The most commonly misunderstood regulations and procedures

6 min read

I had the pleasure of hosting a popular online panel discussion earlier this year featuring designated pilot examiners (DPEs) and Chief Instructors from around the country offering advice and insight on how to effectively prepare for, and pass, the checkride. If you haven’t had the opportunity to view it, the recording is available free (see below) and would be well worth your time, especially if you have an upcoming exam. Test anxiety is the norm rather than the exception, and the advice from this experienced panel will do wonders at calming the nerves. It also will help you identify common weaknesses of pilot applicants.

During some of the offline preparation and discussion, as the group haggled over busy schedules, the topic of commonly misunderstood procedures and regulations sparked strong opinions among the group. The topics mentioned could be classified into three categories:  non-towered airport operations, equipment lists, and night operations.

Non-towered Airport Operations

Perhaps due to the volume of training taking place at towered airports, or due to non-standard practices at non-towered airports, DPEs tend to agree that non-towered airport operations are a source of confusion, and for the most part, lack standardization. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) provides very specific guidance on traffic pattern operations as well as recommended communication procedures. Additionally, Advisory Circular 90-66, Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations, was updated just this year to provide even greater clarity.

Pattern Entry – Enter the pattern in level flight, at a 45-degree angle abeam the midpoint of the runway, at pattern altitude (1,000’ AGL is standard).  Maintain pattern altitude until abeam the approach end of the landing runway on downwind leg.  If you happen to be approaching the airport on the opposite side of the downwind leg, an accepted alternate entry method is to enter crosswind over midfield and turn downwind directly.

If the pattern is congested when approaching from the opposite side of the field, and it is not advisable to enter directly, it is then recommended to overfly midfield AT LEAST 500’ above pattern altitude and, when clear of the downwind leg, to make a descending turn to join the downwind leg using a standard 45-degree entry.  This method requires extreme vigilance to avoid other traffic that also could be approaching for a standard pattern entry.

When approaching the airport from the opposite side of downwind, consider entering crosswind directly over midfield.

Pattern Departure – Continue to track the runway centerline and depart the pattern straight out, or exit with a 45-degree turn, based on ground track, in the direction of the pattern.  In other words, the 45-degree turn should be made to the left if the runway has a left-hand pattern and, conversely, to the right if a right-hand pattern is in use.  It is recommended to climb at least 500’ above the traffic pattern before completing departure procedure and initiating a turn on course.

Communication – When departing an airport, make an advisory call prior to taxi (include where you are and where you are going) and again before taking the runway for departure (include direction of flight). When inbound to a non-towered airport, make an advisory call 10 miles from the airport with your position and intentions and do so again when entering the downwind, base and final legs.  Another call should be made once you have vacated the runway so departing traffic is aware that the runway is clear. Keep it simple, brief and informative as in, “Clermont County Traffic, Skyhawk Three Uniform Charlie, left downwind, Runway 22, Clermont County.”

Adhering to these standard practices is vitally important to avoiding collisions and ensuring pilots have consistent expectations throughout our airspace.  While common sense should prevail and slight modifications may be necessary, especially in a particularly congested traffic pattern, pilots should routinely practice these standard procedures.

Equipment Lists

Inoperative equipment ultimately requires the PIC’s determination whether the flight may be conducted.

Pilots are notorious for confusing themselves when it comes to required functioning equipment aboard the airplane. The first rule is that all equipment should be functioning; if it is not, it’s right to be cautious and skeptical as to your ability to conduct your flight safely.  If you do make an initial determination that a flight may be conducted safely with non-functioning equipment, refer to FAR 91.213, Inoperative instruments and equipment, as your governing source.

FAR 91.213 first references a Minimum Equipment List (MEL) for potential relief from instruments or equipment not in working order.  Most likely, small, training aircraft do not have a MEL.  It is in flying large, turbine aircraft or aircraft used in airline operations that one would encounter a MEL.  MELs must be physically aboard the aircraft and must be individually approved by the FAA. A MEL includes a detailed listing of instruments, equipment and procedures that allow an aircraft to be operated under specific conditions with inoperative equipment and is often developed by the aircraft manufacturer.

Instead, most flight training aircraft are governed by 91.213 (d), which allows for small, piston-powered aircraft (such as Skyhawks, Cherokees and Cirrus) to be operated with certain inoperative equipment as long as that equipment is not required as part of the aircraft’s certification (airworthiness certificate), not required by the manufacturer in the Kinds of Operation Equipment List, and/or not required by some other regulation or directive.

Should you encounter a piece of equipment that is inoperative and wish to investigate further as to whether the aircraft may still be operated, consult the Equipment List provided in Section 6 (Weight and Balance) of the Pilot Information Manual.  If the equipment is required by the manufacturer, your investigation is finished–you can’t fly.  If the equipment is not required, you should inquire as to whether some other regulation may apply and ultimately, whether you, the PIC, determine the flight can be conducted safely.

During discussions of necessary equipment or inoperative equipment, pilots commonly get confused by what is provided in FAR 91.205, which is an inventory of the bare essential items required for Day/Night VFR and IFR flight.  It is good practice to be familiar with the equipment listed in 91.205, but it also is safe to assume that a manufacturer is NOT going to list a piece of equipment as optional if it is included here. In other words, the manufacturer’s list and your own common sense should prevent you from attempting any operation in violation of the bare minimum equipment provided in FAR 91.205.

Night definitions

If it’s dark, turn your lights on and stay night current.

When it comes to logging night experience, illuminating navigation lights when required, or obtaining currency for night operations with passengers, many pilots confuse the various definitions.

Logging night time – Night time is the end of evening twilight to beginning of morning twilight.  If there is a hint of daylight in the air, you have not reached the time period when you would log night time.

Lights on – From sunset to sunrise, your position lights need to be illuminated.  If you notice the sun setting, turn your lights on. This helps your visibility to others any time of day or night.

Night currency – From one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise, if you wish to carry passengers, you must have accomplished three takeoffs and landings to a full stop within the previous 90 days. Don’t get bogged down staring at your watch and doing the mental math– if it’s dark, you should be night current in the interest of safety.

Are there other procedures and regulations that consistently give you fits?  You’re probably not alone. Please share, and we’ll clarify those in a future post. Email us at [email protected].