Let’s Talk: Radio Work at an Untowered Airport

Most of my flight training is happening at an untowered airport. That means, there is no ATC radio tower for pilots to talk to. Instead, all aircraft that fly in the airspace are supposed to dial into a general frequency to talk to all the other pilots in the area.

A funny story that happened on one of my first adventures out of the untowered airspace to a towered airport was just a few weeks ago actually!

So, my instructor and I take off and head southeast to a different airport to practice flying at a towered airport. To get to the new airport we had to fly over a naval airbase.

I mean, I guess we could have gone around, but that would just complicate everything and add like 10 minutes to our flight. Since I’m a baller on a budget, I definitely did not want to add time to the flight because it costs money and I didn’t even get any actual training during that time. Basically, it would be useless to do.

Now, keep in mind, I had NEVER spoken to an ATC tower at this point at all. I had only practiced in my car and played with an app that I didn’t even pay for, so the use was limited.

My freaking instructor dials in the frequency and said, “Ok. Call up the Naval Base and ask them if we can fly over their airspace.”

I said, “Excuse me. What if I screw it up?” Like, dude! They have freaking F-16’s down there! Not to mention all the crazy stuff they have that I can’t even see!

My instructor laughed at me, said it was actually easier than an untowered airport, then told me exactly what to say.

It ended up not being a big deal at all, but I was absolutely terrified of screwing up. If it would have been a civilian ATC tower, I would have not really cared. The fact it was military worried me unnecessarily. 

Basically, I was super stressed for no reason. I love telling this story to the pilots I fly with for work because I meet a lot as a flight attendant, and they always laugh and say, “I swear that new pilots are always worried about the opposite of what they fly at mainly.” 

If your home airport is towered, untowered is scary, and vice versa.

Now that I’ve flown at both for a bit, I think I understand both pretty well. Usually, it’s people that go from a towered to untowered that are REALLY worried though. The main reason being, a pilot has so much to focus on all the time that when they move to an untowered airport they are more likely to forget to say where they are; thus, it’s a little more nerve-wracking.

Really though, there are only 3 main things you need to do that make it a little different. Even still, it’s not that different all in all. So, here are my big tips for radio work at an untowered airport.

Announce Yourself…A Lot

This is the first and most important part about flying at an untowered airport: Announce who and where you are a lot. 

When you’re at a towered airport, you talk to the ground to get told to take off. Then you talk to the tower and they tell you what to do the whole time. 

At an untowered airport, you never know who is around or where they are. A towered airport has a radar and all this fancy equipment to tell you where other airplanes are and tell you what to do. So, when you don’t have that benefit, you have to announce yourself all the time. 

Since you don’t have vision around you all the time, and neither do other pilots, you must continually tell everyone where you are. 

If you’ve flown a couple of laps in the pattern and there is no other traffic in the area, there is a little leeway in this. Not announcing yourself for every leg of the pattern may not always be necessary, but it remains a great practice in the name of safety. 

The biggest reason is that someone may not be aware they crossed into new airspace, so you have to tell them where you are to avoid an in-air collision. 

I always say it’s better to be safe and inconvenienced than dead.

Know Your Pattern

This kind of goes hand in hand with preflight planning and the briefing, but you have to know the airport pattern.

I can’t stress this enough.

Seriously, if you don’t know your pattern, you may say you are on “downwind” instead of “final.” Which, of course, could be extremely dangerous. If a pilot hears this, they may think they have enough time to roll onto the runway then take off leisurely, causing a collision with the landing airplane.

Knowing your pattern goes hand in hand with announcing yourself. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t say where you are in the pattern. The example I just gave is exactly why.

Another reason you need to know the pattern is to know where other airplanes are. They will announce their location, and you need to know what that means. 

It’s always better to err on the side of caution. 

Safety first…then teamwork (if you got the Pineapple Express reference, we can be friends).

Radio Courtesy

This can go to towered airports also, but it can be particularly annoying at untowered airports. 

Radio courtesy boils down to, say what you need to say and get off the radio, and don’t interrupt others that are talking. 

Sometimes, there are multiple untowered airports that share the same frequency for their pilots to talk. When this is the case, it can be frustrating on busy days because every time you’re about to say something, another pilot starts talking first. 

This stresses the importance of getting on and off the radio quickly. 

I’ve had multiple flights where I only get to announce where I’m at in the pattern sporadically (but I ALWAYS call for final), but I’ll be the only one flying at my home airport!

And there is nothing more annoying than hearing two old dudes talk about their family when you are trying to announce your departure from an airport. Don’t get me wrong, I love when people are friends, but be friends when it’s less important for everyone to be paying attention and announce their position while flying.

Another annoyance is when someone’s button is stuck and you hear the air of them breathing on their microphone. It kind of sounds like a horror movie phone call where they don’t say any words, but just listen. Or worse, it sounds like some old dude fell asleep only to hear them have some disgusting bodily function happen, which is usually a fart because they don’t know they’re miked up.

Nonetheless, this is a big reason you have to get your radios checked. Remember though, always be courteous for others in the airspace.

Really, radio work isn’t that big of a deal to handle. It’s just a new thing you will have to master to be the pilot you possibly can.

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