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What Happens When A Class D Tower Is Closed?

Boldmethod

This jet crew forgot to make position reports on the CTAF frequency with a closed tower, leading to an airborne conflict. Here's what you should know about flying into a Class D airport when the tower is closed...

The Basics Of Class D Airspace

Class D airports need an Air Traffic Control Tower to coordinate airport operations. However, unlike Class B and C airports, they don't require a mandatory approach and departure control (though many do have approach/departure). But don't underestimate how busy Class D airports can get. Some of the busiest general aviation airports in the world, like Van Nuys and Denver Centennial, are Class D.

You can find almost any kind of traffic inside Class D airspace. Weekend fliers, airlines, corporate traffic, and cargo operators share the airspace at many Class D airports. In many large cities, private jet traffic avoids larger Class B airports and instead utilizes more conveniently located Class D airports.

So, what happens when you fly into a Class D airport with a closed control tower?

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Tower Closed: Class D To Class E/G

According to 3-2-5 of the FAA's AIM, "Class D surface areas may be designated as full-time (24 hour tower operations) or part-time." You can find these part-time hours listed in the Chart Supplement. When a Class D surface area is part-time, the airspace may either revert to a Class E surface area of Class G airspace.

When the surface area becomes Class G, it's only up to the floor of overlying controlled airspace. Usually, that's a Class E transition area beginning at 700' AGL. The airport listing in the Chart Supplement will state the part time surface area status as "other times CLASS E" or "other times CLASS G." Applicable weather minimums change with each of these classifications.

In this example, the Kalamazoo Airport is Class D from 1100Z to 0400Z, and Class G at all other times. The double-crossed line next to the time means that the facility observes daylight savings time.

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Your Communication Requirements

If the tower is closed, you don't need an ATC clearance to enter the airspace. When the tower is temporarily closed (or operated on a part-time basis), use the CTAF to self-announce your position or intentions. Keep in mind, if the tower is due to open shortly, you should have their frequency tuned well in advance to speak with the operating controller right away. Click here to learn all the radio calls you should make when flying into an uncontrolled airport.

Things like pilot-controlled airport lighting, position reports, and IFR flight plan cancellations are all up to you if the tower isn't operating.

Report: Airborne Conflict: NORDO Jet Traffic

The following NASA ASRS was published earlier this year, detailing an event where a large Bombardier Global Express landed without making a single radio call over the CTAF frequency. The instructor flying a Piper Archer II was landing on Runway 17 at the Majors Airport in Greenville, Texas (KGVT).

Late in the evening, the Class D tower closed, the CTAF frequency was in use over 118.65. The jet crew likely forgot their responsibility to make radio calls once confronted with a landing at a closed Class D Airport. Here's how it affected one GA pilot flying into KGVT...

While in the traffic pattern for Runway 17 at Majors Field, I was giving a currency check to a pilot. We had turned left base and was on final approach to runway 17 approximately 1,000 ft. from approach end of Runway 17 GVT at an altitude of 300 ft. AGL. I was looking at the touchdown point and not looking down the runway. Another aircraft, on the ground preparing to takeoff on runway 17 announced on the CTAF " Aircraft on final for 17 you'd better go around, there is a jet landing on 35". I looked down the runway and sure enough a twin-engine aircraft (later to be identified as a Bombardier Global Express, model BD-700), was about to touchdown on Runway 35. Upon realizing the hazard I immediately executed a go-around on runway 17, started a climb and side-stepped to the west of the runway.

The Majors tower was closed and we were using CTAF (118.65 MHz) to make traffic calls (i.e. downwind, base, final). The wind was light & variable, no ceiling, visibility greater than 10 miles. The Global Express aircraft did not use the published CTAF for GVT because neither the pilot with me nor the aircraft awaiting takeoff on Runway 17 heard any calls from the Global Express.

While not a life-threatening situation, it was very unprofessional of the pilot of the Global Express to not know what frequency to use to make radio calls when the tower was not in operation. Had he made the proper radio calls I could have easily maneuvered to accommodate the Global Express to land on Runway 35 without having to execute a missed approach to avoid a collision on the runway.


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Has This Happened To You?

When was the last time you flew a Class D airport when the tower was closed? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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