How to Handle a Lost Comms Situation in VFR Flight

How to Handle a Lost Comms Situation in VFR Flight

By Josh Page, CFI

You’re flying along enjoying the beautiful views on a bright, sunny VFR day when suddenly your radios go out. You have no way to contact ATC. Anxiety starts to settle in. What now? You can take a deep breath and relax. Thankfully, there are procedures in place for the many situations you might encounter in flight, and this one is no exception. It’s also not uncommon. 

First things first

If you ever have trouble with your radio, the first thing you’ll want to do is troubleshoot the issue. Here’s a tip that will solve many of your radio problems: Make sure your volume is turned up and you’re tuned to the correct frequency! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students unsuccessfully try to reach tower when their frequency was tuned to another airport. No wonder tower didn’t respond to them! When I’m returning from a cross country trip with a student, I always watch to see if they’ll remember to make sure the volume is up before calling. Many times, I have to remind them just before they make their call. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was a student flying solo. One day, I called up the tower to let them know I was inbound for landing. After several seconds I realized my volume was down. I turned it back up and made my call again and it just so happened to be our infamous grumpy ATC controller. He wasn’t happy. I had cut someone off on the radio and now I was making him repeat his instructions. So, check your volume and your frequency. 

If that doesn’t work, try your secondary radio if you have one. Sometimes a single radio can have an issue while the other is fine. 

If these steps don’t work, don’t panic. The adventure begins!

Towered Airport

Let’s start with a towered airport scenario.

If you’re flying to a towered airport and have experienced communications failure, it’s time to pull out your cell phone. If you have a signal and have the phone number to your tower, give them a call and let them know where you are and what’s going on. They’ll give you instructions back into the airport. If you don’t have the number to your local tower, look on your VFR sectional for Flight Service Station (FSS) and give them a call. They will be able to contact the tower for you. 

You might not have a cell signal, no worries. Squawk 7600 — the universal lost comms squawk code. This lets ATC know that you’re flying around with no ability to talk to anyone. Fly to the outside edge of your airport’s airspace and begin to circle while you wait for the tower to shoot you a light gun signal. These are hard to miss even on a bright sunny day — just be sure to be looking toward the tower. You’ll want to remember what each light stands for.

Here’s a quick recap of the signals: If you see a steady green light, you’re good to return and are cleared to land. A flashing green light means you can return to the airport and expect a landing clearance shortly. A steady red light means continue circling; you’re not cleared yet. A flashing red light means the airport is not safe, don’t attempt to land. And lastly, an alternating red and green means exercise extreme caution. 

How about a non-towered airport?

 If you’re flying to a non-towered airport, climb up 1000’ above the pattern altitude if you’re able. (Remember some non-towered airports are located right below the shelf of class B or class C airspace, so just just be sure you won’t climb into anyone’s airspace). From there, view the airport below and determine which runway you should use based on the wind and traffic. Take careful note of where all the traffic is located in the pattern so that you don’t get too close to anyone. When you’re ready, descend and enter the traffic pattern on a 45-degree angle into the appropriate downwind. 

Bringing it Home

Just the other day, I was returning from a cross country flight with a student when our electrical system went out. We eventually lost both our radios, lights, and flaps. I pulled out my cell phone and was able to call our tower but couldn’t talk for long before we lost cell signal. Fortunately, the controller who answered was someone I had taken on a flight a while back. Since that time, we’ve stayed in contact. As soon as we lost cell signal, he texted me and gave me the clearance to enter the pattern and eventually to land — all this through text! That’s something I’ve never experienced before! 

Losing comms is not an emergency. You’ve still got a great running engine! It’s important to remember to always remain calm when things like this happen. Take your time and follow the procedures. It’s always good to review the steps so that if you ever encounter this situation, you’ll be ready to handle it with confidence and skill — and have a great story to tell!

by Josh Page, CFI

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