Is Your Tower Asleep at the Mike?
By Ed Downs
The answer to the question posed in the title of this month’s column might be, Sport Pilots don’t care. To be sure, recent weeks have set the media ablaze with stories of fear and trepidation, as brave, but apparently helpless, pilots are forced to land their airplanes without the critical and essential words from the FAA of “cleared to land.” Media experts (really?) would have the general passenger public believe that landing without a tower in operation to utter those empowering words, “cleared to land,” leaves all aboard in deadly peril. Okay, perhaps this writer is being a bit dramatic, but having a general belief that landings can not be made safely without a tower clearance does not do recreational flying any good from a PR standpoint, when citizens discover that their local community airport is “uncontrolled.”
So, how does this tie in with the topic of Sport Pilots and S-LSA’s? Actually, quite directly, as the basic minimum flying time (20 hours) required to obtain a Sport Pilot certificate is based upon training that does NOT include operation at tower controlled airports or complex airspace, like Class D, C or B. One might conclude that NOT being able to fly into airports with towers would end up with a virtually worthless pilot certificate, but nothing could be further from the truth. A visit to www.aopa.org gets you into some statistics that would have media “experts” fearing for their lives! There are just over 5,000 public use airport in the U.S. A bit over 500 of these public use airports have control towers, with well over half of those closed at night. That leaves the basic Sport Pilot with 4,500 airports to use. Do the math; 90 percent of all public use airports (many served by airlines) have no tower, and pilots manage to land successfully on a rather regular basis. Going a step further, there are just over 14,000 private use airports in addition to the 5,000 public use airports. Private use airports include thousands of grass strips belonging to ranches and farms, heliports, STOL ports, hunting reserves and other specialized facilities. The fact is, many of these airports are used by general aviation pilots on a regular basis. Get the picture? The basic Sport Pilot has a lot of options without needing to hear those magic words, “cleared to land.”
But, what if a Sport Pilot does want to use tower controlled airports or complex airspace? A student Sport Pilot simply needs to comply with FAR 61.325 which states that training must be given regarding the use of such airspace in order to meet training defined in FAR 61.94. This is a long winded way of saying that a student Sport Pilot must undergo the same complex airspace training required of a student Private Pilot. An endorsement is made in the student Sport Pilot’s log book, and they are good to go in complex airspace. This includes the same provisions a student Private Pilot must meet to fly in Class B airspace. As can be seen, complex airspace training can be integrated into Sport Pilot training, with the resulting Sport Pilot being able to land at any airport except the primary airport within Class B airspace. Cool!
But, what if you obtained a Sport Pilot certificate without the complex airspace endorsement? Simple, undergo the FAR 61.325/94 training and get an endorsement. Okay, what if you are an existing pilot (private, commercial, ATP) flying without a medical certificate and exercising the privileges of a Sport Pilot? Do you need a complex airspace endorsement? Nope, your pilot certificate proves that you already have the required training and are good to go. Recent surveys show that nearly all Sport Pilot trainees are receiving the complex airspace training and obtain an endorsement as a matter of course. The fact is, Sport Pilots are well trained and fully capable of utilizing the national airspace system and all related airports.
Let’s go back to the top of this column and pose the question, “What would you do if you could not get a ‘cleared to land’ clearance from a control tower that should be talking to you?” Who knows, they may be wide awake and wanting to talk to you, but faced with jammed frequencies or a talkative pilot who blocks their transmission. You may have experienced a com failure. To be sure, there may be those who will not share the following conclusions, but they have worked well for this writer for over 55 years. First, take a look at what FAR 91 has to say:
91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.
(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.
(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.
Pretty clear, isn’t it. You are the boss, not ATC, not your passenger, not your boss, not your autopilot. NEVER surrender or delegate your PIC responsibilities. The Airman’s Information Manual (AIM) has specific recommendations for landing at a towered airport with no communication and spells out loss of communication procedures for IFR aircraft that allow them to proceed to their destination, meaning landing. In general, you do not land if the preceding aircraft has not fully cleared the runway. You must consider if executing a missed approach (go-around) might place you in conflict with other airborne traffic. You need to consider traffic that might be behind you. It is your call! Maintain situational awareness (heads up!) and be ready to make that final landing decision. The fact is, a well trained Sport Pilot might be better prepared to make the landing decision when a tower does not respond than the airline pilot who can not remember his last non-towered landing.