It’s What You Don’t Hear on the Radio that Can Get You

In the past I’ve talked about the importance of listening to the aircraft radio to build situational awareness. Nowhere is this more important than in an uncontrolled airport traffic pattern.

Here’s an example radio call you might hear in an uncontrolled pattern.

“Town and Country Traffic, Piper 525 Yankee Golf, four mile straight-in, Runway 17, full stop, Town and Country.”

Piper Cub. Photo courtesy of  Jack Snell at
Piper Cub. Photo courtesy of Jack Snell at

Let’s say you are on the downwind leg at Town and Country, approaching the turn to base leg for Runway 17, when this radio call hits the airwaves. What does it do for your situational awareness?

If I were in your shoes and I heard that radio call, I’d be thinking, “Hmm. If things continue as they are, there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to be flying wingtip formation with Piper 525 Yankee Golf on a 1-mile final approach. Time to do something to avoid that.”

Here’s another example. You are on a 1/2 mile final for Runway 17 at Town and Country. There’s a Cirrus aircraft holding short of Runway 17. You hear: “Town and Country Traffic, Cirrus 3491 Mike, entering Runway 17, departing to the north, Town and Country.” Would that radio transmission raise the hairs on the back of your neck? I know it would on mine. Time to do something to avoid that irritating sound of metal screeching against metal.

Here’s one last example. Again you are on the downwind leg for Runway 17 at Town and Country. You hear:

Nothing. Six seconds of silence. One potato, two potato, three potato, four potato, five potato, si . . .

Suddenly, a Piper Cub appears from behind the right support pillar of your forward windscreen, 1000 feet ahead! The Cub is tracking right to left towards your 12 o’clock. After a second’s hesitation due to shock, you react by climbing and turning right to avoid a collision.

Where did that guy come from?! You’re determined to find out. You regroup, re-enter the pattern at downwind, and bring it in for a full stop landing.

As you taxi in after, you see the Cub parked at the FBO. You pull into a parking spot at the FBO, determined to stalk inside and read that pilot the riot act for jumping onto the base leg without announcing his position or intentions.

Radio? We Don’t Need a Stinkin’ Radio

Wait a minute. Before you do that, let’s see if you have a leg to stand on. First, what does Part 91 of the Consolidated Federal Regulations say about radio requirements at an uncontrolled airport?

You can look all day in the regs for radio requirements at an uncontrolled airport, but you aren’t going to find a thing. It is perfectly legal to fly into or out of an uncontrolled airport without using a communication radio or even having a one on board.

Let’s check the AIM. Yes, the AIM has extensive guidelines for self-reporting on the radio at uncontrolled airports, but that guidance only applies if you happen to have a radio on board; and you care to use it.

The Takeaway

The radio is a great device for building situational awareness. The radio can also be a trap if you rely on it to do all of the clearing for you in an uncontrolled pattern. There are pilots out there who don’t have a radio on board. Others have a radio, but refuse to use it. Or, and this may be the worst of all, some pilots have a radio, use it, but make inaccurate or untimely position reports.

My best advice is, listen to the radio to build situational awareness, but take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Don’t rely entirely on the radio to determine where other aircraft are in the traffic pattern. Visually clear for the next pilot to speak on the radio. Most importantly, clear for the pilot who either chooses to remain silent or unwittingly transmits misleading information on the frequency.

Note: This article is number 3 of 3 that will be combined into a single Radar Contact Show. I should have the show put together in the coming week, fingers crossed.


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