The holding went well and we were also lucky enough to get traffic advisories from Oakland Center. In fact, the controller seemed to be in a particularly friendly and helpful mood, in spite of the number of aircraft requesting services. I told him that we were finished holding and wanted to go to Petaluma. He told us to squawk VFR and frequency change was approved, then added that there were numerous targets heading into and out of Petaluma and to use caution. And he was right.
Petaluma is a non-towered airport - there is no control tower. Some pilots refer to this as an "uncontrolled field," a misnomer that belies a basic misunderstanding of a pilot's rights and responsibilities. There is control at non-towered airport - each pilot using the airport is to adhere to the procedures described in AC90-66A Recommended Standards Traffic Patterns for Aeronautical Operations at Airports without Operating Control Towers and the recommendations in the Aeronautical Information Manual. While there's no air traffic controller telling people what to do at these airports, each pilot is supposed to use self control and follow the rules. Here are some highlights from these two sources.
Turn on landing and anti-collision lights to make your aircraft easier to see.
If your aircraft has a radio, self-announce your position and intentions over the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) on Unicom.
Remember that not all aircraft have radios at non-towered fields so be vigilant for traffic and adhere to basic right-of-way rules. Use caution for possible ultralight, glider, balloon, and parachute operations.
While straight-in approaches are not prohibited, it is preferable to do a 45˚ entry to the midpoint on the downwind leg.
Piston aircraft should use 1000' AGL traffic pattern altitudes, turbine aircraft should use 1500' AGL, or the altitudes specified for the airport in the Airport/Facilities Directory.
Report 10 miles from the airport, giving your aircraft type, the last three digits/characters of your tail number, positions relative to the airport, altitude, and intentions. Give similar reports at 5 miles out, entering downwind, turning base, turning final, and exiting the runway.
Fly a standard traffic pattern or the traffic pattern established for the airport (found in the Airport/Facility Directory).
Combine these conventions with basic right-of-way rules, plus a dash of common sense and operations at a non-towered field should remain under control. Alas, this is not always the case. Just as in the world of automobile driving, the flying world has its share of pilots who don't know or don't remember the rules, or they simply don't want to bother to follow them.
In addition to the usual confusion caused by a lot of air traffic, today several pilots at Petaluma were using an unapproved radio technique I find ineffective, confusing, and just stupid. Instead of just identifying themselves with their aircraft's manufacturer or type and the last 3 characters/digits of their tail number, like "Piper 33 Xray," virtually all of the aircraft were saying things like "Blue on White Warrior."
Hello? Virtually all GA aircraft are some color or another on white. In fact there were so many "blue on white" aircraft self-announcing their positions today, that everyone was getting confused. Several pilots were referring to their position using local landmarks that out-of-towners were unlikely to know - another unapproved radio technique. And the reason there was so much traffic? There was some sort of fly-in, though I never found out what it was.
As we approached, I thought about a instigating a subtle parody of these other pilots by identifying us as "crimson on white Tobago," but decided to stick with the textbook procedure. We maneuvered for a 45˚ entry about 3 miles out, managed to get on downwind with little conflict, and someone holding short of the runway asked if we could extend our downwind to allow a couple of departures. "Sure can" was our response because it pays to be polite. But not everyone was polite. One pilot, who sounded old enough to know better, began shouting at other aircraft, then blurted out "Goddamn it!" Nice, very nice. We got some fuel and got out of there fast.
Please, please, don't use the "white Cherokee, turning final" style phraseology at non-towered airports. It's not sanctioned, it's confusing, it dumb, and it's potentially dangerous. Use the last three digits/characters of your tail number preceded by your aircraft model or manufacturer and include your altitude with your location, just like you would when talking to ATC. And if you have a chance to do something courteous or help someone out at a non-towered airport, why not do so? Set a good example. We have enough bad examples out there.
Heading out of Oakland today and then heading back in, I saw something that I've seen several times in the last two weeks in TIS-equipped aircraft: An aircraft target with no altitude reported, just north of the Mormon Temple (about 6nm from the Oakland VORTAC on the 355 radial). A few days ago, the TIS in a plane I was flying barked out "Traffic! Traffic!" as we passed. I was looking high and low, but saw nothing.
Today, I got the urge to ask the Oakland Tower controller if he was painting a target in that location with no altitude tag. He kindly explained that this was some sort of phony datum target used by Norcal to calibrate their radar. I thanked him and mentioned that it makes TIS give traffic alerts, but he assured me it was not for real. I wonder, does Norcal have any idea what a pain in the fundament this phony target is for pilots of TIS-equipped aircraft? At the very least, they should inform us that it's there.