When ATC is not in charge

Pilots are taught early about working with air traffic control, including that we are expected to comply with air traffic control directions and clearances. In fact, FAR 91.123 states that we may not deviate from an ATC clearance or instruction unless we have obtained an amended clearance, an emergency exists, or we’re responding to a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) alert. There are a few other exceptions to this general principle. One of them has to do with operating at an airport without an operating tower in Class G airspace and whether ATC can clear us to make turns to the right when the regulation requires that all turns when approaching the airport must be made to the left. 

The regulation that applies to our approach and landing at a nontowered field in Class G airspace is FAR 91.126, and paragraph (b) of the regulation identifies the direction of our turns when approaching to land at that airport in order to assist in the orderly and safe flow of traffic into and out of the airport. That is, we are expected to make all turns to the left unless the airport displays light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right. The FAA maintains that the circumstances under which one may deviate from the left-hand turn requirement are very limited, and any exceptions are dictated by approach guidelines to the airport or another FAA regulation. Any exception to the left-hand turn requirement is communicated directly to the pilot from the airport. 

However, the regulation also states that the requirements of the regulation must be met “unless otherwise authorized or required” prompting a pilot to pose the question to the FAA about whether ATC can authorize turns at the nontowered airport that may be contrary to the left- or right-hand turn requirement at that airport. In responding to the pilot’s question, the FAA explained that this regulatory language does not allow ATC to authorize or require different turns. The FAA says, “ATC does not control traffic in Class G airspace[,] [t]herefore, ATC may not issue clearance to conduct a right hand turn at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G Airspace.” So, if you’re talking to ATC as you approach a nontowered airport in Class G airspace, ATC should not give you instructions for specific turns or runways at the airport except to the extent that you may be on an IFR approach. Rather, ATC will advise you to change to the airport advisory frequency and thereafter you’ll be expected to communicate your actions on that frequency and comply with FAR 91.126 to land at the airport.  

Learn more about AOPA Pilot Protection Services here.

Kathy Yodice
Kathy Yodice
Ms. Yodice is an instrument rated private pilot and experienced aviation attorney who is licensed to practice law in Maryland and the District of Columbia. She is active in several local and national aviation associations, and co-owns a Piper Cherokee and flies the family Piper J-3 Cub.
Topics: ATC, FAA Information and Services, Pilot Protection Services

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