View Full Version : Tower vs Uncontrolled Airport

Bill Greenwood
10-28-2013, 05:07 PM
If a student has the choice, you can save a lot of money by learning at an uncontrolled field, vs a big, busy, airport with a control tower.
At the big one, you will need controller permission to taxi, to take off, and directions on how to enter the pattern and land and taxi back. The longer runway will take more taxi time and there are likely more traffic delays, and if there are airlines or corporate jets, they are going to get priority over a student pilot in a piston trainer.
How much time and how much $$ does this delay amount to?
Let's say each flight at the tower airport takes 10 min more than the smaller uncontrolled field. Assume 50 flights of an hour each to get a private pilot rating.
Thus you spend 500 min or 8.33 hours more at the tower field basically just waiting in line. Assume a flight cost of $140 for airplane rental and instructor, so you would spend $1167 MORE at the tower airport just because there is more time wasted. Not anything to do with learning better.
Now all other factors may not be equal, but then again you may well waste more than 10 minutes each way per flight going in or out at the big airport. At 15 min more it would amount to $1750 wasted.
This is something to consider especially for so many on this forum that write that shortage of money is their biggest obstacle to learning to fly.

10-28-2013, 05:16 PM
But arguably the quality of training might be better. Of course, your generalities aren not always true. I learned at BJC (towered field with three runways). More often than not you'd be give the smaller parallel runway to do your work and you'd have it by yourself at your own discretion or perhaps with one other plane. Of course my wife learned at IAD and that begins to border on the absurd, she'd fly to FDK to do landing practice. Her radio work is amazing though.

Jim Heffelfinger
10-28-2013, 05:29 PM
Bill, I also add that practice is imperative and the more per lesson the better. At a small airport/field the student might be the only one in the pattern for hours. Lots of hours spent in close pattern doing lots of landings. Taxi from mid field right to the departure end, radio on the fly and off you go for another circuit.

Bill Greenwood
10-28-2013, 05:33 PM
Ron I often fly into BJC. I get my avionics work done there. And yes it often is less busy and has less delays than APA ( Centennial) which is really awful.But still it takes more time to get in and out there than at Boulder.
BJC used to have a branch of the flight school which is now at Boulder mostly because the cost is less at Boulder even for the school. I can directly compare the quaility of the instruction at BDU to when it was at BJC and it is better at Boulder as well as busier.There is another flight school which is still at BJC and it is fairly busy, but doesn't have a very good reputation.

10-28-2013, 05:36 PM
I have instructed extensively at both and the difference isn't worth mentioning. Capitalize on what you have.

10-28-2013, 08:43 PM
I tend to think learning, from the start, from a controlled field, would be a better way to go. Build the radio management and working-with-ATC skills right from the start, rather than having it hanging over them like some sort of boogy-man. I learned at a controlled field, ~43 years ago, but haven't visited one more than four times in the past 25 years (two of those were NORDO). I figure I could get back in to a controlled field if I had to.

The CFIs based at the local controlled fields tend to bring their students down to the uncontrolled field I'm based out of, for intensive touch-and-go training. Well... as intensive as you get when you mix with 747s when at your own base....:-)

Ron Wanttaja

10-29-2013, 05:56 AM
Admittedly, I learned to fly at BJC in 1981 it was a lot different back then.

I'm thinking more of places like SBY, FDK, HKY, CHO etc... which really have no business having a tower to begin with.

Bill Greenwood
10-29-2013, 09:32 AM
Ron, if you learned at BJC in 1981, you must be a vintage pilot. I got my private at a tower airport MYF, San Diego Montgomery Field, began in summer of 78, finished in Jan of 79. Moving back to Colorado in 79, I went to rent a plane at BJC. I got a real lesson in density altitude affect, the Piper Tomahawk that I had flown my first lesson in at sea level needed most of a 6000 foot runway to really fly. I then flew a C172 into Leadville at 9900 feet and it would barely get out of ground effect. They ought to call it "tree affect" since the pine trees at the end of the runway sure get bigger and bigger as they get closer and affect how hard the pilot is breathing.

Bill Greenwood
10-29-2013, 09:50 AM
Ron, I don't think you learn better at a tower airport, all other things being equal. Talking on the radio is a small part of being a pilot, not hard to learn. Like a used car salesman or a stockbroker trying to sell you a load fund, it doesn't really matter how much babel a pilot hears, what counts is can he fly the plane? Can he fly the pattern, do his check list each time (GEAR DOWN) and slow to the right approach speed, when there is no controller or even in spite of controllers who mostly are not pilots.Also if you take your lessons at Boulder for instance, they do go down to BJC or even APA to experience landing at a tower airport.

The only almost for sure thing at a tower airport is that there are going to be delays that will cost a student some time and money. By the way I used $140 in my estimate, and it is now $146 per hour for a 172 and $181 per hour for a Diamond DA 20 with CFI at Boulder. So every 10 minutes extra that you spend at BJC or APA which is really bad for delays, while waiting for a corporate jet is $30 from the students budget that is not going directly to flying.

10-29-2013, 01:16 PM
IMHO - The ideal is a controled field with limited traffic so the radio work is learned along with the flying skills. You will always be more comfortable going into hegh density traffic areas with that experiance and it takes time and repition to get used to the radio. It is good to have a smaller field close by to get small field practice.

10-29-2013, 01:34 PM
Yeah, I sort of had the opposite experience as you. After getting my license at 6000' I went back to 1W2 (sea level) and checked out in an Archer. I thought the performance was quite amazing. After about 5 minutes into the checkout flight the instructor asked if I ever intended to reduce power. Now, there's an interesting concept I thought. I had never reduced power before until I was abeam the numbers on downwind.

But to get back to the point, just because there is a tower doesn't mean that you can't fly efficiently there. Even IAD has let me do thing like Stop and Goes on the runway (Hey it was 11PM and I had to get my three landings in, land, stop, takeoff, climb to 1000', land again takeoff again. If I had tried a little harder I might have gotten all three in on the length of the single runway).

BillG seems to have a bit of an authority issue.

Bill Greenwood
10-29-2013, 02:52 PM
Jedi, your idea of a tower field "with limited traffic" might sound good, but it is unlikely since the main standard for having a tower is more than a certain amount of traffic.

If you took an airport like Boulder, 4100 feet long with no airline traffic and almost no corporate and jet traffic, and just added a tower, then you probably would not have much delay. But that is not the real world.

Take two airports that I often use. 1st APA Denver Centennial, with a tower and 3 runways and the main one 10,002 feet or almost 2 miles long. When you are ready to taxi there is an extra step for ground control, then the long taxi. You are going to be taxing almost 2 miles to get to the end, as opposed to about 2000 feet at BDU. The controllers are often surly and unpleasant as if they don't like their job or just not pilots of small gen av airplanes. You have to call ground again after runup and then listen for the tower for takeoff. Often there are delays for large jets landing. Retuning to land will often find you given the west runway rather than the main one, so that there will be a hold to cross the main one after landing, and then the long taxi back in. All in all, each takeoff and landing takes about 15 more minutes than at Boulder. The controllers are not always unpleasant but often are, and in any case the seem to think they are being paid by the word. Some of it may be regulations that they have to follow, but it gets ridiculous. You can be waiting for takeoff and are told to "hold short for landing traffic". The normal response would be "Bonanza 708 holding short", but that is not good enough for them. The want you the read back that you are holding short for runway 17 for instance. Common sense would tell them that, since if you were holding for 35 you would be 10,000 feet away at the south end, but hey, let's never use 5 words to say the same thing when we could use 15. There is a lot of traffic of all kinds there so that they may tell you to report on base, and when you get on base you can't make the call because they are on the air talking to other planes. I have often had them make mistakes like reversing the numbers ,ie N 31078 vs N 31708 but never heard them admit any mistake or simply say sorry. I have heard a number of times them making a conflict out of pilots mistake. There are several flight schools there and you can certainly learn to fly at APA, but it will be more expensive and less enjoyable than at a place like Boulder.
Many times they are not at all like the pleasant and expert controllers we talk to when we fly into Oshkosh.
I also fly at my home airport, Aspen with one runway of 8000 feet and both airline as well as lot's of corporate jet traffic. In the old days we knew some of the controllers and were friendly with them, but that is long past. When you call up to taxi they try to convince you not to do a run up just before takeoff so they can expiedite the jets going out. The do this even if you are the only plane moving and not a jet running in sight. Coming back in to land they will often tell you to hold west of the airport so they can give priority to jets. I have never heard of a jet being told to hold or to go west to make their approach. The jets all come in on IFR flight plans and are given priority. It seems pretty much that when a jet enters the state, they are number one for landing even if a piston plane is a few miles out. Once again these delays add up to a lot of extra time and expense, compared to operating at somewhere like Boulder.

And it is not just a matter of delays for traffic or controller directed delays; there is a whole different attitude at many smaller airports. At the non towered ones you can walk out to look at planes, even drive you car out to the plane to load bags or service it, and a student can watch and learn by seeing other pilot's make their approach and landings. There is often someone cooking burgers or brats on weekends, and if you are a photographer there are lot's of chances to catch the gliders sailing in or powered planes. Not so at busy tower airports. I have a friend who has been several times accosted by security people at APA even though he was taking photos from outside the perimeter fence and there is not even any airline traffic there.
I was once at Houston Southwest airport, used to be Sugarland when I grew up there, and was sitting at a flight simulator with a CFI and trying to take an ifr lesson when two local cops with guns came in to challenge me, because if where I had driven my rental car OUTSIDE the airport fence. There aren't even any gestapo at Boulder, much less that kind of attitude.There are even picnic tables outside where you can sit and watch the planes or gliders, and you don't have to hold your ears to block the jet noise.

10-29-2013, 04:45 PM
You seem to equate towers with busy airports. Unfortunately, that's not the case. You can wait in line longer at some of the uncontrolled fields on a nice day than the some of these towered delays.

10-29-2013, 05:26 PM
Wow, small world Bill, I trained out of Montgomery, Gillespie and, finished at Brown at Bearden Flight School with Bill and Opal. 1980 seems long ago now. But as for the issue at hand, I'd say the moderate to small controlled airport develops more discipline. At least it did for me. I fly correct patterns (and get ribbed for it) at uncontrolled airports and am very comfortable on the radio because of it.

Bill Greenwood
10-29-2013, 06:46 PM
Ron, if I am wrong about towers at busy airports then tell us what the facts are. What is the standard for the FAA to man a tower? I am pretty sure it is a certain number of operations, though there may be more to it than just the number, like if there are airline and corporate traffic. I am sure that some places are there because there is a lobby for the tower. There is a tower at Oshkosh year round, though I'd bet there is not much business at many times of the year.

By the way, I learned in a Cherokee 140 and remember when I moved up to a Warrior with a whole 21 hp more, and I thought it was a big deal, I would really have liked a 180 hp Archer..