No Towers and Tall Towers

April 16, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

My flight to Sun ‘n Fun in a G-1000 equipped DA-40 involved two kinds of towers, or lack thereof. A lunch date in Aiken (KAIK), S.C., coincided with a minor golf tournament (the Masters), and since IFR slot reservations were required, VFR in good weather seemed the easy way to go. (Mark Twain noted that golf was a good walk ruined, but I digress.) With all the discussion surrounding the closing of control towers, it was instructive to note how the heavy iron types were managing at non-towered AIK. Most everybody was sequencing very nicely, calling the turns and positions just as recommended in the Non-towered Operations Safety Advisor. A Lear announced on the left downwind when a King Air shortly afterward decided that he would fly a right downwind. Somebody noted that it was a left traffic pattern. For a moment it looked to be a most interesting final approach when a semi-sarcastic voice said, “Niiiice.” The King Air pilot, thinking like a controller and seeing the conflict immediately, advised that he was turning midfield crosswind over to the left side behind the Lear, and a standoff was averted. Clever policing technique, I thought. It does require heads up (and out) with courtesy. Meanwhile, AOPA and other groups are having a serious discussion with the FAA on what really should be closed and what should stay open. All the Air Safety Institute seminars for the near future will have a short refresher module on NTA operations.

KLROThen it was on to Mt. Pleasant (KLRO), another non-towered airport in the Charleston, S.C., area for an overnight and dinner meeting. It’s one of those big city reliever airports that has a nice small town feel to it, and you’re sorry to have to leave. Everybody knows everybody, and transients are treated like royalty. Southern hospitality!

Next morning a broken layer at 1,200 feet dictated an IFR clearance, but 10 mile visibility underneath made an airborne pickup reasonable as there was no radio ground access. In an unfamiliar area, it’s good to study the chart beforehand for towers, and there were several BIG ones. The AOPA online airport guide noted, Two 2000 Ft Towers Approx 4-6 Miles East of Arpt, but said nothing about two others that that reach up to 834′ msl and 1039′ msl about 6-8 miles southwest of the airport. The controller was discussing clearance details as I leveled at 700′ msl to stay well clear of the clouds in Class G. My attention was divided between the towers and the controller when the G-1000 decided that there was some danger of my seriously disrupting local TV signals/cell phone coverage for at least the rest of the day. The nice lady in the box rather abruptly announced, “Obstacle less than one mile,” and there was a large depiction of it on the screen. By this time the controller also noted that we were getting too close. I was looking right at the tower, had altered course, and was absolutely certain we weren’t going to hit it or the guy wires, but it was comforting to know both ATC and Garmin were concerned.

Note to self, it’s better to be your own primary line of defense. It’s never a bad idea to review the IFR departure procedure, even VFR, and this one notes that one should climb runway heading to 1,400 feet before turning on course. Had I flown runway heading instead of turning on course neither the controller nor Garmin would have alerted. The key point is “See and Avoid” means just that! That’s the strategy I’ll use where I can’t get to a minimum IFR altitude before getting a clearance. For VFR pilots, all this information is now available for free online. Maybe it’s time to consider some voluntary VFR departure procedures and publicize them.

My prediction is that terrain avoidance warning equipment, used intelligently, will leave us with fewer CFIT and tower encounters, but a conservative approach is better than a tower entanglement.  For non-towered ops—using caution and courtesy is always the way to go.

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Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • W. Gochnauer

    VFR charts are especially important when visibility is limited, and other conditions that cause one to spend more time at low altitudes. Using the pertinant resources for the conditions is part of a pilot’s responsibility.


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