Nontowered airports are anything but “out of control.”

Published by: Dave Schultz on 2nd Apr 2013 | View all blogs by Dave Schultz

Some people use the term “uncontrolled airport” to mean
the same thing as 
“nontowered airport,” but nontowered airports are anything but “out of control.” 

Nontowered airports—those not served by an operating air traffic control (ATC) tower—are much more common than towered fields. In fact, nearly 20,000 airports in the United States are nontowered, compared to approximately 500 that have towers.

Millions of safe operations in all types of aircraft are conducted at nontowered airports in a variety of weather conditions. The process works because pilots put safety first and use recommended procedures.

A word about procedure: There are several sources of information that explain official FAA-recommended procedures at nontowered airports. FAR 91.113 cites basic right-of-way rules, and FARs 91.126 and 91.127 establish traffic-flow rules at nontowered airports. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and FAA Advisory Circular 90-66A expand on the regulations. Together, these documents define procedures for nontowered flight operations.

Regulations and procedures can’t cover every conceivable situation, though, and the FAA has wisely avoided imposing rigid operating regulations at nontowered airports. What is appropriate at one airport may not work at the next. Some airports have special operating rules due to obstacles or hazards, while other rules may promote a smooth and efficient flow of traffic or keep aircraft from overflying unsympathetic airport neighbors




  • Dave Schultz
    by Dave Schultz 5 years ago
    April 2, 2013

    More Lawsuits Over Tower Closures
    Email this article |Print this article
    By Mary Grady, Contributing editor

    Last week, the city of Spokane, Wash., went to court to try to prevent the FAA's shutdown of an airport tower, and this week other cities are trying the same tactic. Lawsuits now have been filed by city officials in Bloomington, Ill., and the operators of three airports in Florida -- Naples, Ormond Beach, and Punta Gorda. The suits have all been combined together into one case, according to the Associated Press. Lawrence Krauter, director of Spokane International Airport, told the AP he expects more airports and possibly trade associations will join the legal challenge. The suits cite federal rules that require a thorough risk analysis prior to ATC changes. Meanwhile, 149 contract towers are scheduled to close April 7 through May 5, and pilots will need to be prepared.

    PilotWorkshops this week offered its refresher program for non-towered airport operations free online. The program includes three short videos six to 12 minutes long. PilotWorkshops founder Mark Robidoux said, "While all of us are trained in these procedures, it's easy to become rusty if you aren't using a skill." When the towers close, he said, "There will suddenly be thousands of pilots flying into and out of airports that had ATC services one day, and none the next." AOPA's Air Safety Institute has posted a 14-page review of nontowered-airport procedures (PDF). AVweb editorial director Paul Bertorelli also has posted his own refresher and ends with some advice for pilots: "Just take a deep breath, relax and we'll all do fine."
  • Paul Hamilton
    by Paul Hamilton 5 years ago
    What is your opinion of this AOPA article you published?
  • Dave Schultz
    by Dave Schultz 5 years ago
    Hi Paul,
    I mostly fly at a busy non-towered airport with university student pilots. I occasionally fly at a nearby towered airport with a fraction of the traffic. It seems like the tower would be more effective at the other airport but both operate safely. The tower is already part-time and if it closes, the perception is that it will create a safety issue. The reality is that it will probably have little impact. What are your thoughts?
  • Paul Hamilton
    by Paul Hamilton 5 years ago
    My personal experience - Have had 4 near mid airs at uncontrolled airports. All were because the other aircraft did not report/use a radio. Two on takeoff where they were taking off the wrong direction plus not using a radio. The other two were in the pattern. My complaints to the airport manager were as expected “No radio is legally required so fly at your own risk”. Lots of numb skull’s out there flying around with no concept of safety. I have seen plenty of situations where pilots DO NOT “put safety first and use recommended procedures.” To assume all pilots do is wishful thinking for someone who does not fly much.
    I personally “feel” allot safer flying at a towered airports where radios are required and the controllers job (Class C) is to keep separation. Flying at towered airports I have never had a near mid air although a have had far less time at towered airports.
  • Dave Schultz
    by Dave Schultz 5 years ago
    I wanted to let you know about some free training just made available.

    With the recent announcement that 149 airports are about to lose their control towers, we decided to share a few of our non-towered airport training videos.

    While all of us are trained in these procedures, it's easy to become rusty if you aren't using a skill. We are making this refresher available for free in the hopes that it makes flying a bit safer for all of us.

    You can view the three videos here:

    I hope you find this helpful.

    Fly safely,
    Mark Robidoux

    P.S. Feel free to pass this along to other pilots.
 LLC, P.O. Box 356, Merrimack, NH 03054, USA

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  • Dave Schultz
    by Dave Schultz 5 years ago
    (CNN) - The Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it will delay the closures of 149 federal-contract air traffic control towers until June 15.

    Last month, the FAA announced it would eliminate funding for these regional airport towers to help it meet $637 million in forced spending cuts.

    The tower closures had been scheduled to begin April 7, phased in over four weeks. The towers are low- or moderate-volume facilities staffed by contractors.
  • Dave Schultz
    by Dave Schultz 5 years ago
    April 17, 2013

    FAA Discusses Safety Issues Surrounding Tower Closures Email this article |Print this article

    By Russ Niles, Editor-in-Chief

    It appears the FAA is backtracking on an earlier directive that forbade at least some of its FAA Safety Team (FAAST) representatives from talking about pending tower closures. On Wednesday the FAAST Safety Team issued a general note of advice about operating at non-towered airports (the FAAST Team doesn't like the term "uncontrolled") and touched on all the points covered by myriad other sources on the topic since the closures became a real possibility. (Click here for a PDF of the e-mail.) Closures of 149 towers were supposed to start April 7 but on April 5 the FAA delayed that until at least June 15 citing the spate of legal challenges to the closures. Also on April 5, a regional FAAST assistant manager on the East Coast told his safety team that any discussion of tower closures was off limits. (Click here for the PDF.)

    Of course, since he sent it via email, it instantly appeared on forums and media inboxes all over the country (despite the FAA's stern boilerplate directive at the bottom of the email that forbids this kind of wanton dissemination of information) and was a lively topic of often-cynical observation. The directive read, in part, that "until further notice, there are to be no stand-alone seminars on non-towered airport operations. Additionally, at all seminars, discussions/topics regarding furloughs or contract tower closures are not permitted." So far, the FAA has not responded to requests for elaboration on the rationale for the communications strategy on tower closures.

    The latest FAA communication on the topic does contain a kernel of advice that we haven't seen elsewhere, and it's worth passing along. Since pilot certification requires some exposure to "towered" airports, the remaining towered airports will have increased student traffic. The FAAST team recommends "diligent planning on the part of training providers, instructors and students," not to mention those encountering the unaccustomed touch and goes by 152s at busy airports.
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