On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

A violation of trust, an act of murder.

Like most other frequent airline travelers, I was horrified to learn this morning that the cause of this week’s German Wings airplane crash in the French Alps is most likely the deliberate action of the “co-pilot” (i.e., First Officer), who locked the “pilot” (i.e., Captain) out of the “cockpit” (i.e., flight deck) and put the airplane into a steep descent that ended when it hit a mountain.

The only good thing to note about this is that men, women, and children on board likely never felt a thing as their lives were extinguished, like a candle’s flame between two calloused fingers.

As a pilot, this was more horrific to me. Why? Because the pilot who is responsible violated what I consider a sacred trust.

Let me try to explain. When I fly my helicopter, there is nothing more important to me than my passengers. By climbing aboard my aircraft, whether it’s for a 7-minute “hop ride” around town or a cross-country journey lasting hours, they have proven to me that they trust me with their lives. I don’t take that trust lightly. Maybe I pay closer attention to details, like the wind speed and direction or the way the helicopter lifts off the ground into a hover with their weight distribution. Maybe I fly a little higher, to reduce mechanical turbulence on a windy day and ensure that I’m well outside the “Deadman’s Curve” in the unlikely event of an engine failure. Maybe I keep my bank angle on turns a little flatter and my approaches and departures a little shallower to ensure a smooth flight.

I want my passengers to be not only safe, but comfortable. I want their memories of flying with me to include only the pleasant experiences they have during the flight.

I know a lot of pilots who don’t seem to think this way. Their goal is to impress their passengers with what they consider their flying skill. They want to give “E-Ticket rides.” For some reason, they think this is what their passengers want — and maybe some of them think they do.

But what passengers really want is to get off the aircraft in the same condition they got on it: safe, unharmed — and yes — alive.

And that’s what I call a sacred trust. The passengers trust the pilot to ensure their safety. If the pilot does anything to compromise that safety — whether it’s buzzing a backyard barbecue or diving into a mountain in France — he’s violated that sacred trust.

Pilots who even consider doing dangerous or suicidal things with passengers on board should not be in control of an aircraft.

I’m about to get on this airplane for a flight from CA to WA. Do I need to worry about the mental state of the pilots?

As a pilot, I’m upset that a young German pilot decided to kill himself and the 149 people who trusted him with their lives in such a horrific act. I’m worried about what future passengers will think about their pilots’ mental state of mind. I’m worried that people will use this incident to fuel their fears of flying, to avoid flying altogether. I’m worried that the FAA or airline management or other authorities will enact knee-jerk rules and regulations — like the one that made cockpit doors impregnable — that further burden responsible pilots with tests and paperwork that add to their stress and workload.

Most of all, I’m angry about the half-informed media coverage and their “experts,” jumping to conclusions and exploring crazy conspiracy theories, grasping for someone to blame, instilling fears in viewers and listeners and readers.


Let’s get this straight: it’s all about a pilot who betrayed his passengers’ sacred trust.

This is not just suicide by airplane. This pilot committed murder, pure and simple. In doing so, he sullied the reputation of other professional pilots who take their responsibilities as a pilot seriously.

And that’s what upsets me most of all.

28-Feb-15 Update:Pilot Who Downed Airliner Vowed ‘To Do Something’ To Be Remembered” might shed some additional light on his state of mind.

On Spur-of-the-Moment Travel

It’s amazing where you can be in just a few hours.

I’m on my third consecutive year as a frost control pilot. I haven’t written much about this, mostly because I haven’t actually had to fly a mission. But for the third year in a row I’m being paid to have my helicopter ready, with relatively short notice, to fly slowly over almond trees on cold California mornings.

The Back Story

My first year’s contract, back in the winter/spring of 2013, had a relatively low standby pay for 60 days, along with compensation to move the helicopter from its base — in Arizona, in those days — to California’s Central Valley. Because I wasn’t sure about my living situation that winter — after all, my future ex-husband could get his head out of his ass and accept the very generous settlement offer I made and I’d have to move — I moved my truck and RV to California as well, thus guaranteeing a cheap and comfortable place to live near my work. (After all, that’s why I bought the RV; as a place to live when I was on the road with the helicopter.) I spent about two months traveling with Penny the Tiny Dog between Phoenix, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, getting called out just once for two days. I happened to be in Vegas at the time, so it wasn’t a big deal to change my plane ticket and spend a few days in California instead of returning to Arizona.

Last year I took a very different contract. It paid a generous standby rate for six weeks but I had to live near the fields. This turned out to be very convenient for me since I was out of my Arizona home for good and didn’t have a home in Washington yet. I brought the RV and helicopter down in mid-February and stayed until the middle of April. I really got to know the area, made new friends, went hiking and kayaking several times, got comped on a balloon ride, and even learned to fly a gyroplane. It was like being on a paid vacation in a pleasant place, with warm days and lots to do and see. If I did have to work, it would likely be between 3 AM and 7 AM, so days were free to do as I pleased.

Although the money was great, the drawback to that contract was the simple fact that I couldn’t get back to Washington until April. I wanted to be back earlier. I wanted to experience the spring: seeing orchards in bloom and leafing out, hiking along streams full of snow-melt runoff, starting a garden. So when December 2014 rolled along, I decided to try to get a frost control contract like the first year.

And I did.

I brought the helicopter down to California on February 22. The RV would stay home — with me — as I finished work on my home and enjoyed the spring.

That’s the back story.

Call Out

Frost control is not like cherry drying. In cherry drying, I’m required to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice. I can monitor the weather closely and vary my daily routine based on the likelihood of rain. When my clients call, they expect me to be airborne in minutes.

In my frost contract, the client monitors the weather closely and, if there’s a possibility of frost, he initiates a callout. My contract requires him to do this by at least 12 hours before he expects me to fly. This gives me the time I need to get to California from Washington. I’m paid for the callout — the fee covers my transportation with a bit to spare. And then I’m paid a generous hourly pilot standby fee from the moment I get to my California base until I’m released the next morning. If I fly, I’m paid a flying rate for that. The next time I’m called out, the process starts all over again

When I brought the helicopter down to California this year, I built in a few extra days to spend some time with friends in the area. When those plans fell through, I kept myself busy by reacquainting myself with the area and visiting other friends. But I couldn’t have timed it better. I was put on standby two of the three nights I was already down here. I was able to earn the callout and standby fees without incurring the related travel expenses. Although it did require a minor flight change for my return home with a $25 fee, that’s still pretty sweet. Really made it worth the trip.

I went home last Wednesday and got back to work on my home. The cabinets were installed on Thursday and Friday and the appliances were delivered on Saturday. Timing was everything and I lucked out.

My client called on Friday to make sure he understood how much lead time I needed to get back to California. Cold temperatures were forecast for Sunday through Wednesday nights. He wasn’t calling me out — yet. But he wanted to make sure he knew how much time would be needed to get me in position. I told him that if he called me by 3 PM, I’d be able to make it to the helicopter by 10 PM and be on standby overnight.

Of course, I watched the temperatures, too. Unfortunately, the forecasts of my various weather sources aren’t nearly as accurate as those available to almond growers, by subscription, from an agricultural weather resource. I had to rely on them to call me and didn’t want to fly down unless I had to.

So each day the forecasted low was 40°F or lower, I’d be a nervous wreck, wondering whether I’d get a call. Once 4 PM rolled along, I’d relax. I did this on Sunday and Monday and got a lot of work done at my place. But I did pack an overnight bag on Monday afternoon, just in case.

On Very Short Notice…

On Tuesday, at 3:22 PM, my phone rang. It was my client. He’d been sitting on the fence about calling me down. Forecasted lows were 32° to 39° in the area. He told me that he knew from experience that if the forecast said 32°, it could go lower. Better safe than sorry. He was calling me out.

Fortunately, I was sitting at my desk answering an email message when he called. When I hung up, I got on the Alaska Air website. There was a flight out of Wenatchee at 5:20 PM — less than two hours from then — and I needed to be on it. I booked the flight from Wenatchee to Seattle to Sacramento. I’d arrive at 9:28 PM.

While I was at the computer, I searched for car rentals in Sacramento. Thrifty had one for $22/day. Rather than book online, I called directly. With my bluetooth earpiece in my ear, I made car reservations as I changed my clothes and put a few more things into that suitcase.

I decided to board Penny. She’d been with me on the last trip and I thought I’d keep things a lot simpler by leaving her behind this time. So I packed an overnight bag for her with enough food for 2 days — just in case I needed to stay over an extra night. Club Pet is on my way to the airport, so dropping her off only took 5 minutes, especially since the paperwork was already waiting for me. As I type this, she’s likely playing out in the yard with the other dogs.

I checked into my flight and chose my seats using the Alaska Air app on my phone while stopped at a traffic light. I only had one bag — a carry-on — so I didn’t need to stop at the counter.

Seattle Sunset
I got off the plane in Seattle just after sunset.

I was at the airport, through security, and sitting in the waiting area by 4:45. That’s less than 90 minutes after getting the call. At 6:07 PM, I stepped off the plane from Wenatchee onto the tarmac at SeaTac. This is one of the best things about living in a small town with airline service: it’s so damn quick and easy to catch a flight out of town when you need to.

I grabbed dinner at SeaTac’s Terminal C before catching my flight to Sacramento.

It was an amazing flight. The moon had risen and was almost full. The land beneath us was illuminated with moonlight. I sat at the window on the A side of the plane and watched as we passed Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. Our flight path took us down the Cascade range in Oregon, over the Three Sisters and other mountains there. I could clearly identify the towns I knew on Route 97 from the location of their airport beacons in relation to the town’s lights. The moon’s bright orb reflected back up at me from streams, marshes, and lakes. The flight couldn’t have been any smoother, either.

We touched down in Sacramento fifteen minutes early. I was out of the terminal waiting for the rental car shuttle bus by 9:30 PM. Later, I’d settle down in a Best Western for the night. I slept like a log until 5 AM.

Although a call to fly never came, I don’t mind making the trip. I will be well compensated for my time and the inconvenience of dropping everything to spend a few days in California. My client is satisfied, glad he can count on me to come when called. It’s all good.

I’ll kill some time here today and catch a flight home either tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m flexible and it’s a beautiful day.

Dear TSA

I’m really tired of the TSA going through my luggage — and repacking it.

TSA Inspection NoteTo say I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this past year would be to make a huge understatement. I’ve been on more than 20 airline legs since September and expect to be on at least a few more before I finally settle down in my new Washington home.

Because I travel with Penny the Tiny Dog and she counts as one of my carryon pieces of luggage, I usually have to check a bag. And what I’ve discovered is that the TSA doesn’t just look in random pieces of checked luggage. It looks in all checked luggage.

How do I know this? Well, the inspectors put a note like the one you see here in each piece of luggage they open. I have found one of these in every single bag I’ve checked.

And yes, I do sometimes lock my bag. Fortunately, my lock is TSA-friendly, so it isn’t broken and can be used again and again.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t mind the TSA going through my luggage if they’d just leave it packed the way I packed it. In many instances, my luggage includes breakable items, such as a laptop, portable hard disk, and/or bottles of wine. I pack very carefully to ensure that breakables are surrounded by soft items like clothing. This protects it from shocks and hard surfaces the bag might encounter during handling by the airlines — and the TSA.

Unfortunately, the TSA doesn’t seem to care how carefully I packed. It appears that they sometimes unpack my bag and then repack it. I haven’t noticed anything missing, but I have noticed shock-sensitive items packed right up against the edge of my soft luggage, where it could be damaged if the bag is thrown or dropped.

And I don’t like that.

What can I do? Nothing — except to not put breakables in my luggage. Or not check luggage. Or not travel by air.

I can’t help thinking that the TSA’s baggage inspections are just another dog and pony show — as intrusive and ineffective as its backscatter scanners. The Notice of Baggage Inspection cards I find after every flight are just a reminder that big brother is watching. Whether their inspections are actually necessary or effective remains to be seen.

Penny, the Frequent Flyer Dog

A look at how Penny the Tiny Dog has accrued airline miles since September 2012.

Frequent Flyer Dog
Penny waits near the gate for a recent flight, chewing a bone in her travel bag.

One of the best things about having a tiny dog is just how easy she is to travel with. Indeed, Penny has been with me on almost every single trip I’ve taken since I brought her into my life on June 27, 2012.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s a quick look at the trips Penny and I have taken together since September 2012. This is just airliner flights and doesn’t include the helicopter and small plane flights we’ve done together, like the trips to Winslow, Williams, Page, Phoenix, Tucson, Lake Havasu, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Georgetown (CA), Woodland (CA), Quincy (WA), Wenatchee (WA), and other places.

I’ll update this periodically so I have a permanent record of her frequent flyer status.

Date Departure Destination Miles
9/15/2012 Wenatchee Seattle 98
9/15/2012 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
11/12/2012 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
11/12/2012 Seattle Wenatchee 98
11/21/2012 Phoenix Sacramento 647
11/28/2012 Sacramento Phoenix 647
12/16/2013 Phoenix Dallas Ft. Worth 752
12/16/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Jacksonville 796
12/30/2012 Jacksonville Dallas Ft. Worth 796
12/30/2012 Dallas Ft. Worth Phoenix 752
1/30/2013 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
1/30/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
2/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/21/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
3/5/2013 Sacramento Las Vegas 345
3/7/2013 Las Vegas Sacramento 345
3/10/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 1,106
3/18/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 1,106
3/27/2013 Sacramento Phoenix 647
4/10/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
4/23/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/23/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
4/26/2013 Phoenix Sacramento 647
5/6/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
5/6/2013 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
10/22/2013 Wenatchee Seattle 98
10/22/2013 Seattle Newark 2,394
10/29/2013 Newark Seattle 2,394
10/29/2013 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/16/2014 Sacramento San Francisco 86
2/16/2014 San Francisco Santa Barbara 262
2/19/2014 Santa Barbara Seattle 907
2/19/2014 Seattle Wenatchee 98
4/21/2014 Wenatchee Seattle 98
4/21/2014 Seattle Sacramento 605
1/26/2015 Wenatchee Seattle 98
1/26/2015 Seattle Phoenix 1,106
2/11/2015 Phoenix Seattle 1,106
2/11/2015 Seattle Wenatchee 98
2/25/2015 Sacramento Seattle 605
2/25/2015 Seattle Wenatchee 98
Total Airline Miles   27,256

Too bad I can’t get her on a frequent flyer plan.

Airport Tower Closures: Reality Check

March 24, 2013, 11:30 AM Edit: Got the airplane terminology wrong. Thanks to two airplane pilots for correcting me. I’ve edited the text to show the change. Sorry about the confusion. – ML
March 25, 2013, 2:15 AM Edit: Left out the word towers in a sentence.

Come on folks — it’s not as bad as you think.

Falcon Tower
The control tower at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, AZ is a typical Class Delta airport tower. (This is not one of the towers scheduled for closure.)

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the FAA’s upcoming airport tower closures. A list is out and there are 149 airports on it. The reduction of funding due to the sequester is making it necessary to close these contracted airport towers all over the country.

Most news articles, tweets, and Facebook updates that I’ve read about the closures are full of doom and gloom. Apparently, a lot of people believe that airport towers are required for safety. But as most general aviation pilots can attest, low traffic airports do not need towers.

What an ATC Tower Does

Air Traffic Control (ATC) towers are responsible for ensuring safe and orderly arrivals and departures of aircraft at an airport. Here’s how it works at a typical Class Delta airport — the kind of airports affected by the tower closures.

Most towered airports have a recording called an Automated Terminal Information System (ATIS) that broadcasts airport information such as weather conditions, runway in use, and any special notices (referred to as Notices to Airmen or NOTAMs). Pilots listen to this recording on a special airport frequency as they approach the airport so they’re already briefed on the most important information they’ll need for landing. The ATIS recording is usually updated hourly, about 5 to 10 minutes before the hour. Each new recording is identified with a letter from the ICAO Spelling Alphabet, or the Pilot’s Alphabet, as I refer to it in this blog post.

Before a pilot reaches the airport’s controlled airspace — usually within 4 to 6 miles of the airport — she calls the tower on the tower frequency. She provides the airport controller with several pieces of information: Aircraft identifier, aircraft location, aircraft intentions, acknowledgement that pilot has heard ATIS recording. A typical radio call from me to the tower at Falcon Field, where I flew just the other day, might sound something like this:

Falcon Tower, Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is eight miles north, request landing helipads with Kilo.

An airplane calling in might say something like:

Falcon Tower, Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is ten miles east, request touch-and-go with Kilo.

Kilo, in both cases, is the identifier of the current ATIS recording.

The tower controller would respond to my call with something like:

Helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima, Falcon Tower, proceed inbound. Report 1 mile north for midfield crossing at nineteen hundred feet.

To the airplane, he might say something like:

Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo, Falcon Tower, enter right downwind for runway four right.

(If you want to see what these instructions mean by looking at a detailed airport diagram, here’s one for you.)

Of course, if the tower controllers were really busy or there was some sort of problem at the airport, the controller could say something like:

Aircraft calling Falcon Tower, remain clear of the class delta airspace.

That means the pilot can’t come into the airspace — which is marked on charts and many GPS models — until the tower clears her in. That happens very seldom.

This is the beginning of the conversation between the air traffic controller in the airport’s tower and the pilot. What follows is a dialog with the tower providing instructions and the pilot acknowledging those instructions and then following them. The controller’s job is to sequence airplane traffic on the airport’s runway(s), making sure there’s enough spacing between them for the various types of landings: touch-and-go, full stop, low approach, etc. In the case of helicopters — which is admittedly what I know best — the tower can either put us into the traffic pattern with the airplanes (which really isn’t a good idea) or keep us out of the airplane flow. The tower clears airplanes to land on the runway and gives permission to helicopters to land in “non-movement” areas.

At the same time all this is going on, the tower’s ground controller is providing instructions to airplanes that are taxiing around the airport, either to or from the runways. Aircraft are given taxi instructions that are sort of like driving directions. Because helicopters seldom talk to towers, I can’t give a perfect example, but instructions from the transient parking area to runway 4R might sound something like this:

Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Romeo, Falcon Ground, taxi to runway four right via Delta. Position and hold Line up and wait at Delta One.

These instructions can get quite complex at some large airports with multiple runways and taxiways.

Position and hold Line up and wait — formerly hold short position and hold — means to move to the indicated position and do not cross the hold line painted on the tarmac. This keeps the airplane off the runway until cleared to take off.

A pilot who is holding short waiting switches to the tower frequency and, when he’s the first plane at the hold line, calls the tower to identify himself. The tower then clears him to get on the runway and depart in the direction he’s already told the ground controller that he wants to go.

Air traffic control for an airport also clears pilots that simply want to fly through the airspace. For example, if I want to fly from Wickenburg to Scottsdale, the most direct route takes me through Deer Valley’s airspace. I’d have to get clearance from the Deer Valley Tower to do so; I’d then be required to follow the tower’s instructions until the controller cut me loose, usually with the phrase “Frequency change approved.” I could then contact Scottsdale’s tower so I could enter that airspace and get permission to land.

A few things to note here:

  • Not all towers have access to radar services. That means they must make visual contact with all aircraft under their control. Even when radar is available, tower controllers make visual contact when aircraft are within their airspace.
  • If radar services are available, tower controllers can ask pilots to Ident. This means pushing a button on the aircraft’s transponder that makes the aircraft’s signal brighter on the radar screen, thus making it easier for the controller to distinguish from other aircraft in crowded airspace. The tower can also ask the pilot to squawk a certain number — this is a 4-digit code temporarily assigned to that aircraft on the radar screen.
  • Some towers have two tower controller frequencies, thus separating the airspace into two separately controlled areas. For example, Deer Valley Airport (DVT) has a north and south tower controller, each contacted on a different frequency. When I fly from the north over the top of the runways to land at the helipads on the south side, I’m told to change frequency from the north controller to the south controller.
  • The tower and ground controllers coordinate with each other, handing off aircraft as necessary.
  • The tower controllers also coordinate with controllers at other nearby airports and with “center” airports. For example, when I fly from Phoenix Gateway (IWA) to Chandler (CHD), the Chandler controller knows I’m coming because the Gateway controller has told him. Similarly, if a corporate jet departs Scottsdale (SDL) on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan, the Scottsdale controller obtains a clearance for that jet from Phoenix Departure or Albuquerque Center.

I should also point out two things from the point of view of a pilot:

  • Dealing with air traffic control does add a tiny bit to the pilot’s workload. The pilot must communicate with the tower before entering the airspace, the pilot must follow the tower’s instructions (unless following those instructions is not safe, of course). I know plenty of pilots who would rather fly around a towered airport’s airspace than fly through it — just because they don’t want to talk to a controller. I’ll admit that I’ve done this quite a few times — I even have a winding route through the Phoenix area between Wickenburg and Chandler that avoids all towered airspace along the way.
  • Air traffic control gives many pilots the impression that they are no longer responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft. After all, the tower sees all and guides aircraft to avoid each other. But there have been instances where air traffic control has dropped the ball — I experienced one myself years ago — and sometimes this can have tragic consequences.

Low Traffic Airports Don’t Need Towers

As you can probably imagine, the more air traffic coming and going in an airport’s airspace, the busier air traffic controllers are.

A very busy airport like Deer Valley, which has at least two flight schools, several helicopter bases (police and medevac), at least one charter operator, and a bit of traffic from corporate jets, can keep controllers pretty busy. In fact, one of the challenges of flying in and out of Deer Valley is being able to get a call in on the radio — it’s often a steady stream of pilot/controller communication. Indeed, Deer Valley airport was the 25th busiest airport in the country based on aircraft movements in 2010.

Likewise, at an airport that gets very little traffic, the tower staff doesn’t have much to do. And when you consider that there has to be at least two controllers on duty at all times — so one can relieve the other — that’s at least two people getting paid without a lot of work to do.

Although I don’t know every towered airport on the list, the ones I do know don’t get very much traffic at all.

For example, they’re closing four in Arizona:

  • Laughlin/Bullhead City International (IFP) gets very little traffic. It sits across the river from Laughlin, NV in one of the windiest locations I’ve ever flown into. Every time I fly into Laughlin, there’s only one or two pilots in the area — including me.
  • Glendale Municipal (GEU) should get a lot of traffic, but it doesn’t.
  • Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) is home of the Lufthansa training organization and a bunch of mothballed airliners, but it doesn’t get much traffic. Lufthansa pilots in training use other area airports, including Wickenburg, Buckeye, Gila Bend, Lake Havasu City, and Needles — ironically, none of those have a tower.
  • Ryan Field (in Tucson; RYN) is the only one of the three I haven’t flown into, so I can’t comment its traffic. But given the other airports on this list, I have to assume the traffic volume is low.

They’re also closing Southern California Logistics (VCV) in Victorville, CA. I’ve flown over that airport many times and have landed there once. Not much going on. It’s a last stop for many decommissioned airliners; there’s a 747 “chop shop” on the field.

They’re closing Northeast Florida Regional (SGJ) in St. Augustine, FL. That’s the little airport closest to where my mom lives. When she first moved there about 15 years ago, it didn’t even have a tower.

These are just the airports I know. Not very busy. I know plenty of non-towered airports that get more traffic than these.

How Airports without Towers Work

If an airport doesn’t have a tower — and at least 80% of the public airports in the United States don’t have towers — things work a little differently. Without a controller to direct them, pilots are responsible for using the airport in accordance with standard traffic patterns and right-of-way rules they are taught in training.

Some airports have Automated Weather Observation Systems (AWOS) or Automated Surface Observation Systems (ASOS) that broadcast current weather information on a certain frequency. Pilots can tune in to see what the wind, altimeter setting, and NOTAMs are for the airport.

When a pilot gets close to a non-towered airport, she should (but is not required to) make a position report that includes her location and intentions. For example, I might say:

Wickenburg Traffic, helicopter Six-Three-Zero-Mike-Lima is ten miles north, landing Wickenburg.

An airplane pilot might say:

Wickenburg Traffic, Cessna One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is eight miles southeast. We’ll be crossing midfield at five thousand to enter right traffic for Runway Two-Three.

Other pilots in the area would hear that call and respond by making a similar position call. The calls continue as needed at the pilot’s discretion — the more aircraft in the area, the more calls I make just to make sure everyone else knows I’m out there and where I am. Pilots then see and avoid other traffic to land or depart the airport.

It sounds crazy, but it works — remarkably well. In Wickenburg, for example — an airport that gets a lot of pilots in training practicing takeoffs and landings — there might be two or three or even more airplanes in the traffic pattern around the airport, safely landing and departing in an organized manner. No controller.

And this is going on at small general aviation airports all over the country every single day.

What’s even more surprising to many people is that some regional airlines also land at non-towered airports. For example, Horizon operates flights between Seattle and Wenatchee, WA; Wenatchee is non-towered. Great Lakes operates between Phoenix or Denver and Page, AZ; Page is non-towered.

The Reality

My point is this: people unfamiliar with aviation think that a control tower is vital to safe airport operations. In reality, it’s not. Many, many aircraft operate safely at non-towered airports every day.

While the guidance of a tower controller can increase safety by providing instructions that manage air traffic flow, that guidance isn’t needed at all airports. It’s the busy airports — the ones with hundreds of operations every single day — that can truly benefit from air traffic control.

The 149 airport towers on the chopping block this year were apparently judged to be not busy enough.

I guess time will tell. And I’m certain of one thing: if there is any accident at one of these 149 airports after the tower is shut down, we’ll hear about it all over the news.

In the meantime, I’d love to get some feedback from pilots about this. Share your thoughts in the comments from this post.