It never ceases to amaze me how frequently two aircraft, with so much airspace available, can converge and require a course/altitude adjustment to prevent collision. As pilots we have to maintain vigilance in scanning for traffic. While Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) and verbal traffic alerts from controllers help, they don’t replace the need to visually scan. At uncontrolled/non-towered airports this becomes even more vital as there are no controllers to help you, and inexperienced and/or poorly-trained pilots are drawn to these locations.
Have you ever flown to a busy little airport with four or five aircraft all working in the pattern? I bet they were all using radios and making reports on each pattern leg. One aircraft not participating on the radio can mess all of that up. I find it amazing that radios have not yet become mandatory to install and use in all aircraft at all airports.
Cessna 123AB, five miles out on the forty-five for the downwind two-two.
We’ve all heard something similar to this on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). What critical information is missing here? The airport being discussed, the aircraft’s altitude, and the aircraft’s position relative to the airport.
Multiple airports often use the same CTAF, and some conditions allow pilots to hear radio traffic for these airports even 100 miles away. Specifying the airport in the radio call lets listening pilots filter the multiple calls heard to those applicable to their location.
Without altitude information, you do not know if there is or isn’t an impending conflict with this aircraft based upon your current altitude. If you are buzzing along or orbiting for a photo mission at 1,500’ and hear this call, wouldn’t you at least like to know the aircraft’s altitude? If the Cessna is at 1,000’ on the way to the pattern, you instantly know you have less of a conflict regardless of the aircraft’s position relative to you.
Without position relative to the airport, you have no idea where the aircraft is. Sure, in this example the Cessna stated they were “on the 45 for the downwind 22,” but this doesn’t help you either. Is it the left or right downwind? Not all airports require the standard left downwind for fixed-wing traffic, and in real-world experience you’ll find that even if a specific downwind is specified, airplanes occasionally don’t comply. I have had airplanes merge into the established helicopter pattern while I was instructing, creating quite a hazard. Without knowing whether the downwind they intend on using is left or right, you can’t figure out where this airplane is coming from. Remember, helicopters are required to avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic, so good communication between aircraft certainly facilitates this requirement.
What if the pilot stated:
Lanai Traffic, Cessna 123AB, five miles out on the forty-five for a left downwind two-two, Lanai.
Better, but it needs some more work. Besides the missing altitude, you now have to mentally visualize the traffic pattern and what a 45-degree entry looks like to then figure out the aircraft position relative to the airport. Radio calls should be clear, short, and contain all essential information.
Lanai Traffic, Cessna 123AB, one-thousand five-hundred, five miles south-east inbound left downwind runway two-two, Lanai.
That’s a clear radio call with vital information and no fluff. You instantly know the aircraft’s altitude and position relative to the airport, and can scan and make decisions as appropriate.
It is also a good idea to add your position relative to a landmark or checkpoint featured on aeronautical charts for the area, such as a prominent town name or visual waypoint. This way, even if unfamiliar with the landmark, pilots can find and reference your location on the chart they are using in flight.
If you are at or operating near an uncontrolled field and hear a position report that doesn’t provide you the information you need to safely determine the aircraft’s position, reply with a radio call asking for the info you need. Regardless, get eyes on the traffic if you can; sometimes position information reported by another aircraft can be grossly inaccurate.