Updated AC Reiterates Nontowered Airport Procedures & Responsibilities

By Scott Spangler on July 10th, 2023

Back in the day, airports without air traffic controllers working to maintain order and predictable behavior from the pilots flying to and from it were often referred to as “uncontrolled” because they did not have an air traffic control tower, or the tower was outside its operating hours. Because “uncontrolled” implied chaotic, unpredictable aircraft operations at these aerodromes, the FAA and attuned educators started referring to them as “nontowered” airports. They supported this more precise moniker because the FAA proffered operational guidance to pilots that, if followed, would bring some predictable order to this chaos. In its never-ending effort to achieve this goal, the FAA issued on June 6, 2023, an updated Advisory Circular 90-66C, Non-Towered Airport Operations.

Most of its 28 pages reiterate the regulatory requirements, recommended operations, and communication procedures pilots should embrace when flying to and from nontowered airports. The changes to this guidance “reflect current procedures and best practices” when pilots are not directed by a tower controller. (Not that a controller ensures failsafe airport operations, given the recent spate of runway incursions and frantic calls to abort takeoffs and landings at various terminal hubs.)

What reading each of the AC’s 28 pages makes clear is that flying to and from a nontowered airport is significantly more involved and complex than radioing the tower (or approach control) at the appropriate time and place and then letting the controller lead you by the hand, so to speak, to a safe landing. Absent this guidance, pilots should read the 28 pages, follow its guidance, and remember to keep their respective heads on traffic-scanning swivels to see—and avoid!—those pilots who have not bothered with the necessary nontowered airport preparations. They should not become complacent and depend on other pilots to announce their positions and operational intentions. Not all nontowered airport denizens are equipped with radios.

To ratchet up the nontowered airport complexity, add ultralights, gliders, and parachute jumpers to the mix of traffic. When you get right down to it, flying to and from a nontowered airport is the ultimate test of a pilot’s aeronautical knowledge, aeronautical decision-making, and ceaseless see-and-avoid searches of the surrounding airspace. Put another way, towered and non-towered operations are akin to VFR and IFR flight. Perhaps, one day, if pilots don’t fully accept the responsibility involved, the FAA will establish a nontowered airport rating to operate at them. –Scott Spangler, Editor


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