A Lack of Control
While the trip to Block Island was my first visit to an uncontrolled field, my instructor handled the radios, so it wasn’t really PRACTICE at an uncontrolled field. So, that’s what he decided we would do today. We headed south and east, looping past the south practice area and Islip airport. Our destination: Brookhaven, an uncontrolled airport east of Islip.
Now, when I think “uncontrolled airport”, my mind summons images of idyllic pastoral grass airparks. It turns out, though, the US is chock full of uncontrolled fields of a variety of sizes and activity levels. Brookhaven is a good medium-sized airport that, according to the FAA records, is home to 250+ general aviation aircraft, and sees an average of 165 aircraft operations per day. Today, though, it was pretty quiet. As we approached, I was able to practice figuring out the active runway, using the Automated Weather Observation Service radio frequency to check the winds and thus the favorable runway. We tuned in to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency to listen for other airplanes operating at the airport, and to confirm which runway was active. Then I had to quickly build a picture in my head of the traffic pattern for the active runway, along with our best course to intercept it properly.
I suppose I’m lucky I have a background in geography, as these lessons have been a serious test of my spatial abilities. For instance, as soon as a controller tells you to make a left base for Runway 32, you have to:
- Figure out where you are in relation to the airport (KFRG)
- Figure out the orientation of the runway (32) on the airport (KFRG), and in relation to you
- In your mind, overlay the requested traffic pattern (left pattern) onto the active runway (32)
- Figure out how to enter the requested portion of the pattern (left base) and position yourself to do so.
At uncontrolled airports, the same thing happens, but this time as a sort of cooperative ballet. All pilots entering, working in, and exiting the pattern are making regular radio calls to report their position and intentions. Each pilot now has the added responsibility of including the other aircraft in their mental map, as all of the aircraft aren’t visible at all times. It makes for quite the geo-workout.
Putting It All Together
We announced our presence and intentions over the radio as we cruised along the beach. From listening to the CTAF, we figured out there were two other airplane in the traffic pattern, and they were making left traffic patterns on Runway 33. We turned north to loop around and join the pattern, the blue of Atlantic beneath us transitioning to white sand then to the green waters of the Great South Bay.
It was a slightly awkward angle for a standard pattern entry, and my entry ended up being closer to 90 degrees then 45, but hey, I didn’t run into anyone so I count it a success. I made all of the radio calls as we did three touch-and-go landings. I did pretty well on the radio work, except when I made a mistake (there is no such thing as “left final”) and said “crap” on the frequency. Probably a maximum of 5 people heard it, but it was still pretty embarrassing.
My instructor was pleased with the uncontrolled field practice, but also wanted me to practice full Class C airport operations. I had only done touch-and-goes at a Class C before, so we flew next door to Islip and requested a full-stop landing. After much taxiway confusion (there are a LOT of taxiways) we made it to the FBO and requested a top-off. We emptied our tanks while the airplane’s were filled, then hopped back in to head back to Republic.
It was quite a lesson, transitioning from the lowest level of ATC (that is, none) to the highest I’ve flown so far (Class C). It was nice to get the full Class C experience, which includes the added step of calling Clearance Delivery on the radio before calling Ground or Tower. It was a great lesson overall, and I got to see how complex a Class C airport really is. Also, my landings were really good. I don’t know what was different. It was more windy and gusty than usual, but I didn’t have any flat-and-fast landings like I had been. I was nailing my approach speed and keeping the airplane’s nose in line with the runway, transitioning smoothly, bleeding off speed, and touching down gently with almost no drifting or skidding.