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Uncontrolled airport procedures

There are a very large number of uncontrolled aerodromes in Canada where no control tower operates. Also, some controlled aerodromes are uncontrolled at certain hours, if tower closes. For example the CFS may indicate the control tower is closed from 0000 to 0600 daily, so you’ll have to follow uncontrolled procedures during that time period. If you’re not being directed by air traffic control (ATC), you’ll need to know how to plan your approach. It’s important to think of the approach procedure in advance, visualizing it before you go.  Make sure you do this. Try visualizing using “chair flying” at home before you head out.   

At some uncontrolled aerodromes with an appreciable amount of traffic, Transport Canada may assign a Mandatory Frequency (MF) or Aerodrome Traffic Frequency (ATF) that you must use. Make sure you have these frequencies ready when you plan to land at one of these uncontrolled airports. When an MF or ATF is designated, it applies to an area with about a 5 NM radius, so when you’re in that radius, make sure you’re active and listening on that frequency. Also, it’s illegal to operate NORDO (with no radio) in an area with an ATF or MF.  I’m not sure why someone would want to fly without a radio anyhow, it sort of makes me nervous! 

Unless otherwise indicated, assume all circuits are left-hand and plan for those accordingly.

How to plan your approach

First, you must exchange communication through one of these frequencies, ATF or MF if applicable, if not, a Flight Service Station (FSS) or through the Universal Communications frequency (UNICOM). You’ll need to check your Canada Flight Supplement (CFS) and Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) for current requirements. 

You’ll need to make five radio calls:

  1. Report 5 minutes out your location, approach procedure, and estimated time over the field;
  2. Report when crossing midfield (this is done 500 feet over circuit altitude, generally 1500 AGL). This is to inspect the runway to ensure it’s suitable for landing and do a wind sock check to choose the appropriate runway direction. This is know what type of landing you need to plan, and try to have as much headwind as possible, or if you need to plan a cross wind landing;
  3. Report when joining downwind leg;
  4. On final,
  5. Then lastly, report when clear of active runway after landing.

This image, from Transport Canada, outlines it nicely: 

Circuit procedures for uncontrolled airspace
Circuit procedures for uncontrolled airspace


Also see VFR procedures at uncontrolled airports diagram by Transport Canada, it’s very helpful. 

Departure procedures

Departure procedures are simple. You’ll also need to broadcast your intentions, of course, and climb to circuit altitude, typically 1000′ AGL, before making any turns. 

Did you know?

CARS, Canadian Aviation Regulations state you’re not allowed to overfly an aerodrome less than 2000 feet above that aerodrome. Just something to note when planning cross country flights. 

I fly out of a very busy airport, Springbank (CYBW), near Calgary, which is usually number 6 or 7 busiest in Canada for aircraft movements. To fly out of Springbank, you’ll need to talk to ground, inner tower, outer tower, then Calgary Terminal, before being cleared enroute. So, flying into a much quieter uncontrolled aerodrome is strangely quiet, and takes some getting used to. 

Do you prefer towered or non-towered airports, and why? Comment below.

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Heavy winds push Westjet Boeing 737 away from the gate at Halifax Airport

After a four hour storm closure at Halifax international airport, the strong winds pushed this 737 away from the gate. The winds hit the vertical stabilizer causing the large aircraft to drift. Luckily no one was trying to board at the time.

This rather long, 11 minute video shows the plane being pushed by the wind, an event which happened earlier this month.  It’s amazing that ground crew are able to stand up straight given the wind is strong enough to move an airplane that weights 110,000 lbs! However, it is because the vertical stabilizer acts as a sail, catching the wind, causing the aircraft to weathervane into the wind. The wind is blowing from the right, from the pilots perspective, which causes the nose also to weathervane to the right.  No doubt the icy runway conditions make it even easier for the wind to slide the aircraft like that.

The jet was being prepared for a flight to Toronto after waiting out a long snowstorm that closed the airport.  Ground crew can be seen trying to push the plane back as it moves to the left.  Great catch, guys!

Here is a statement released by Westjet about the occurrence:

“This is truly a rare occurrence and even more rare to catch it on video. You really were at the right place at the right time! We are very happy with how our ground crew and TechOps AME (Aircraft Maintenance Engineer) handled this situation. Our AME (in the blue vest) was at the aircraft within 10 seconds and our ramp crews (yellow/orange vests) had all ground service equipment away from the aircraft within 40 seconds, which prevented any damage to the aircraft and kept our crews and guests safe while they secured the aircraft with a tug and tow bar. This video is a great reminder of the power of Mother Nature!”

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Landing and departing at high altitude

El Alto International Airport, La Paz Bolivia. Image Courtesy of

I read a post recently asking what is the highest altitude airport you have landed in. This reminded me when I flew into La Paz, Bolivia, landing at El Alto International Airport while on a backpacking trip in South America.  It was aboard a Lan Peru Airlines Airbus A319.   Though I wasn’t doing my pilot’s license back then, I was already very interested in flying, and did my research about this airport, knowing it was 4061 meters, or 13,325 feet above sea level.  If I wasn’t a climber that would have broken an altitude record for me just landing at an airport that high!

Cessna Citation XLS in Tibet, the world's highest commercial airport. Image courtesy of
Cessna Citation XLS in Tibet, the world’s highest commercial airport. Image courtesy of

The airport is one of the highest commercial airports in the world.  The runway 10R/28L at El Alto is 4 km (2.5 miles) long.  The only higher airport (that I could find) was Quam Banga Airport in Tibet, which is situated at an incredible 4334 meters – 14,219 feet above sea level! The runway there is an amazing 5.5 km (3.4 miles) long!

In order to land at El Alto, an aircraft must be equipped with special tires in order to be able to handle to high take off and landing speeds.  Only certain airlines provide service to this airport as the aircraft must be modified.

How else does high altitude affect airplanes? Well recall that the higher up we go, the lower the pressure.   Hence higher up the air becomes “thinner” and is less dense.  Denser air results in better aircraft performance.  In fact the four worst possible take-off and climb performance are when the following factors are combined:

1)  Air Temperature is high (above 15 degrees C)

2) Airport elevation is high

3) Atmospheric pressure is low (below 29.92 inches of Mercury)

4) Relative humidity is high.

So why the long runways at these airports? El Alto has a runway that is 4 km long. This is because due to the low pressure that exists at this extreme elevation there is reduced air resistance.  It is harder for the aircraft to slow down, and takes more time. The descent into this airport was noticeably short – the massive mountains looming on each side of the plane, and then before we knew it, the plane was close to the ground, which what felt like a disconcertingly high airspeed. It took a very long time to stop!

Since the highest altitudes on earth are mountainous, it is no surprise that these high altitude airports are surrounded by some pretty massive peaks. In Bolivia, among many other high mountains, Mount Illimani is in the area and looms over La Paz at 6438 meters (21,122 feet).  These mountains create obstacles that need to be cleared. Though they are far away, we learn obstacle clearance on take-off and landing for this reason.