel regulated and that someone's watching them when they operate at an airport with a tower." He didn't say it, but he's from the FAA and he's there to help you!

If you are concerned about how you sound on the radio there are ways to become more professional. Years ago, I built a Heathkit aircraft band radio to listen to air traffic so I could become more comfortable with the "noise" on the radio. During a vacation on the beach at Martha's Vineyard, Judith finally put her foot down. "Do we really have to listen to that static all day?" she asked. But by then, at least to me, it had stopped being static. Knowing what to expect makes it much easier to understand what's being said.

In addition to listening to tower talk on an aircraft band radio (and you don't have to build your own), there are several interactive computer programs that offer tutorials and practice. Among others, ASA offers its Say Again, Please and the e-Publishing group has its Comm 1 Radio Simulators for VFR and IFR communications. And there are DVDs from Sporty's that let you ride along with Richard Collins to experience the communications interactions at a variety of airports, including one to Washington National Airport that appears destined to become a classic.

Radio work really isn't very complicated. The recommendation-after listening to the ATIS and then the tower frequency from about 25 miles out to get a rough idea of what's going on-is after making sure you're not interrupting, to call in when you're about 15 miles away, and announce who you are, where you are and what you want to do. If there's an ATIS, you'd also include the fact that you have the current information. "Albany Tower, Cessna Cardinal 828JT, 15 miles south at 3,500 feet, with November, landing Albany." The controller will respond with something like, "Cessna 828JT, Albany Tower, Runway 1 in use, report left downwind, wind 020 at 6, altimeter 30.10."

If there's a lot of activity on the frequency, you can make a preliminary call, "Albany Tower, Cessna Cardinal 828JT," which lets the controller know you're out there and patiently waiting for him to get back to you. When he can fit you in, he'll call, "Cardinal 828JT, Albany Tower, go ahead." Some controllers want all the information on the initial call and some would rather you "take a number" so they can get back to you. Chances are if it's very busy, you're better off making it quick. If you've been good about listening up you should have an idea of what you're going to be told. You can let the controller know you have "the numbers" and then, unless there's a change he'll be able to abbreviate his call back. "Cessna 828JT, Albany Tower. Report left base, Runway 1."

My appreciation of airports with control towers has increased as I've become more and more aware of pilots landing at pilot-controlled airports who seem to have forgotten-or never learned-the proper communications procedures.

I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to pilot-controlled fields. I don't have much patience for pilots who apparently don't listen to the unicom before they get close enough to be a hazard. As you descend from cruise toward the pattern altitude, because of the line-of-sight reception, the activity on the unicom frequency decreases so that monitoring the destination airport should be easy to do. The sectional will indicate if there's an automatic weather observation system at your destination and the wind report can give you a heads up for the runway in use. It's bad form to call and ask, "Which way are you landing?" when there are airplanes in the pattern dutifully announcing their turns to downwind, base and final.

If you call in, "Grumman 10 miles out and landing," that doesn't cut it for a couple of reasons. No one in the area knows where to look or what to look for. Is that Grumman a Tiger or a Gulfstream? The initial call is almost the same one you'd make to a control tower. "Columbia County Traffic, Cessna Cardinal 828JT, 10 miles south at 2,000 feet, landing 21, full stop, Columbia County." It's important to repeat the name of the airport at the end of the transmission since we often miss the first couple of words and aren't sure what airport's involved unless the name is repeated. Letting others know whether you're planning a touch-and-go or full-stop landing helps them plan their spacing in the pattern.

The other day I was out with a friend exercising the airplane and heating the oil. The wind was out of the north at about 8 knots so Runway 3 was the active runway. We took off, made our 90-degree turn to the left and then a 45 to the right to exit the pattern. John was busy taking videos as we flew over the Hudson River, so I concentrated on flying the airplane, aware that too many low altitude photo missions have ended with a sudden fatal fade out.

We weren't straying far from the airport so I kept the unicom frequency active as well as using the Garmin GNS 480 monitoring function to listen to Albany airport's approach control on the stand-by frequency. Pilots were good about calling their progress in the pattern as they continued to use Runway 3. But then, after about 15 minutes, I heard a pilot announce on unicom that he was downwind for Runway 21. Another pilot radioed that he was set up for the downwind to Runway 3 but would cross the runway to enter the downwind to Runway 21 behind the interloper.

Okay, it's an uncontrolled airport and there's no one in charge, but changing the active runway shouldn't be an arbitrary decision. I dialed up the AWOS to see if there had been a change in the wind. Nope. It was still reporting a wind that favored Runway 3. There is a note on the AWOS that "in no wind conditions, Runway 21 is the preferred runway," but I know wind and 8 knots is not no wind.

Someone had to sort out the mess. I began to long for a person to prioritize the traffic, I guess what you could call a controller. "According to the AWOS the wind's favoring Runway 3; you guys are landing downwind," I broadcast. "I know," replied the pilot in the pattern, "but I'm doing what the other guy is doing." At least he was trying to avoid going head to head with the other guy. As soon as there was a break in the traffic, I announced that Runway 3 was again active and that I was entering the left downwind on the 45 for a full stop on Runway 3 at Columbia County.

Pilot-controlled airports are safe and the traffic flow is efficient provided that everyone is good about announcing their position and intention and complying with the rules. But remember, at an airport without a control tower, there's no requirement for airplanes to be equipped with radios and many of the light-sport airplanes won't be, so vigilance is vital.

As successful as we are at operating at non-tower airports, I still often find it less stressful to land at an airport with a tower. I remember coming back to Columbia County with Robert Goyer in a Cirrus equipped with a Skywatch traffic alerting system. As we approached the airport the Skywatch displayed so many targets flitting around the airport that Robert elected to stay away and do some airwork until things quieted down. A tower and controller would have made it easier by getting us all lined up in sequence for landing.

If you're concerned about someone from the FAA seeing you screw up and that's what's keeping you from making use of a valuable resource, be assured the last thing a controller wants to do is go through the hassle of writing you up. They'd much rather keep you from making a mistake. When I was building time for my commercial rating I volunteered to fly a Cessna 150 up to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The controller cleared me to land on Runway 1. I assumed the runway directly in front of me was the one I was cleared to land on. As it became obvious I was lining up for Runway 6, the controller called, "Would you prefer to land on the runway in front of you or the one I cleared you to land on?" Oops! "I'll take the one I'm lined up for, if that's okay?" "Cleared to land Runway 6." If that had been an uncontrolled field and there was other traffic it might have ended differently.

Pilots who are really apprehensive about approaching and landing at an airport with a control tower for fear of being seen doing something wrong can take some hope from NASA's Small Airport Transportation System (SATS). Fully implemented, the system could employ an Airport Management Module (AMM), described as a "computer chip on a stick," at smaller airports to act as an automated tower to prioritize and sequence aircraft based on their ADS-B position, altitude and speed. In the meantime, if Josh Haviland is typical, the controllers aren't there to bust us for mistakes, but to help keep us from making them. Remember, though, you're the pilot in command. Never let a controller-or the situation-cause you to attempt something you're not comfortable doing. The controller is there to help you, but when push comes to shove, you're the one in charge.