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Today, my instructor and I were practicing landings - touch and go's.

We are at an untowered airport, KLGD. Wind was favoring runway 30.

There's been some fires in the area; we checked the NOTAMs and there was no TFR in 50 miles of the airport.

There was 2 single engine air tankers (SEATs) and a larger jet tanker operating out of the airport off the same runway.

Many times, the fire traffic would overfly the field from the NE, join the downwind and we'd turn downwind from base from crosswind a ways behind them. A few times we extended our downwind to about twice as far out to let one take off ahead of us or to give space when they were doing a base and final in front of us.

Once, one of the tankers finished taxing and held short at A2 for 30 about as we turned from base to final (as usual, we did a touch and go).

Another time, a tanker turned downwind behind us and somewhere around turning base another tanker on the ground held short at A2 for 30. We could/would have extended our downwind to let them go, but didn't want to delay the SEAT in the pattern behind us. Shortly after we turned final, the tanker on the ground called the SEAT in the pattern behind us and got permission to go before he landed. We did our touch and go, and then turned crosswind early so they could take off sooner (and fly runway heading, then turn right to the North/East).

We made sure to always call crosswind, downwind, left base, final, "on the go" (touch and go) to try to coordinate with them.

It was good practice - crosswind landings got a lot better today. And we got to practice wake turbulence avoidance each time a 4 engine tanker was in the pattern ahead of us.

I thought the day went well until I talked to the fuel guy at the end of the day. He said some of the tankers were pretty annoyed when they had to hold short for a touch and go. He said maybe I should use runway 35 (which is left traffic like 30). (I'm open to the suggestion, but have concerns about how to keep traffic apart when you have two active runways with overlapping/intersecting patterns). That was the first I heard of it, nothing on the radio seemed to indicate any urgency - every thing was very standard calls of pattern positions. That being said, in my mind a student practicing landings is lower priority than a full fire tanker ready to go when things are burning somewhere.

In a towered airport, if something is higher priority, ATC can make that decision. But at a non-towered airport, there is no one to do that for us; it is up to the pilots to coordinate.

In reviewing the flight lesson and the day in general, my question is: in non-towered scenario, is there any consensus or standard phaseology for coordinating or communicating priority, and second, if I am on base or final, what are my options to allow higher priority traffic that is holding short of the runway to take off ahead of me? What about the "squeezed" scenario where I have priority traffic in the pattern behind me and traffic holding short on the ground?

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    $\begingroup$ Related $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jul 16 '21 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ How would you have done the pattern if the tankers were responding to a fire next to your own house? $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Jul 16 '21 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ If the tankers wanted priority they should have used the radio and asked for it. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Jul 16 '21 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ Not trying to disparage you here, you did nothing legally wrong, but if you noticed that these fire fighting aircraft were using the airport so heavily, you probably should have found a different airport to use or have done something other than pattern work away from the field. Try to accommodate emergency services as much as possible, a slow aircraft in the pattern while you are trying to refuel and fight for lives and property is really frustrating... $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Jul 16 '21 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Sanchises Not arguing about being out of their way (otherwise I wouldn't have bothered to ask the question.) I'm trying to figure out what I can do to be out of their way, especially when one of them is ready after I've turned base. $\endgroup$
    – Azendale
    Jul 16 '21 at 12:52
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If the airport is supporting active, frequent firefighting ops, the single best thing you can do is to go elsewhere and be completely out of their way. I see some terrain in that area, so I don’t know that your CFI would want you going elsewhere if you’re solo, but if dual you might suggest doing a short XC; you’ll need the time and experience anyway.

If you can’t leave the pattern due to weather, or the firefighting ops aren’t that frequent, you can modify your pattern to give them priority. I often do this to make things easier for any transient traffic.

On the departure leg, turn crosswind earlier—as soon as terrain and obstacles permit, rather than the usual 700 AGL. This will allow faster aircraft behind you to depart sooner.

On the downwind leg, look for aircraft taxiing toward the runway, and before turning base, offer to extend your downwind (or do 360s) so they can depart immediately. The key here is to be aware of what’s going on before you turn base.

You can also tell priority traffic behind you in the pattern that you’ll extend your downwind so they can turn base immediately. This is tricky if you can’t see them to decide when to turn base yourself, but your CFI should be able to figure something out.

Once on base or final, it gets more dangerous (and less effective) to try to adjust your spacing to let someone else out before you. Your CFI will know some tricks, and if needed you can give him the controls to execute them. For now, work on having enough situational awareness that you don’t need them.

Note that adjustments to any leg of your pattern will make it inconsistent, which may be good or bad for you depending on the stage of your training. Early on, you want to keep things as consistent as possible while you learn the mechanics. But later, it helps to vary things so you learn how to apply those mechanics to the weird situations you’ll find yourself in from time to time. For instance, I still struggle a bit with when to reduce power, add flaps, run checklists, etc. when ATC tells me to enter on a base or straight-in because I was taught to do those things at specific points starting on downwind.

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In my opinion, with active fire fighting aircraft using the airport at regular intervals, you would be better off going somewhere else.

With fire fighting pilots and crews growing increasingly tired and their focus and situational awareness is being diverted by other traffic using the same airport the risk factor increases.

Also, using a cross runway (rwy 35) to avoid the flow to the primary runway (rwy 30) as suggested by the fuel guy, may be a poor choice at a busy non-towered airport.

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