Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft

A good link to some real information — from the source.

I wrote about “drones” or “UAVs” in two recent blog posts:

The issue is rather polarized, with most pilots and people on the ground wanting more regulation and most drone/UAV operators wanting less. One reader nitpicked over my use of the word “drone” and comparison to radio controlled helicopter — as if one radio-controlled flying object is that much different from another.

If any flying object hits an aircraft in flight or falls from a sky onto someone’s head, it’s going to do some serious damage.

FAA LogoThe FAA, which, like most government agencies, operates so slowly it often seems as if it’s moving backwards, finally woke up and published an update on its website that clears up any “myths” surrounding the use of unmanned aircraft or UAS. Titled “Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft,” it lists 7 myths and the corresponding facts for each.

Two myth/fact pairs stand out:

Myth #1: The FAA doesn’t control airspace below 400 feet

Fact—The FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up. This misperception may originate with the idea that manned aircraft generally must stay at least 500 feet above the ground

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me that the FAA has no control over airspace near the ground. The number of feet from the ground that the FAA control begins varies from 50 to 150 to 300 to 400. These numbers seem arbitrary to me. The truth of the matter is, FAA-regulated airspace begins in the U.S. at the ground.

Myth #3: Commercial UAS operations are a “gray area” in FAA regulations.

Fact—There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval. Private sector (civil) users can obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate to conduct research and development, training and flight demonstrations.  Commercial UAS operations are limited and require the operator to have certified aircraft and pilots, as well as operating approval….

Flying model aircraft solely for hobby or recreational reasons doesn’t require FAA approval, but hobbyists must operate according to the agency’s model aircraft guidance, which prohibits operations in populated areas.

Did you get that? Even hobbyists are prohibited from flying their radio controlled model aircraft over populated areas. That includes large gatherings of people for outdoor events.

If you’re interested in this topic, I urge you to read this article on the FAA website. It should help you realize that there’s really no “debate” about this — the rules are quite clear.

More about Drones

Once again, no one is thinking about helicopters.

An aviation friend of mine, Rod, posted a note on Facebook titled “The Drone Industry Should Play by the Rules, or Help Change Them.” I’m not sure if you need to be logged into Facebook to read what he posted, so I’ll just echo it here; I do urge you to read and comment on it there if you can and have something to add to the discussion:

Look folks, I’ve got no problem with drones operating outside the National Airspace System. (i.e. below 400 feet.) 

But if this innovative industry wants to conduct business in the NAS, you should have to play by the same rules as manned systems and certify the operators, the components, and the systems to the standards required by law.

If you don’t like the regulations that currently govern how the NAS is managed, help get the laws changed and deregulate aviation.

If you, like Rod, think that the national airspace system starts at 400 feet AGL, you need to read “Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft” on the FAA website.

I asked where the 400-feet number comes from, pointing out that I’m authorized by the FAA to operate under Part 135 as low as 300 feet with passengers on board. He linked to an article on Politico about a lawsuit pending by the FAA against an “aerial anarchist” who uses a styrofoam plane for commercial aerial photography. From that article:

The FAA has never officially regulated model airplanes or small drones. The closest it has come was an “advisory” issued in 1981 that created a set of voluntary guidelines for model aircraft: stay within the line of sight, do not fly within three miles of an airport, do not fly a model airplane higher than 400 feet.

The article makes interesting reading, although it entirely misses the point of my problem with the kind of RC aircraft that are becoming more and more prevalent among amateur “drone pilots.” My problem has to do with the operation of these devices in areas where I fly, which can be within 400 feet of the ground, causing a nearly invisible hazard to me and my passengers.

As a helicopter pilot, I have no minimum flight altitude for my Part 91 operations — including aerial photography/videography, cherry drying, frost control, animal herding, wildlife survey — the list goes on and on. Part 91 allows me to fly as close to the ground as I need to (as long as I don’t create a hazard to people and property on the ground, of course). These are legitimate and legal low-level helicopter missions that often keep me within 100 feet of the ground. As previously mentioned, even my Part 135 operations allow me to operate as low as 300 feet above the ground.

Phantom with GoProThe Phantom 2 Quadcopter with a GoPro Hero attached. This aircraft can weigh nearly 3 pounds. How’d you like to get hit on the head with that dropping from 400 feet?

Imagine this scenario: I’m drying a cherry orchard and a local photo hobbyist decides to take out his Quadcopter with GoPro to get some footage of me or another cherry drying pilot in action. He keeps a respectable distance but is not prepared when one of us suddenly lifts up away from the trees and moves to another orchard. We don’t see him — we’re focused on our work and the location of other helicopter traffic — and one of us flies right into him. The helicopter’s cockpit bubble is smashed or the main rotor blades are damaged or, worse yet, the tail rotor is taken out and the aircraft crashes to the ground. Who’s right or wrong here? The drone is operating under 400 feet and at least 3 miles from the airport, so he’s “legal.” The helicopter pilots are performing a mission that we’ve been doing for years, relying on proven safety measures and radio communication to avoid obstacles and other traffic. Are we supposed to keep an eye out for amateur RC aircraft operators, too?

My aviation friend, Rod, suggests that drone operators should “help get the laws changed and deregulate aviation.” Does he really want aviation deregulated? Does he really want a free-for-all by anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend on an RC aircraft to fly it wherever they like for whatever purpose they desire?

Doesn’t he realize that it’s only a matter of time before they stray up into his previously safe airplane altitude?

The Phantom Quadcopter is small and white, less than 14 inches wide. I’ve seen birds bigger than that.

And what are helicopter pilots supposed to do? How do you think I feel worrying that any one of my flights could be ended by a collision with an RC aircraft piloted by a hobbyist with a new toy who doesn’t care about the rules or safety? Someone who mistakenly thinks it’s my responsibility, while cruising at 80 knots, to keep an eye out for his toy? Something that might not much larger than a Frisbee?

And make no mistake about it: an impact on a main rotor blade or tail rotor could disable my helicopter and cause a crash.

What would I like to see? Here are a few suggestions for the operation of unmanned radio or computer controlled aircraft:

  • Limit amateur/hobbyist operations to designated RC aircraft fields that are marked on aeronautical charts.
  • Require professional/commercial operators to receive training and pass tests established and overseen by the FAA.
  • Require professional/commercial operators to publish NOTAMS whenever an operation outside an RC aircraft field is conducted.
  • Require all operations to be conducted with a spotter to keep an eye out for full-sized aircraft operating in the area.
  • Limit all operations to altitudes below 300 feet AGL.

I firmly believe that these aircraft, when operated by amateurs, are a danger not only to other aircraft but to people on the ground. There have been numerous crashes in populated areas, including one in Manhattan, and even a death attributed to a crash. How long will the FAA wait before it steps in and properly regulates these aircraft? These aircraft are proliferating at an alarming rate. As a pilot and property owner, I’m starting to get tired of worrying about the consequences of a careless operator’s actions.

And no: deregulating is not the answer we need.

February 26, 2014 Update: The FAA has spoken.

Today’s 5:44 AM Phone Call

A drawback of having just one phone for business and personal use.

Early MorningThe phone rang at 5:44 AM.

I was still in bed, but awake and reading. I’d slept great, hitting the sack at about 10:00 the night before and sleeping soundly until about 5:30 — close to eight hours of uninterrupted rest! My “morning routine” starts in bed, reading and sometimes doing a crossword puzzle on my iPad until it starts getting light outside. I was in the reading phase of that routine when the phone rang.

No one likes getting a phone call “in the middle of the night.” Now I know it wasn’t the middle of the night, but it was early enough to make me wonder what was important enough to call someone when they’re likely to be sleeping — obviously an emergency.

The phone said the call was from “Palmdale Area.” I only know one Palmdale, and it’s in California. In the seconds before answering, I consulted the database in my brain, trying to think of who in California would be calling me so damn early. One of my frost clients, maybe?

“Flying M, Maria speaking.” That’s the way I answer the phone when the call is either from a known client or an unknown caller.

The person on the other end seemed mildly surprised that I’d answered. “Is this Maria? Did I get you up?”

“Yes, it’s Maria but no, you didn’t get me up. Who is this?”

“Oh, this is Joe. I’m in Wickenburg right now.”

Joe is the name of the man who was gracious enough to offer me his house for the winter while he went to Arizona. (Well, it isn’t really Joe, but neither was the caller’s name. I’m hiding their identities for privacy sake. The names were the same.) Wickenburg was the town I used to live in in Arizona. Although it didn’t really sound like the Joe I know, I assumed it was him and that he’d come to Wickenburg and needed something from me, a former resident.

Of course, that assumption quickly evaporated as the caller hurried on. “I understand you used to run the FBO here. I emailed you the other day. I need a helicopter here.”

I remembered his email. Like most of the other email I get from people who have contacted me from Flying M Air’s website — where it clearly says I no longer operate in Arizona — I’d deleted his message. My bad.

“I don’t operate in Arizona anymore,” I said, starting to lose my patience. (How much patience do you have at 5:44 AM, less than 10 minutes after you’ve woken up?) “I don’t know of any operator in the area who can help you.”

I was ready to hang up but he wasn’t.

“Well, I need a helicopter here and was hoping you could refer me to someone who has one.”

“I was the only commercial helicopter operator in Wickenburg,” I told him. “I never had enough work to support my business there. I doubt whether anyone else would be stupid enough to start another helicopter charter business in that town.”

“Yeah, but maybe an ag ship? Something like that that I might be able to get my hands on?”

I might have laughed into the phone. “There are no ag ships in that area. There’s no agriculture in Wickenburg.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

I wanted to get off the phone and, at about this point, I started thinking about just hanging up on him. Seriously: I was that annoyed. But I really don’t want to be rude to people.

“You might try one of the operators down in Phoenix,” I told him.

“Yeah, I guess I could do that.” A pause, then: “Hey, did you hurt your foot about six years ago?”

Convinced I hadn’t heard him right, I said, “Excuse me?”

“Did you hurt your foot about five or six years ago?”

“No,” I replied.

“Okay.” Another pause. “Well cherry drying work must be doing pretty good for you up there.”

I couldn’t believe it. This guy called me at a quarter to six in the morning and was trying to have a conversation with me. “It’s fine,” I told him. I sat up in bed. Nature was making its first call of the day. I wanted to be off the phone. “Listen,” I said, “Do you realize that it’s a quarter to six in the morning?”

“Well, I’ve been up for two hours.”

“Maybe you might want to wait until at least eight before calling people?”

“Yeah, but I’m Florida and I run on east coast time. It’s nine o’clock there.”

I thought to myself: Who the hell cares what time zone you operate on? You called someone in Washington. But I said: “I really can’t help you. Sorry.”

“Okay. Goodbye.”

I heard him disconnect before I was able to push the end button.

I guess it’s time to revisit the Do Not Disturb feature on my phone.

Deciding on a Career as a Helicopter Pilot

I probably can’t give you the answers you want to hear but I can tell you what you need to consider when making this big decision.

Start Here.

A lot of what I’m saying in this blog post can be found in my series about becoming a helicopter pilot: “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot.” Do yourself a favor and read it. You can find the first part here.

And when you’re done with that — and the posts that those posts link to — try reading some of the posts in the Flying topic. Then search this site for keywords like careers, helicopters, flight training, etc. You’ll find lots more to read and learn from.

I’ve written a lot in this blog, especially over the past five years or so, about building a career as a helicopter pilot. With more than 2,400 posts on this site — including more than a few recipes, day-in-the-life stories, and rants that have nothing to do with flying — there’s a lot to wade through to get the information you want. Some folks think it’s a lot easier to just write me an email with specific questions about helicopter pilot careers. Easier for them, perhaps, but not for me. That’s why my Contact page has this section that appears before the contact form:

Career Advice/Pilot Jobs

I cannot provide career advice of any kind, whether you want to be a writer or a helicopter pilot. The posts in this blog have all the advice I’m willing to give the public. If you want my advice read them. There’s a pretty good chance that I’ve covered your question here in a blog post.

The Email Requests Still Come

Despite that, I still get at least two messages a month — using the form on that very page — asking me helicopter pilot career questions. Here’s a typical example; this one arrived yesterday:

Fascinating blog, lots of good perspectives. My son and I are considering this as a career for him, he is 19. We have made calls, visited a few schools, heard the sales pitches, heard the perspective of the job market from the perspective of the CFI’s and schools.

Your post from 2009 was bleak regarding the career prospectives. We get the need for moves required, the dues needed to put it, the cost, etc.

My question to you is, has your perspective changed at all since 2009?

Although the author did not specifically identify the 2009 post he was referring, I assumed he was referring to the most popular (of all time) post on this blog, “The Helicopter Job Market.” But a quick look showed me that that post dated from 2007. Not knowing what he already read makes it a bit difficult to review what I wrote in 2009 and update it. I do get the impression, however, that he just scratched the tip of the iceberg on career-related content here.

So I thought I’d spend this morning pointing him (and others) in the right direction to learn more, much as I did in “Helicopter Career Advice Sought…and Provided,” which was a reply to someone else’s email back in 2009. (That was apparently back before I instituted the “I can’t give you advice” policy on my contact page and may even have prompted me to adopt that policy.)

Important Points

You need to take all the advice I give on this site with a grain of salt. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • I am not a career counsellor. I have no training in career counseling and refuse to take responsibility for any actions taken by a reader who might consider my blog posts as career advice.
  • I am not an industry insider. I am the owner/operator of a small, single-pilot helicopter charter business. I only had one flying job for another organization and that was a summer job back in 2004. My fingers are not on the pulse of the industry. I chug along in my own little world, running my business in accordance with applicable regulations with absolutely no intention of building my business beyond what I can handle.
  • I did not get to where I am by following the typical pilot career path. I was fortunate in the early 2000s to have a writing career that paid extremely well. That money subsidized my flying business until it became profitable on its own. That’s why, after 13 years as a pilot and over 3,000 hours in helicopters I still don’t have my CFI certificate. Obviously, I can’t provide detailed advice on following a career path that I didn’t follow. I simply took a different path, one that would probably be very difficult for others to follow.
  • I am not an employer. Although I do occasionally hire helicopter operators like myself to assist me in my summer agricultural work, I have never put any pilot on payroll or provided any career training for another pilot. How can I know what employers want?

All that said, I do know a lot of pilots and we do talk a lot about the industry. I have a very good relationship with the FAA. I also have a generous helping of common sense and have heard enough horror stories to form opinions I’m not afraid to share.

Doing Your Homework

One thing that struck me about this message was that it was written by the dad — not the possible future pilot. While this isn’t the first time a parent wrote to me — last time it was a mom — it does raise flags.

Why isn’t the son writing? Who’s doing the research? Who really wants this job? Is the dad pushing his son into a career he might not be interested in? Doesn’t the son care enough about this as a career to do his own research?

I don’t mean to put the author on the defensive and I certainly don’t want an explanation or answers to any of these questions. It just seems to me that when the parent is doing the homework, the kid is missing out on the learning.

And frankly, at 19 years old, the “kid” is old enough to be doing this for himself.

Maybe father and son need to have a good heart-to-heart chat about this? Look into their motivations? See who really wants this to happen?

Because even if the pair decide to move forward in this career, the son won’t get very far if he lacks the motivation or ability to study and learn for himself. This might not be rocket science, but there’s still a ton to know and learn.


Motivation is a huge topic all its own.

Back in the mid 2000s, Silver State Helicopters was a quickly growing helicopter training organization. They’d choose a city and start advertising free seminars where you could learn to be a helicopter pilot and be paid $80,000 a year. On the day of the seminar, they’d pack an auditorium with pilot wannabes. On stage, they’d have shiny helicopters and pilots in cool-looking flight suits.

Silver State was selling two things:

  • A cool, awe-inspiring job. After all, what guy wouldn’t want to be a helicopter pilot?
  • A big annual paycheck. $80K a year is certainly enough money to live on — especially when you’re currently struggling on the weekly take-home pay of a part time job.

Of course, Silver State crashed and burned when the economy tanked and kids couldn’t get $70-$80K loans for their flight training. Because the entire organization was built like a Ponzi scheme with tomorrow’s new students paying today’s expenses, the company ran out of money. They closed their doors very suddenly, leaving hundreds of students only partway through the program with nothing to show for it except a huge loan. There are still young people out there trying to dig themselves out of the mess Silver State left them in. I covered Silver State’s impact on the industry in this blog post.

In the email message quoted above, the dad mentioned that he’d talked to the flight schools and CFIs. He didn’t mention what they’d told him. Were they selling Silver State’s dream, too? The glamor job? The big paycheck?

Is that what’s motivating them to explore this as a career?

I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: if you want to be true to yourself and ensure happiness for the rest of your life, pursue a career doing something you love.

I love to write. After eight years on a career path I was “guided” into by family pressure, I broke out and became a writer. It took a while, but I found a lot of success and a lot of happiness in my work.

After I learned to fly, I realized that I loved to fly. In an effort to do it more often, I pursued flying as a career. Again, it took a while, but I found enough success and a lot of happiness in my work.

If you’re interested in a career as a helicopter pilot, is it because you love to fly? Or is it because you want to make your friends envious? Or pull in the big paychecks the flight schools claim are possible?

And if you haven’t even flown in a helicopter yet, what the hell are you waiting for? You might hate it. Take a demo lesson where you can manipulate the controls beside a CFI and even log the time. (Why not if you’re paying for it, right?) See if it’s right for you.

(This is yet another reason why you should not buy into a “program” with a flight school You might get 20 hours into your training and decide it’s just not right for you.)

And if you want to know what a career as a helicopter pilot is really like, talk to a helicopter pilot. No, not the owner of the flight school or the chief flight instructor there. And no, not a 400-hour CFI who’s paying his dues so he can start being a helicopter pilot elsewhere. I’m talking about real helicopter pilots — the guys and gals who have been doing this stuff for years. Someone who is serious about learning what it’s really like will talk to as many real pilots as he/she can.

And no, posting messages on helicopter pilot forums does not count. Don’t be lazy. Find real local pilots — EMS, ENG, agricultural services, fire suppression, heavy lift, tour, etc. — and talk to them face to face. They will talk to you. If you visit them at their base and they’re not busy, they’re likely to show off their helicopters, too. (Sure beats getting misled by wannabes who are using the Internet to hide their identities and lie about their experience.)

The Helicopter Job Market Today

As far as I can see, the market hasn’t changed that much. Yes, we no longer have the flood of low-time pilots pushed into the job market by Silver State. But we do have young veteran pilots released from the military. So there are still far more low and mid-time pilots than jobs for low and mid-time pilots.

What is “low time”? Anything less than 1,000 hours is widely considered low time. That’s the amount of pilot in command time that most pilots need to get a job as a real (non-CFI) pilot. You usually get that time as a CFI — that’s the normal career path.

Is it possible to get a pilot job with less time? Yes.

WIll it be a good job, one with real career potential and opportunities to learn and practice new skills? Maybe.

Will it pay well? No. (Hell, if they had a big payroll budget, they’d likely use it to obtain more experienced pilots that would keep their insurance costs down.)

Even when you’ve gotten all your certificates, you still need to compete with other brand new pilots to get the CFI job that’ll make it possible to build your first 1,000 hours. Once you get that job, you need to keep it until you have enough time to compete again with other 1,000-hour pilots for your first entry level pilot job. There are no guarantees. Employers — whether they’re flight schools or tour companies or offshore drilling transportation providers — will only choose the candidates they think are best for their organization. The whole time you’re learning and flying and working you need to set yourself apart from the others to prove that you’re the best.

Like many careers, as you work your way up the ladder, building valuable experience and proving over and over that you’ve got the right attitude to get the job done, opportunities will open themselves to you. The more experience you have, the more opportunities will be available. And yes, some of them will come with very nice paychecks.

I have friends in this industry who are constantly being contacted by employers interested in hiring them. One friend recently turned down an offer five times — even after he was offered a $10K signing bonus — and finally signed when they reached an agreement about the contract length, location, and conditions. Why do you think they were so anxious to have him at the controls of their Huey on that fire contract? He has a great reputation as a responsible, safe pilot who takes excellent care of the equipment and always gets the job done.

It would be nice to be in my friend’s shoes, wouldn’t it? But he didn’t get there by luck. He got there through hard work and the right attitude — for more than 20 years.

Being a successful helicopter pilot is not easy. It requires a lot of hard work. It often requires working in less than optimal conditions, doing things you might not want to do. It requires being willing to learn — and even master — new things. You have to have “the right stuff.”

What do you think?

I’m sure this blog post will be seen by plenty of pilots and maybe even some employers who have been in the industry at least five or ten years. What do you see as the current trends? What information can you add to this? Advice?

Please use the comments for this post to share what you know. My information is limited — you can help me round it out for other readers to get more value from what I’ve already said here.

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.