Safety topic from Episode 3

Operations at non-controlled aerodromes

Non-controlled aerodromes are the gateway to untold adventure around regional and outback Australia and we are so very lucky to be able to access these places by light aircraft. However many of them are also used by medivac, charter and RPT operators, so there’s always the potential for substantial and varied traffic.    

 “Be heard, be seen, be safe” is CASA’s message that will go a long way towards keeping you out of trouble in the vicinity of a non-controlled aerodrome. Just because there appears to be less traffic about, or there are fewer transmissions on the radio than you are used to hearing, it doesn’t mean you can relax your disciplines of maintaining high situational awareness.

A non-controlled aerodrome is one where air traffic control is not operating. This also applies to an aerodrome that would normally have ATC services but such services are temporarily unavailable. How would you know this? By reading your NOTAMs. Don’t even think about leaving home before checking the NOTAMs applicable to your flight. Remember to include Head Office, FIR, and PRD NOTAMs in addition to your location briefing. Reading these carefully is a vital part of your pre-flight preparation. 

Note: You have the ability to minimise the NOTAMs provided by using sub-FIR codes for the ARFORs that you will be flying through. Instructional videos have been released by Airservices to assist pilots through the logical sequence of thorough flight planning and execution of your intended flight. (See below for links to these videos.) 

Area frequency v local frequency

There are huge safety benefits in the ‘see and avoid’ technique of traffic separation. But it’s also absolutely vital at these aerodromes to ensure you select the correct frequency. A careful read of this relatively recent (August 2014) inclusion in CAAP 166-1(3)7.3 should clear up any confusion about what has become a popular debate amongst pilots, i.e. the correct frequency to use when in the vicinity of a non-controlled aerodrome that doesn’t have a published frequency. 

Here is an excerpt:

When departing or arriving at non-controlled aerodromes, pilots should monitor their radios and broadcast their intentions in accordance with the following:

  • When at or near a non-controlled aerodrome or in a Broadcast Area with a CTAF, including those assigned Multicom 126.7, listen and broadcast as necessary on the published frequency.
  • When at or in the vicinity of non-controlled aerodromes marked on charts that have not been assigned a discrete frequency, use Multicom 126.7.
  • When operating at aerodromes not depicted on aeronautical charts, pilots should monitor and broadcast their intentions on the relevant Area VHF.

So, let’s all read from the same song book here – if there’s no published frequency, it’s all about whether the aerodrome is marked on the chart or not. Check that out before you go flying. If everyone sticks to this regime, it means we all get a picture of the local traffic and are at least talking to each other. 

Operating with an unserviceable radio

For advice on operating with an unserviceable radio at a non-controlled aerodrome where the carriage of radio is required, read through CAAP 166-1 (6.11 & 12). Keep reading through the entire CAAP – it’s an excellent source of advice for operating at such aerodromes.

Circuits

CASA has many resources available for reference (see list below), so familiarise yourself with correct circuit procedures at non-controlled aerodromes, and make sure you are entering and departing the circuit as you should be. It sounds like fundamental advice, but too many pilots flout the rules and choose the ‘most convenient’ route, usually to save time and fuel.

At some aerodromes there are important anomalies to be aware of, e.g. at Mildura (at the time of writing), there is a published right-hand circuit requirement for R27 and R36. This information is listed in the Local Traffic Regulations section of an aerodrome in ERSA. If the ERSA states that three legs of the circuit are required, then that’s for a good reason. Don’t join on base. Simple, logical, legal.

Multiple CTAFs sharing one frequency

Our route through far north Queensland includes an overnight stop at the busy coastal town of Karumba, home to a thriving tourism and fishing industry. Situated as it is on one of the country’s most picturesque coastlines, air traffic in this area can get busy, and we’re talking private, scenic and charter flights in both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.

In this area, there are multiple CTAFs in close proximity to one another all sharing the same radio frequency, 126.7. Whilst on the ground and airborne, we hear numerous calls from pilots inbound or outbound at Normanton, Burketown, Karumba, Kowanyama and Pompuraaw, all of which require careful attention to determine those whose operations are of consequence to our flight. We would like to have heard from the heli pilot cruising along the beach at 500ft AGL in the opposite direction – a stark reminder that a constant sharp lookout is always needed. 

Situational awareness

In the hunt for “best economic outcome”, it’s unfortunately a reality that some commercial operators cut corners, and don’t like to fly a leg of a circuit that they feel they don’t “need” to. So be on the lookout, and listen out, for straight-in approaches and base leg joins when your ETAs are sounding similar. Once again – it’s all about situational awareness. Get your passengers on the job – they’ll like to be involved and an extra set of eyes never goes wasted. 

Departures are just as important. When you are airborne off your departure runway, make your radio call MEAN something. Speak clearly, and give useful information. When talking direction, why not keep it simple and give a quadrant, like “... 2000ft, on climb 5500 tracking north-east ..." If there is any potential traffic conflict, your call should initiate further communication to arrange separation. And PLEASE finish your radio call in these situations with your LOCATION. It happens so often that the first few words of a call are missed, which means that the location has not been heard. Repeat it at the end and problem solved.

Finally – if you hear a jump plane way above you happily dispensing its passengers out the back door in rapid succession, listen out like there’s no tomorrow. Talk to the jump pilot so he knows you’re there, and get ready to go do some unscheduled sightseeing somewhere out of the way for a few minutes. Chances are those brightly coloured chutes have a first class ticket to a landing point very near your intended runway, so wait til they’re all safely on the ground, and know what the jump plane is doing, before you go barrelling in.  Their mothers will all thank you profusely.