I've heard that some airports don't have an ATC tower and nobody monitors the landings. Can someone tell me how those planes can land/takeoff safely without incidents occurring? I understand the fact that the airports without an ATC tower are small airports but wouldn't there be factors like weather which can cause accidents? So can someone please tell me how those planes can operate safely without ATC?

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    $\begingroup$ Not quite, but that comment did get 16 up votes :) It's obviously more than that, but in essence, yeah, "look out the window". Seriously, though, see the quality answers below. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ do you need a scheduling service when you drive to make sure you don't get too close to the next car? $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 1:28

2 Answers 2


I will answer this for the regulations and general procedures in the USA as laid out by the FAA, operations may vary elsewhere in the world. AOPA publishes a nice guide on how traffic flow at un-towered/un-controlled fields works and I would advise giving it a read as it covers a wide variety of scenarios. Effectively planes self announce and monitor radio traffic as they approach and depart the airfield.

Basic right of way is established in FAA FAR 91.113 and provide guidelines for operations. While some more specifics can be found in FAA FAR 91.126 and FAA FAR 91.127 relating to un-towered/un-controlled operations specifically.

Ill provide a brief example of a departure and approach (as would be heard on the radio over the Common Traffic Advisory frequency "CTAF"). You as the pilot in command are always responsible to "See and Avoid" so you should always have your heads up on approach to a field looking for traffic.

  • Plane is started and taxied to the run up area, checked, and lined up at the hold short line with out making any calls. You simply look around while taxing as you would when driving a car. The only exception to this is taxing on the actual runway which requires a "Piper Archer Back Taxing 05" call.

  • (check downwind, base, and final for incoming aircraft as you monitor the radio for calls)

  • (when you see its all clear) "Piper Archer taking 05 for a Northbound departure"

  • Enter the runway, make sure its clear, takeoff

  • Follow any procedures that the airport may have (noise abatement etc.)

  • "Piper Archer departing the pattern to the north"

Then for a basic arrival you should fly the standard traffic pattern as outlined in the AF/D for the given field.

Tune radio to CTAF and listen in if no one else is making announcements you can begin yours. For the most part everyone will make the following announcements or a similar variant there of.

"Piper archer 5 miles to the north, inbound for a landing on 05"

"Piper archer entering left downwind for 05" (General procedure calls for entering the traffic pattern on the downwind leg)

"Piper Archer turning base for 05"

"Piper archer turning final for 05"


"Piper archer clear runway 05"

Some points to note. If you hear calls of others in the pattern you can still enter. Generally you want to be 1 or 2 legs behind the plane in front of you. This varies depending on what you are flying and what they are flying. For example I was landing one day in my Archer and a Seneca was inbound behind me but close, him being the heavier and far faster aircraft I let him in. Over the radio I allowed him to overtake me (I extended my downwind for him) since he was the faster plane I did not mind having some extra time to set up my approach.

On short final you should always be checking to make sure that no one pulls out onto the runway or that no one is departing. At an un-towered field dont be afraid to go around!

As Ron mentions in the comments below, there is, strictly speaking, no regulation requiring you to have a radio on board for VFR flight. That being said some older planes that lack full electrical systems also subsequently lack radios. Many have hand held units on board but again are not required to. In this case they must observe the traffic flow and enter the pattern in a safe manner, this is why you should always have your heads up looking out for aircraft doing this.

wouldn't there be factors like weather which can cause accidents?

At both big and small airports weather is handled similarly. If the conditions are VFR then a visual approach is conducted and you can avoid other aircraft by simply seeing them. The scenario above is a standard VFR arrival and approach. If the weather calls for an IFR approach and and you are in an IFR equipped aircraft and furthermore the field has an IFR approach into it (be it RNAV or GPS etc.) you may conduct an IFR approach into the field. In this case you will make calls at the proper call out points on the approach (similar to a VFR call out). Since you cant physically see the other traffic in this case radio monitoring is key.

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    $\begingroup$ I would've liked you to explain it for me rather than linking me to a 3rd party source $\endgroup$
    – Bhavik
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Bhavik I have provided an example however I was simply citing my sources (FAA regulations in this case) as is common on this site. I will provide some more detail in my example. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ If you fly IFR into an uncontrolled field, ATC won't clear anyone else for an instrument approach until you cancel IFR/close your flight plan (or go missed). $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ I put this on the other answer, but it is applicable here too... Pilots should use the radio, however there are quite a few aircraft that don't have radios. Personally I would advocate they get a hand-held, but talking on the radio is not required to land/takeoff at an uncontrolled airport. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ I will add this to my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:47

Dave's answer is good. I would like to provide a shorter and simpler answer here without references to external sources.

First, the radio. Get on the radio, and tell everybody three things:

  1. Who you are
  2. Where you are
  3. What you are doing

For example,

N1234 is 6 miles SE, inbound for downwind runway 33

Then, you listen to others. It is as simple as that.

Now, how do pilots know which runway direction is in use, or what traffic pattern (right or left) is in use in this airport? Again, it is very simple. Either:

  1. Observe the wind direction
  2. Follow what everybody is doing
  3. Refer to published charts

It is just like driving. Only instead of blinking turn signals, we use radios as pilots' intentions are more complicated than going left or right. You would also follow what every driver is doing, or follow instructions of road signs.

In both cases (driving and flying), visual see-and-avoid is utmost important. Pilots should use the radio to broadcast their intentions, and drivers should use turn signals in the same way, but that does not mean one can blindly go where they want without looking, because there will be someone not using turn signals!

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    $\begingroup$ Pilots should use the radio, however there are quite a few aircraft that don't have radios. Personally I would advocate they get a hand-held, but talking on the radio is not required to land/takeoff at an uncontrolled airport. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ Drivers are generally required to use turn signals when turning, and hand signals where not equipped. Pilots are often not required to use a radio at non-towered fields (air carriers being one common exception), but such practice is recommended. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ This only works in countries that have Unicomm or CTAF which is generally only the big ones with lots of empty space, e.g. US, Australia. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon The only thing that changes in less spread out countries is that there would more likely be a specific frequency for the field (found on charts) rather than a common one. $\endgroup$
    – IanF1
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanWalters, so then neither is reliable, period, right? $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 14:12

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