Communications: It’s Not All Verbal

If you experience the full or partial loss of your two-way radio communications, you can still land at an airport — even one with a control tower — if you know how to get their attention.

If you lose radio communication capability in flight and are inbound to an uncontrolled (Class G or Class E) airport, you do not need to do anything out of the ordinary. Still, there are a few scenarios…

If your radio will receive but not transmit, you should listen to the AWOS frequency if one is available. Then monitor the Unicom frequency and determine the active runway by listening to the reports of other pilots. Enter the traffic pattern on a 45-degree angle to the downwind, keep your eyes open and land.

If your radio will not transmit or receive, determine the wind direction and active runway using your knowledge of the prevailing wind that has been present during the entire flight. If strong winds are a serious concern, overfly the airport at an altitude no less than 500 feet above the traffic pattern and observe the airport’s windsock. Maneuver into a position to enter downwind to the runway that most favors the prevailing wind. When you get closer, you can confirm your decision by again spotting the windsock or other airplanes in the pattern.

Here, two-way radio communications must be established before the airspace can be penetrated. Class B airports require two-way radio communications and a clearance issued before that airspace can be penetrated. If a Class C airport was your destination, you should land short at another airport, then telephone the approach control of the Class C and get advice. Rule of thumb: Except in an emergency, it’s best to stay away from Class B airports if you have radio problems. There may be times during the day when you might be allowed in without a radio — provided they know you’re coming because you worked that out over the phone and in advance, while on the ground. Regardless, it would be better to land at another airport — one with an avionics shop.

A Class D airport is essentially a field with a VFR control tower. If you lose radio communication capability in flight and are inbound to a controlled Class D airport, there are procedures you may use to land, despite the radio problem. Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it looks…

  1. Determine the flow of traffic and the active runways. If you can listen to the tower but the radio will not allow you to talk to the tower, it will be easy to figure out the active runway: The controller will be issuing landing clearances on the active runway. If the radio does not work at all, determine the most likely active runway based on your knowledge of the prevailing wind. Do this while you are still at least five miles out. Obviously, it will help if choose an airport you’re familiar with.
  2. Maneuver the airplane to enter a downwind to that runway. Stay alert! While maneuvering for the downwind you will enter the Class D airspace, an area where ordinarily two-way communications must be already established.
  3. Blend into the downwind leg after making sure you are not cutting off other airplanes that are already in the pattern. At this point, you hope that the tower controller has spotted you.
  4. The controller, realizing that an airplane is in the pattern that they have not spoken with yet, should grab the light gun. The controller will aim the narrow beam of light toward your airplane and, hopefully, show you a steady green light. Important: You are now communicating visually, so keep the windows of the control tower cab in sight at all times, because that is where the light will come from. The light gun signal, even in daylight, is surprisingly bright and easy to see and the steady green means that you are cleared to land.
  5. You should acknowledge that you have seen the green light by rocking your wings in the day or by flashing navigation lights at night — provided your electrical system didn’t fail along with the radios.
  6. Proceed with a normal approach and landing. Once on the surface, use good judgement. Exit the active runway on the first available taxiway that has no other traffic on it.
  7. It would be better to stop on that taxiway until someone drove out to get you, rather than wander into someone’s path or cross an active runway. But the light gun works on the surface as well. A steady green light while taxiing means that you are cleared to cross a runway and/or taxi to the ramp.

The next time you fly to a class D airport with an operating radio, request a light gun signal test from the controller. When you make your initial radio call, ask the controller to give you sample light gun signals when you get to the downwind leg. If the controller is not too busy, he/she will be glad to shoot the light at you. This way you will know what to look for on the day that you have a real radio problem.

And be sure to visit the control tower at least once as a student pilot and then once a year after that. The next time you are in the tower, ask them to show you the light gun. It usually is hanging on a retractable cable suspended from the ceiling inside the tower cab. (The light gun has a ‘cross-hairs’ sight and everything!)

BOTTOM LINE: Radio problems, especially in hot weather, are inevitable, but should not be a huge cause for concern. It would be a great idea to review the light gun signals (paragraph 4-3-13 of the Aeronautical Information Manual) for summer operations. If you do encounter radio problems, stay alert so that can determine the active runway and avoid other traffic, keep your cool, and look for the light gun.