Non-towered Airports

Normal Procedures

Eddie sez:

We used to call airports without towers "Uncontrolled" but now we say "Non-towered." If you, like me, spend 99 percent plus of your time at airports with towers, remember this: you are operating by another set of rules. Being IFR or in a jet does not give you special privileges. I flew my Boeing 747 into a few non-towered airports and was required to do a 45° downwind entry, just like the single-engine trainers. Things have changed a bit, since then. You can now legally make a straight-in approach, but you need to know how to do that.

Everything here is from the references shown below, with a few comments in an alternate color.

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Non-towered Airports

General Operating Practices


Figure: Single Runway Airport Operations, from AC 90-66A, Appendix 1.

  1. Enter pattern in level flight, abeam the midpoint of the runway, at pattern altitude. (1000' AGL is recommended pattern altitude unless established otherwise). [Advisory Circular 90-66A, ¶8.b. and c.] Arriving aircraft should be at the appropriate traffic pattern altitude before entering the traffic pattern. Entry to the downwind leg should be at a 45-degree angle abeam the midpoint of the runway. Large and turbine-powered airplanes should enter the traffic pattern at an altitude of 1,500 feet AGL or 500 feet above the established pattern altitude.
  2. Maintain pattern altitude until abeam approach end of the landing runway, or downwind leg. [Advisory Circular 90-66A, ¶8.e.] The base leg turn should commence when the aircraft is at a point approximately 45 degrees relative bearing from the runway threshold.
  3. Complete turn to final at least 1/4 mile from the runway.
  4. Continue straight ahead until beyond departure end of runway.
  5. If remaining in the traffic pattern, commence turn to crosswind leg beyond the departure end of the runway, within 300 feet of pattern altitude.
  6. If departing the traffic pattern, continue straight out, or exit with a 45° left turn beyond the departure end of the runway, after reaching pattern altitude

[Advisory Circular 90-66A, ¶7.]

  1. Use of standard traffic patterns for all aircraft and CTAF procedures by radio-equipped aircraft are recommended at al airports without operating control towers. However, it is recognized that other traffic patterns may already be in common use at some airports or that special circumstances or conditions exist that may prevent use of the standard traffic pattern.
  2. If you expect to be operating at an airport without a tower or one where the tower will not be in operation, it behooves you to research the airport ahead of time to learn of any unique operating procedures. Two good, free, sources of airport information:

  3. The use of any traffic pattern procedure does not alter the responsibility of each pilot to see and avoid other aircraft. Pilots are encouraged to participate in "Operation Lights On," which is a voluntary pilot safety program described in the AIM designed to enhance the "see and avoid" requirement.
  1. The FAA encourages pilots to use the standard traffic pattern. However, for those pilots who choose to execute a straight-in approach, maneuvering for and execution of the approach should be completed so as not to disrupt the flow of arriving and departing aircraft. Therefore, pilots operating in the traffic pattern should be alert at all times to the aircraft executing straight-in approaches.
  2. Pilots who wish to conduct instrument approaches would be particularly alert for other aircraft in the pattern so as to avoid interrupting the flow of traffic. Position reports on the CTAF should include distance and direction from the airport, as well as the pilot's intentions upon completion of the approach.
  3. At the speeds many jets fly on final approach, you could conceivably pop out of the weather into a legal VFR traffic pattern and find an airplane in the final turn, belly up to you and unable to see you. Just because you are IMC doesn't mean the airport is IFR, and you really need to be making those CTAF calls.

Pilot Control of Lighting

[AIM, ¶2−1−9.] Radio control of lighting is available at selected airports to provide airborne control of lights by keying the aircraft's microphone. Control of lighting systems is often available at locations without specified hours for lighting and where there is no control tower or FSS or when the tower or FSS is closed (locations with a part−time tower or FSS) or specified hours. All lighting systems which are radio controlled at an airport, whether on a single runway or multiple runways, operate on the same radio frequency. (See TBL 2−1−1 and TBL 2−1−2.)


Figure: Approach lighting aids, from AIM, Tables 2-1-1 and 2-1-2.


[14 CFR 91, §91.126] Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace.

(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this section.

(b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G airspace—

(1) Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right; and

(2) Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.

(c) Flap settings. Except when necessary for training or certification, the pilot in command of a civil turbojet-powered aircraft must use, as a final flap setting, the minimum certificated landing flap setting set forth in the approved performance information in the Airplane Flight Manual for the applicable conditions. However, each pilot in command has the final authority and responsibility for the safe operation of the pilot's airplane, and may use a different flap setting for that airplane if the pilot determines that it is necessary in the interest of safety.

(d) Communications with control towers. Unless otherwise authorized or required by ATC, no person may operate an aircraft to, from, through, or on an airport having an operational control tower unless two-way radio communications are maintained between that aircraft and the control tower. Communications must be established prior to 4 nautical miles from the airport, up to and including 2,500 feet AGL. However, if the aircraft radio fails in flight, the pilot in command may operate that aircraft and land if weather conditions are at or above basic VFR weather minimums, visual contact with the tower is maintained, and a clearance to land is received. If the aircraft radio fails while in flight under IFR, the pilot must comply with §91.185.

[14 CFR 91, §91.113] Right-of-way rules: Except water operations.

(a) Inapplicability. This section does not apply to the operation of an aircraft on water.

(b) General. When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft. When a rule of this section gives another aircraft the right- of-way, the pilot shall give way to that aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear.

(c) In distress. An aircraft in distress has the right-of-way over all other air traffic.

(d) Converging. When aircraft of the same category are converging at approximately the same altitude (except head-on, or nearly so), the aircraft to the other's right has the right-of-way. If the aircraft are of different categories—

(1) A balloon has the right-of-way over any other category of aircraft;

(2) A glider has the right-of-way over an airship, powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft.

(3) An airship has the right-of-way over a powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft. However, an aircraft towing or refueling other aircraft has the right-of-way over all other engine-driven aircraft.

(e) Approaching head-on. When aircraft are approaching each other head-on, or nearly so, each pilot of each aircraft shall alter course to the right.

(f) Overtaking. Each aircraft that is being overtaken has the right-of-way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear.

(g) Landing. Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach. When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way, but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft.

14 CFR 91, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, General Operating and Flight Rules, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation

Advisory Circular 90-66A, Recommended Standard Traffic Patterns and Practices for Aeronautical Operations at Airports Without Operating Control Towers, 8/26/93, U.S. Department of Transportation

Aeronautical Information Manual