Who Owns the Airport?

Winds were calm, the Saturday morning skies hazy with scud, and I was in the right seat of a 1998 Cessna 172 flying the ILS/DME approach to Runway 1 at Rome, Georgia. My instrument student/co-worker labored with the gauges as he smoothly managed our descent. I leaned forward, eyes out of the cockpit, with only an occasional glance at the instrument panel to confirm we were on track, or to softly tap an instrument with the tip of a plastic pen to coax the student into correcting for a lapse in altitude, track or heading management. The weather was legally VMC (visual meteorological conditions), but barely so; there were at least two other airplanes out there practicing instrument approaches but not talking to Atlanta Center (which “owns” the airspace over uncontrolled Rome), and my primary job was to see and avoid the traffic, aided by knowledge of where and how high the training planes ought to be as we chased each other around the approach.

In U.S. Class E airspace below 10,000 feet, such as near most uncontrolled airports, pilots must remain at least:

  • 500 feet below,
  • 1000 feet above, and
  • 2000 feet laterally from all clouds

and the visibility must be at least three miles. Otherwise, the flight must be commanded by a current Instrument pilot, in a properly equipped and certified instrument airplane, and on an instrument flight plan and clearance from Air Traffic Control (ATC). Class E airspace generally extends down to 1200 feet above ground level (AGL), but usually dips to 700 feet AGL around airports with published instrument approaches.

Below 1200 feet AGL (or 700 ft AGL where appropriate), pilots can fly in visibility as low as one mile, and maneuver to stay clear of clouds, to remain “VFR” (visual flight rules). Since this airspace is usually “uncontrolled,” there’s no one to get an instrument clearance frominstrument-rated pilots in instrument-capable airplanes can theoretically fly anywhere they want in uncontrolled airspace without talking to anyone. But that rarely happens, except in the final stages of instrument approaches and the beginnings of missed approach procedures.

Our situation: With visibility hovering around the three-mile mark, and only a “few clouds” spotting in the golden haze, it was perfectly legal for VFR and instrument airplanes to be “mixing it up” around Rome that day. In fact, since it’s usually easier to provide instrument training when not under the constraints of an actual instrument flight plan, my student and I had launched VFR toward Rome that morning. Only when en route conditions began to deteriorate did we pick up a clearance in the air and transition to an IFR (instrument flight rules) flight. But around Rome the weather met VFR minimums — so my student flew, and I watched outside.

According to AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation, most midair collisions have two things in common:

  • most occur below 500 feet AGL in an non-towered airport’s traffic pattern, and
  • most involve at least one airplane where a pilot is receiving instrument instruction.

It’s easy to see how these can happen. One airplane is flying the traffic pattern, with the pilot focusing primarily on the runway (and not looking for other airplanes). The other plane, the instrument trainer, is coming in with one pilot “under the hood,” focused on the instruments, and the instructor watching the student … not watching outside the airplane. Compounding the threat, the pattern airplane may or may not be making radio calls, and the instrument airplane is either

  1. on some other Air Traffic Control frequency until very close to the airport, or
  2. making announcements like “Rome traffic, Cessna 72664 marker inbound on the ILS,” which gives most VFR pilots less than a clue of where to look for the traffic.

Flying the ILS into Rome, watching for the other airplanes, we intercepted the localizer inbound and began tracking toward Runway 1. Still about seven miles from the airport, and still talking to Atlanta Center, I asked for a frequency change — I wanted to start telling the VFR planes where we were a little farther out than we’d normally be released from Center frequency. Atlanta agreed; I changed to UNICOM (the non-towered airport’s advisory frequency) and reported “Rome traffic, Cessna 72664 seven miles south of the airport, 2400 feet, ILS straight in for Runway 1, Rome.” That tells even the VFR folks about where to look for me … to avoid the threat of a mid-air.

I called at the marker (“marker inbound, about five miles south, out of 2400 feet…”) and was joined by calls from the other two airplanes flying various stages of the approach. For good measure I called “two miles south, straight in on the ILS” at the appropriate point. That’s when I saw the Beechjet at the far end of the airport, on the taxiway, but clearly ready to depart on Runway 19 — opposite our direction of flight.

Rome traffic, Cessna 72664 one mile final, Runway 1 Rome,” I called as my student neared the Missed Approach Point. In a plainly irate tone the Beechjet captain replied, “It’s nice you let us know!” About then we reached the Missed Approach Point, and as per prior coordination with ATC, my student powered up and began a straight-out climb on runway heading.

I’ve called several times inbound, sir” I passed calmly to the jet captain as we flew overhead, then he lined up and blasted off of Runway 19, toward the other (visual) instrument trainers. We went to Atlanta Center frequency and reported the missed approach. A minute later, I had to chuckle when the Beechjet pilot checked in trying to pick up his instrument clearance in the air, because separation rules prevented him from getting an instrument clearance until we were farther away — as far as ATC was concerned, we “owned the airport.”

A minute either way, or a little less diligence on anybody’s part, and we may have had another horrid mid-air collision tale — with the Cessna IFR and the jet still VFR — regardless of how the popular press may have played it. We “owned” the instrument airspace and were on final approach with the VFR right of way. There was nothing technically wrong, however, with the Beechjet captain taking off in the other direction, at his own risk — that’s the beauty of non-tower field.

But that’s all moot. The jet captain got upset, and I “won” by denying the captain his instrument clearance for a couple of minutes, but the reality is that we all own the airport. In the U.S., anyway, it’s first come first served, with no deference to jets or commercial or even military airplanes (the President’s airplane being an exception). Who “owns” the airport isn’t important. Avoiding running into each other is.

To better sort out traffic around airports, especially non-tower fields with instrument approaches,

  • Watch outside, where you’re going, all the time in visual conditions.
  • Listen to the radio more than you talk on the radio.
  • Announce your position and intentions on the radio at appropriate times and locations.
  • Use Common Language — instrument pilots should announce distance and direction from the airport, and altitude, instead of “marker inbound” or “holding at Hance.” That gives all pilots, not just those up on their instrument approach jargon, the benefit of your safety callout.

Special Action: Study up on the instrument approaches for the airports you’ll use — even if you’re not an instrument pilot. This protects you from the pilot who radios “marker inbound” or “holding at Hance.”

BOTTOM LINE: Play fair; play nice. First come first served … even if you are flying a jet, or if you’re practicing instrument procedures and conflict with a recreational, VFR pilot. The quickest way to lose the privilege of personal flight is for us to keep running into each other for lack of simple communication.