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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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The Base to Final Turn

One of the most important and critical turns in the circuit pattern, and in your flight, is when you are ‘low and slow.’  The base to final turn is a critical manoeuvre that when done uncoordinated, can lead to an increased risk of an unrecoverable stall-spin accident. Because we are so low in that phase of flight, recovering from a stall-spin from that altitude is not possible.

When we overshoot this turn is where the problem can become critical. In an attempt to get the airplane back on the proper approach path to make the runway, many pilots add lots of aileron and find this doesn’t get them back on track enough. So, they add rudder in the same direction and though this turns the nose to where the pilot wants to go it also puts them in an uncoordinated flight profile.  Watch what happens here:

Overshooting often the cause

After overshooting the base to final turn, forcing the plane into a normal approach can become tragic.  The airplane can stall without having enough altitude to recover: once the stall spin develops, there is not much that can be done to bring it back.  A lot of the time why this happens is because the pilot turns base, not anticipating a tailwind, and before they know it, the tailwind has blown the plane through base.  So in order to get back on track the pilot will attempt to force the plane back on track using lots of aileron and rudder.

Other times the turn will be too timid, some people only turn 10-15 degrees in the pattern, which often does not get enough to get the plane where it needs to go.  Then people will push to past 30 degrees, but if this is coordinated, there is no need to bank the plane that far.

The problem comes when we use some aileron to get back on track but that doesn’t work, so we use more rudder to tighten the turn. This results in us being uncoordinated.  This increases the bank angle and rate of descent.   Many will use opposite aileron to soften the bank angle and pull back on the yoke to check the rate of descent.

This will increase the angle of attack on the inside wing – a stall and spin on the inside wing can come quickly.

How to avoid

If you notice that you are being blown closer to the runway on the downwind, anticipate that this wind will blow you through your base turn. So, turn early, watch your angle of bank and keep coordinated. If you cannot regain your track in a coordinated fashion, simply overshoot.  There is no shame in a go-around.

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Precautionary Landings

Starting Point for Precautionary Landing. Image Courtesy of Langley Flying School.

Preparing for a precautionary landing

My next series of flights gets me out of the circuit and back into the practice area where I am learning how to do a precautionary landing.

Why do we need to learn this?

There are a number of reasons.  You may have a sick passenger on board, the weather may be a cause of concern.   There may be something that you are concerned with, such as an engine that is acting up, you may be getting low on fuel and think you may not make it much further. In any case, the landing is done to avoid a potentially worsening situation and is done so while engine power is available.  The sooner the landing area is selected the better once a precautionary landing has been decided.  Quite simply, a precautionary landing is completed in two basic steps:

1)  A low pass flown like a circuit over the potential landing area, this is done to inspect the surface for suitability, and

2) A normal circuit flown to end in a safe landing.

There are two basic procedures, one for a controlled airport and one for an uncontrolled airport. In the case where a field is selected, this is obviously uncontrolled.  This is what I have been practicing on.  When we arrive at the practice area, which is the Cremona area just north of Springbank,  we broadcast our intentions for the exercise then proceed to look for a field we can “land” on.

Starting Point for Precautionary Landing. Image Courtesy of Langley Flying School.
Starting Point for Precautionary Landing. Image Courtesy of Langley Flying School.

We find a field and enter a normal circuit approach. The goal is to make two passes: a high pass and a low pass to judge the suitability of the field for landing.

In an uncontrolled field, such as a farmer’s field, we make a high pass at 1000′ AGL and in a controlled field like an aerodrome we do this at 1500′.   Our high pass is done at cruise settings, 90 knots in the 172.  We fly the normal circuit at 1000′ and then overshoot.

Then we do the “3 Ps“:

(1) Pan Pan call: alert traffic in the area that we are preparing for a precautionary landing.  We say “Pan Pan” three times and say our aircraft identifier (for example, FIAH, GSKF, and so on) three times.

(2) Passenger brief. Let your passengers know what you will be doing, to stay calm, to put their hands free of the controls, and to move their seat back (if sitting in the front).  Then:

(3) We do our Pre-landing checks.

Then we do the low pass. This is done 500′ AGL or whatever altitude is best for inspecting the landing area. In the 172, we fly at 60 knots with 20 degree flap.   The slower speed will allow for better inspection of the field, and the flaps will allow for better forward visibility. The speed is also not too slow – that is it’s not in the slow flight range – which will allow the pilot to focus on observing the field rather than maneuvering the airplane. We also want to prevent getting close to a stall.

Precautionary Landing Procedure. Image Courtesy of
Precautionary Landing Procedure. Image Courtesy of

On our observation of the field, we want to do our “COWLS” check, for suitability in landing:

C = Civilization: are there homes, buildings, or people nearby?

O = Obstacles: are there any obstacles that need to be cleared, such as powerlines, or trees?

W = Wind: always try to land into the wind if possible. Look for indicators on the ground: direction of smoke, direction of long grass, trees, etc.  Is smoke trailing upwards (calm winds), being blown slightly (gentle winds) or rapidly breaking off (strong winds)?

L = Length: once we are abeam the threshold, we count how many seconds it takes us to fly the length of the field. This is why we use 60 knots at 20 degree flap in the 172: if we count the seconds it takes to fly that length, we can estimate the approximate length of the field.

On the low pass, 500′ AGL, abeam the threshold, we start the timer. If it’s 20 seconds, the length is 2000′, (20 * 100); if it takes 33 seconds, the length is 3300′, (33 * 100)  and so on.

S = Surface: Check the suitability of the surface for landing. For example, are there ruts in the ground, or is the surface smooth? Is the surface grass or dirt?

Once our high and low passes are completed, we establish for a normal approach with full flaps.

Next read about the forced approach and see where it actually happened in real life!

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Forward Slip

Forward Slip - Transport Canada photo

The other day I was out flying with my instructor reviewing soft field procedures. We were doing circuits on runway 25, and on the turn from the downwind to base leg of the circuit, we were  hit with strong turbulence every time.  The leg goes close to the river so we assumed it was something to do with that.  It was a bit much for me and I lost my concentration, so I kept coming in too high and fast.  After a few we landed and the controller immediately announced a runway change to runway 16.   I decided that I still wanted to try it, given that the circuits we did on 25 weren’t really that great.

After takeoff from runway 16 the turbulence hit us again only a few hundred feet AGL. I decided that it was probably best to ask for a full stop and end the lesson.  The turbulence was too distracting and kept me from being able to concentrate on the maneuver.  Inadvertently on the landing again, I came in too high.  So my instructor told me to use a forward slip – which is something that I’ve done numerous times – but I hesitated and my mind went blank.  I eventually did it, but think this is a procedure I need to practice still, particularly when I go solo.

What is a forward slip?

It is a turn that is prevented by use of rudder.  The airplane moves in straight, drag inducing position that increases rate of descent and doesn’t increase airspeed – because of all the drag that is created by the airplane in that configuration. The aileron holds the bank while the opposite rudder causes the nose to point in the other direction.

To enter a forward slip, power to idle, turn the aircraft into the wind, and use opposite full rudder. The configuration feels somewhat awkward to me since the airplane is steeply banked and pointing in the other direction. Like everything in flying, it is all about practice until it feels natural!

Another thing is I REALLY need to start bringing my camera and maybe my video camera to my flights! I am always too lazy to take photos but it is great to have them particularly so I can share them here.