Airport Manners: Courtesy, Common Sense, and Safety by Rich Stowell

(This article was first published in Flight Training magazine in 1995)

Given the media’s penchant for turning aviation accidents into national emergencies, and given the mounting pressure applied by special interest groups on many local airports, it’s about time the general aviation community recognized the heretofore ignored value of good public relations. Politically correct terminology is appearing to offset the negative image projected by some aviation terms. For instance, airports without control towers are not “uncontrolled” anymore; they’re now “non-tower airports.” Airports with a tower are naturally “tower-controlled.” When the tower is closed, though, they are said to have “non-operating towers.” Even the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Accident Prevention Program has undergone a face-lift — it’s now the Aviation Safety Program. What’s the significance of this trend to the average pilot?

Consider that over 13,000 airports are currently operating in the United States. Ninety-four percent of them have runways no longer than 3,000 feet. Amazingly, fewer than 700 airports (a mere 5 percent) are actually tower controlled! Although flight training necessarily focuses on the specific skills needed to operate on and around controlled fields, it’s highly likely that a fair amount of your flying career will be spent operating around small airports, without the aid of air traffic control (ATC). As pilots, we need to exercise heightened situational awareness in the vicinity of any airport. We need to self-police our own actions as well. Our safety and the safety of others depends on it. The longevity of many general aviation airports may depend on it, too.

Pilots typically are a courteous group. Most display a professional attitude toward flying. Even so, we are products of our experience. Unless the finer points of airport conduct are pointed out during training, potentially bad habits can develop. The impact of the more common bad habits can range anywhere from an annoyance to a legitimate safety hazard. Let’s consider some of the things we can do to be more neighborly, and hence safer, within the flight environment.

Preflight Considerations

Undertaking a flight for which you are not thoroughly prepared can place an added burden on others in the flight environment, thereby possibly compromising safety. The pilot in command (PIC), therefore, is required to undertake specific preflight actions. Cross country planning, for example, must include acquiring ALL of the pertinent information regarding your destination: weather, radio frequencies, traffic pattern altitudes and directions, recommended pattern procedures, runway lengths and conditions. You may have to reference several sources, like sectional charts, Airport/Facility Directories, and Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS) to collect the necessary data.

NOTAMS may alert you to special activities such as a fly-in, airshow, aerobatic contest, or glider or skydiving operations, but a follow-up phone call to a fixed-base operator (FBO) on an unfamiliar field could fill in vital missing details. Local noise abatement procedures and weather conditions could be ascertained as well. As a practical matter, don’t ask the person on the other end of the line if you can make it there from your location — that decision is your responsibility.

Stay alert when walking on the ramp to and from your airplane. It’s a good idea to approach the airplane from behind whenever possible. If you must approach from the front, steer well clear of the propeller. Proceed to the wing tip, then follow the trailing edge in to the fuselage. Retrace your path when deplaning. Also, note potential ground hazards like chocks, tie-down cables, and debris. When preflighting, always look before you walk. Don’t become so absorbed in the checklist that you don’t actually inspect the airplane! Checklists are tools, not crutches. Make it a habit to stop, read the checklist item, look up, and then perform the specified task.

Banging the controls against the stops when checking their range of movement should be avoided. Also, if you must drain fuel onto the ramp, do so and then roll the airplane forward until it’s clear of the fuel-soaked area. This will eliminate any chance of igniting the drained fuel during engine start. In fact, it’s good practice to move the airplane out of its parking spot altogether. Position it parallel to the taxiway prior to engine start so that you’re not hidden among a bunch of lifeless airplanes. This also makes it clear to others that something is going to happen.

Although it may be more convenient to drive out of a tie-down spot, consider the effect your prop blast may have on other parked airplanes. Not only could the blast pelt someone else’s prized property with sand and pebbles, but it can also cause the control surfaces to slam violently into their stops, possibly causing structural damage. The force of the blast against an unlatched door or canopy can break it right off. Aimed into an open hangar, prop blast will fill it with dirt and may damage contents therein. For the same reasons, avoid swinging your tail around when parking. Shut down the engine while the airplane is still parallel to the taxiway, then manually move it into its spot.

Handling Passengers

Common sense dictates that pilots should satisfy certain minimum requirements in order to share the joy of flight with family and friends. Currency requirements listed in Part 61, Section 61.57 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR’s) state that the pilot in command must have made at least three take-offs and three landings within the previous ninety days for flights conducted under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). The landings must all be full stop in tailwheel airplanes, regardless of the time of day. You MAY perform touch-and-go’s for daytime currency in tricycle gear airplanes, but you MUST perform full stop landings to be current at night. (“Night” for currency purposes begins one hour after sunset and ends one hour before sunrise. The American Air Almanac is the official source for the daily hours of sunrise and sunset.)

Take good care of your passengers, too. Use the flight as an opportunity to showcase — not show-off — general aviation to non-pilots. Chaperon them to and from the airplane. Conduct a safety briefing similar to those conducted by the airlines. Regulations require you to brief your passengers on the use of their seat belts. Why not show them how to operate the door mechanism in case of an emergency as well? This could be an important safety item, especially in airplanes that have a single means of egress located on the passenger’s side! As part of cockpit resource management, encourage your passengers to help you look for traffic in flight.

Don’t allow passengers to exit the airplane until the prop has stopped, either. And never ask passengers to perform any task that may put them at risk. For example, if you’re in the airplane with the engine running, but you forgot to remove the chocks or tie-down ropes, DO NOT have a passenger get out and remove them for you. It’s your mistake — shut the engine down and take care of it yourself, no matter how much of an inconvenience it seems to you. Safety is the overriding concern here.

As a courtesy, make sure the airplane is equipped with an airsick bag for each seat. The potential benefit for all involved should be obvious. The impact of an airsick passenger who does not have access to a bag can be far reaching, particularly in rental airplanes. Subjecting other renter-pilots, passengers, and flight instructors to weeks of foul cockpit air for lack of a little plastic bag is inconsiderate. Likewise, only a dastardly pilot would deliberately try to induce airsickness in a passenger.

Powerplant Management

If pulling the prop through is part of your preflight regimen, or even if you’re just repositioning it, first be sure to visually verify that electrical and magneto switches are off. Put the keys in your pocket or on the dashboard where you can see them. Verify that the mixture is at idle cut-off, the throttle is closed, the parking brake is set, the wheels are chocked, and the aircraft is tied down. Be careful around the prop, and expect the engine to fire in spite of your precautions. If the engine does start, the airplane should stay in one place, thus minimizing the risk of injury or property damage.

Hand propping is another story. If a starter-equipped airplane fails to start, avoid the temptation to have it hand propped. Have the problem diagnosed and remedied by a mechanic instead. Only airplanes without electrical systems should be hand propped, and only by those specifically trained in the procedure (read that again: only by those specifically trained in hand propping procedures). Two qualified people are required for the operation. Both should at least be pilots or mechanics familiar with the particular airplane — DO NOT INVOLVE NON-PILOTS!

The ground around the airplane should be flat and firm, free of debris. Before starting, the hand-propper should remove personal items that could get caught up in the turning prop: hat, sunglasses, jewelry (rings too), watch, loose clothing or clothing with draw strings. All commands should be enunciated clearly. The person propping is in charge. The person seated at the controls ALWAYS repeats the command given by the hand propper first, then satisfies that command. If you’re observing a hand propping operation, do not talk to or in any other way distract the people involved.

In airplanes with starters, be sure to call out CLEAR PROP (or something similar) loudly before engaging the starter. Rushing to get the prop turning before the sound of your voice has faded benefits no one — give others a chance to get out of the way of the prop and its blast! Speak, look around, then start the engine if it’s clear. Also, learn the throttle position that corresponds to a start-up setting of 800 to 1,000 rpm. In most airplanes, the throttle has to be cracked open barely 1/8 to 1/2 of an inch. Consistently overrevving on initial start-up accelerates engine wear and generates excessive prop blast.

Prior to engine shut down, make it a habit to verify that the magnetos are still grounded. Set the throttle between 800 and 1,000 rpm. Briefly turn both mags off, then back on. The engine should stop firing with the mags in the “Off” position. If not, a P-lead is broken. Even though the switches are off, it may be possible for the engine to fire simply by moving the prop, creating a potential safety hazard.

Secure the airplane after each flight and double check that the switches are all off. Take everything out of the cockpit that you brought into it, including trash. When parking outside, install the gust locks and tie down the airplane. In conventional gear airplanes, make sure the tailwheel is straight; otherwise, wind or another airplane’s prop blast could cause the tail to swing into other airplanes. Don’t forget to write up any squawks and to cancel your flight plan, too. We don’t want another pilot to fly an airplane with an unreported defect, and we certainly don’t want to mobilize Search and Rescue operations needlessly.

Thoughtful Taxiing

When taxiing, strive to minimize the amount of power, speed, and brakes used. Rather than gunning the engine to 2,000 rpm to set the airplane in motion, try applying just enough power to start the airplane rolling. Usually 1,000-1,200 rpm will do. Reduce the power to 800-1,000 rpm as the airplane starts moving. Taxi slowly, under control. Using excessive power typically goes hand-in-hand with the counterproductive habit of riding the brakes. Pre-heating your brakes during taxi will make them less effective in the event of an aborted take off.

Avoid blasting around corners with more power and brakes, too! Apply all of the available nosewheel/tailwheel steering before adding brake to tighten your turns. If you must turn the airplane around, proceed in a direction that minimizes prop blast against hangars, airplanes, and people whenever possible. On sunny days, you can judge the proximity of your wing tip to other aircraft simply by looking at the shadows cast on the ground. Viewing the two-dimensional projection is easier and more accurate than trying to figure out if the wing tips clear in three dimensions, especially between high wing airplanes. Daylight between the shadows means you’ll clear the various parts of the other aircraft.

At non-tower fields, pay attention to landing traffic when you’re on the parallel taxiway. Landing traffic has the right-of-way over other aircraft operating on the ground; hence, allow this traffic to clear the runway. Plan ahead and avert situations where landing traffic must stop on the runway so you can meander by. Delaying an airplane’s exit from an active runway could cause the next airplane on final to execute a go-around needlessly, or worse — to collide with the airplane trapped on the runway! Likewise, when you’re ready for takeoff, don’t pull onto the runway until it’s clear. Sitting idle on the active while waiting for traffic to exit the runway is a dangerous habit. You cannot see what’s happening on final behind you, and an incoming airplane (especially a low wing) may not see you sitting on the numbers.

Collision Avoidance

A fundamental responsibility of the PIC is to minimize the threat of mid-air collisions. As one might expect, this threat is greatest within five miles of an airport. Most mid-airs occur in broad daylight under VFR conditions. Eighty-two percent of them involve one airplane overtaking the other. The PIC, therefore, must be vigilant scanning for potential conflicts, especially in and around the traffic pattern. Scrutinize as much of the sky as possible, especially the sector from your 9 o’clock to your 3 o’clock position, within 1,000 feet of your altitude.

Know where airplanes are vulnerable as well. Low wing airplanes are blind to traffic underneath; high wing airplanes, to traffic above. Biplanes have blind spots above and below. Slow airplanes are vulnerable to fast traffic behind them (look over your shoulder now and then if that’s you). A nose high attitude in slow flight can create a blind spot straight ahead. Even the bill on a baseball cap can impede your vision. Periodically clear those blind areas ahead, above, and below with coordinated S-turns. Occasionally lean forward as you look around. Avoid flying directly in the blind spot of other traffic whenever possible. When rolling onto base leg, be sure to check for potential conflicts on an opposing base or on a long, low final.

Of course, we must be looking outside of the cockpit for see-and-avoid to be effective. If you’re flying VFR and choose to fixate on the instruments, you are responsible for increasing the chances of a midair. If air traffic control directs you into the path of another aircraft, you are still responsible for seeing and avoiding. Remember, ATC is generally provided where higher concentrations of air traffic and greater chances for conflicts exist — hardly the environment in which to bury your head in the cockpit! Stay alert, and don’t fixate. Scan the sky in blocks, allowing at least 2 seconds for your eyes to refocus as they move from block to block.

Situational awareness means not only knowing what’s going on in front of you, but also what’s going on behind and on the surface. Form a good mental picture of the traffic flow before plunging headlong into the pattern. Take inventory of all airplanes in the vicinity, and keep track of their progress relative to you. Make adjustments to your flight path as needed.

For instance, suppose you’re entering the pattern on the crosswind leg and another airplane is entering on the downwind leg. Assume nothing. If it appears your paths will converge, take action. Don’t try to cut inside — this increases the possibility that the paths will cross. Either turn back to an upwind heading, or aim your airplane at a point BEHIND the incoming traffic until it’s safe to turn downwind.

Monitor the correct radio frequency ahead of time to get a feel for the runway in use and the traffic in the pattern. Configure your airplane for a smooth transition into the flow of the pattern. Establish the proper traffic pattern altitude and airspeed early. Don’t enter the pattern from an unexpected position, or at high speed, or at an unusual altitude. When unsure about the flow of traffic at a non-tower airport, overfly the field at least 500 feet above the recommended pattern altitude. Study the segmented circle and wind indicators, look for traffic, then blend yourself into the pattern. Above all, take your time and give yourself room to merge with the traffic flow.


FAA regulations don’t specifically prohibit straight-in approaches at non-tower airports; however, some airports do prohibit them. Flying a straight-in at these airports would be in direct violation of their operating procedures, unless you had an emergency. Where straight-ins are not prohibited, the pilot must consider whether or not it’s an appropriate maneuver. The FAA recommends that when a pilot performs a straight-in approach, it should be done such that it does not disrupt the flow of traffic already in the pattern. Additionally, FAR’s stipulate that no pilot shall take advantage of right-of-way rules to cut in front of other aircraft.

Unfortunately, a straight-in oftentimes develops into a low, slow, dragged-in approach, raising several safety concerns: First, terrain features can make it difficult for other pilots to see another airplane skirting along the treetops. Second, the low, slow airplane has limited options in the event of an engine failure during the approach. Third, the increased noise levels and the proximity to houses and people inherent in a low approach do nothing to allay the public’s fear about the dangers of low-flying airplanes overhead. Fourth, how can the straight-in pilot be sure that the approach won’t, in fact, disrupt the flow of other airplanes in the pattern?

The straight-in may be convenient for you, but it shouldn’t force other pilots to modify the pattern they’re already flying. Consider that a small disturbance in the flow of traffic created by one airplane can propagate and eventually disrupt the pattern completely. Destabilizing a traffic pattern for the convenience of one pilot is inconsiderate behavior and might be grounds for careless or reckless operation. Also, just because you might be transmitting your intentions over the radio doesn’t mean that everyone else hears you, or that you hear them. Airplanes in the pattern may be on the wrong frequency, or may not have a radio at all. And less than one in three non-tower airports have an Aeronautical Advisory Station (UNICOM). You might only receive partial information from UNICOM, and it could come from a non-pilot. Weighed against the negatives, it’s usually better to avoid straight-ins in favor of a more standard pattern.

Be Conspicuous

Give other pilots an opportunity to see and avoid you, too. Participate in the voluntary safety program, “Operation Lights On”, unless, of course, operating conditions warrant turning your lights off (e.g.: turn your strobes off when in the clouds; turn your strobes and landing light off when on the ground so as not to blind ground personnel or other pilots; when driving a vehicle on an airport, pull over and turn off your headlights if you feel they’ll interfere with a pilot’s ability to see, especially at night.) Rock your wings once in a while to make it easier for other pilots to spot you, and perform an occasional S-turn to clear the area ahead. If you’re using a radio, it’s imperative to give accurate position reports, especially around non-tower fields. An erroneous position report can do more harm than good if it diverts another pilot’s attention away from your true position. Be literal when you speak. Reporting “over the golf course”, for instance, should mean that it’s directly under your seat as you speak, not that you can see it over the nose and you’ll be there in a minute or two.

You may even consider modifying your radio calls at non-tower airports to help other pilots spot your airplane. For example, if you’re one of a half dozen airplanes in the pattern, identifying yourself as the “red and white Cessna” conveys far more useful information than merely stating your N-number. Transmitting “blue Piper turning left downwind, Runway 22” while profiled in a bank will get you recognized more easily than stating, “Piper 12345, left downwind”.

It doesn’t take a huge change in behavior to be more considerate of others participating in, or exposed to, general aviation. Pay attention to details, respect other people’s property and equipment, and strive to reduce the impact of our actions on others. The cumulative effect of these simple reminders can improve the social aspects of flying and just may help to preserve the unique freedom we enjoy as pilots.

Rich Stowell
Copyright 1998 by Rich Stowell