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CTAF - How to Communicate when Tower is Closed!

One glance at the Airport/Facility Directory or airport diagram for David Wayne Hooks airport will tell you the Ground Control and Tower frequencies for communication and clearances, but do you know the procedure for the times when the Tower is unattended? Fear not! The same publications will also direct you to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) of 118.4. But, you might ask, what exactly is a CTAF, and how is it utilized? Let’s take a closer look at this often misused frequency.

The CTAF is a frequency designated for the purpose of carrying out airport advisory practices while operating to or from an airport without an operating control tower. It allows pilots to self-announce their positions and intentions. While most pilots are familiar with the concept of “self-announcing”, many are unclear on the proper techniques. Section 4-1-9 of the Aeronautical Information Manual provides excellent guidance for the FAA’s recommended traffic advisory practices.

When referencing the AIM, one thing that becomes apparent, with respect to the CTAF, is that sometimes “less is more” when it comes to radio calls made on the frequency. Since only one pilot can use the CTAF at a time, too many unnecessary radio calls can actually be counterproductive to safety by creating frequency congestion and possibly confusion.

In fact, the AIM recommends only five radio calls on the CTAF when inbound to the airport: 10 miles out, entering downwind, base, final, and when exiting the runway. Pilots departing from the airport are requested to only make transmissions before taxiing and before taxiing on the runway for departure. While you’ll frequently hear it on any given day, the old “any traffic in the area, please advise” call is not a recognized acceptable phrase, and is specifically mentioned in the AIM as a phrase that should never be used on a CTAF. You may also have heard some well-meaning pilots repeatedly reporting their positions as they get closer and closer to the airport, only to accidentally “step” on another pilot’s transmission. This procedure is discouraged in the AIM and only serves to jam up the frequency. Likewise, you may have heard two pilots having a conversation on the CTAF. While unfortunately quite common, there are other proper frequencies for aircraft to aircraft communication.

Besides position reports, the useful CTAF can also be used for things such as ground vehicle movements, firefighting services, pilot controlled lighting systems, and even altimeter settings, at some airports. When used properly, the CTAF promotes aviation safety, and being knowledgeable and proficient in its use will make you a more professional and capable pilot. To learn more about the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (and its closely related cousins, the Unicom and Multicom), spend some time reading Chapter 4 of the Aeronautical Information Manual. It provides a wealth of information that will allow you to operate into any airport without an operating control tower.

Jason Cooley

Assistant Chief

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