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Radio Communications Non-Towered Airports

by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from Pilot's Radio Communications Guide

Operating on the theory that the radio is a safety resource, minimal but effective use keeps everyone safe and informed.  We have all heard the blabbermouth on the radio that thinks he is "Sky Captain 1" with his Cessna 172 heavy.  This pilot loves to hear himself talk while we've thought what an idiot he sounds like.  So strive to have informative, minimal, plain language communications on the radio.  Especially when it comes to the already crowed unicom frequencies that all non-towered airports share.  Here are my recommendations:
Diagram of the Traffic Pattern
(Diagram reprinted from the FAR/AIM)

Entering the Traffic Pattern

Aircraft:  “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E is 5 miles north of the airport inbound landing runway 9.  Springfield traffic”

Aircraft:  “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E is entering downwind runway 9 on the 45. Springfield”  [enter pattern at Traffic Pattern Altitude]

In the Traffic Pattern

Position #1  “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E left downwind runway 9, full stop.  Springfield”

Position #2  “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E left base runway 9. Springfield” 

Position #3  “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E final runway 9. Springfield” 
Position #4 “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E departure leg runway 9, closed pattern. Springfield” (in the case of touch & go, pattern work).
Position #5   “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E left crosswind runway 9. Springfield”
Position #6 “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E departure leg runway 9, departing eastbound. Springfield”
-- OR --
Position #6  “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E departure leg runway 9, departing north-eastbound. Springfield”

Taking off

“Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E taking off runway 9.  Springfield"

-- THEN --

Position #4 “Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E departure leg runway 9, closed pattern. Springfield” (in the case of touch & go, pattern work)

Remember, there is no such thing as "position and hold" at a non-towered airport and its one of the most dangerous things a pilot could do.  Runways are for taking off or landing, not for holding and socializing.

Taxiing Around the Airport

All non-towered airports in the country share just a few Unicom frequencies (see chart below).  On already crowded Unicom frequencies, making excess radio calls is not only unnecessary but could block critical airborne transmissions.  Think of it this way, you're on the ground, and you are safe.  You have two eyes with which you can see and you are easily seen when you light up the aircraft as you should.  Notifying the world that you are taxiing around the airport is sometimes needless radio chatter. I am sure you would agree it's a whole different story when you are airborne.  Position announcements are life & death critical unlike moving aircraft around on the pavement no where near the runway.

g Aro


In the interest in minimizing needless chatter, making “clear of the runway” radio calls is typically unnecessary.  Think of it this way, departing or landing traffic has the responsibility to visually clear the runway before using it. 

There are times when a "clear of the runway" call is courtesy or safety.  Its a judgment call.  If you know that departing or landing traffic can't see the whole runway, it's a great idea to make the call.  Another case where a "clear of the runway" call is useful is when someone is right on your tail in the pattern and your call might prevent a go-around for the guy behind you.  Of course that calls into question why he's on your tail and did not allow enough spacing for landing traffic.  If you decide to make such a call, it goes like this: 
“Springfield traffic, Skyhawk 44E clear of runway 9. Springfield”

A Final Word

All of this is optional!  While the above is recommended by the AIM, radio communications are not required.  Just consider the 1947 Luscombe which was certified without an electrical system.  You'll often see these aircraft appear in the pattern and give no indication of its intention.  While it seems unsafe, its perfectly legal.  Some owners of these aircraft chose to use portable radios to increase their safety.

Common Radio Frequencies

While there are always exceptions to the rule, this table should give you a general idea of where certain services are available on the radio dial.  Always consult a current Airport/Facility Directory for the appropriate frequencies.

Emergency 121.5
Military VHF 126.2

Multicom - fish & game,
fire, forestry: 122.925
Helicopter 123.025
Airplane 122.75/122.85
Glider/Balloon 123.3/123.5
Non-Towered Airports
Unicom: 122.7/122.725/122.8/122.975/123.0/123.05/123.075
Private Airports: 122.75/122.85    Multicom: 122.9 (no fbo)  
Towered Airports
Ground Control:
Unicom 122.95
FSS Common Frequencies:
Flight watch 122.0 

Reader Feedback

Bill Bayliss writes: "In regards to pattern operations ... A pilot can just call upwind instead of stating departure leg...closed pattern.  Tower already knows you are closed traffic, why call departure leg if you are not departing?  Departure leg would be runway track/heading outside of normal traffic pattern...Keep it real. Sometimes the FAR/AIM can be misleading...use common sense"  Friday, September 18, 2009 7:44 PM

Bill, departure leg and upwind are places in the pattern not intentions.  On top of that, they are actually different places.  Departure leg is not the same place as upwind, check your AIM (or see the diagram above which is directly from the AIM).  As pilots we keep it real (as you put it) by not inventing myths but by sticking to the approved phraseology.  Hope that helps...Darren

General Tips on Radio Communications
Ten Tips to Immediately Improve Your Radio Technique

ATC's Top 9 Pet Peeves

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