Lights On, Nobody Home

We can read you...

We can read you…

Returning west, we were often dodging through the clouds. We flew at ten thousand feet or so, and descending to an airport seven thousand feet below took fifteen to twenty minutes. At least, that was a comfortable rate. We could also just push the noise over and scream down, but then we would be swallowing a lot during the ride to lunch to get our ears to pop.

The ride up through the eastern portion of Kansas was a real game of storm dodging. Kansas City Center was extremely helpful. There was another line of heavy precipitation headed our way, but we were half an hour ahead of it. We were headed for Manhattan, Kansas, which calls itself “The Little Apple.” So cute.

When we were within fifteen miles, Center told us to switch frequencies to the tower. We did, since I had already listened to the ATIS on another frequency. As the plane trundled down a slope to pattern altitude (two thousand feet), I checked in with the tower. “Manhattan tower, Diamondstar niner seven one romeo delta inbound with oscar.” I always wait a little before talking on a frequency, because I hate interrupting. It was quiet. After my transmission I wait a little longer than you might on a telephone because you can’t tell if you have the attention of the person on the other end.

Dead silence. That happens sometimes, even at my home field. The controller is on the phone or on the ground frequency and misses the call. So I make the call a second time, identical to the first. Then I wait again. Three minutes with no response and, unfortunately, we are about to enter Class Delta airspace around an airport without being identified and speaking with a controller. That’s a violation, so I pull back on the control and the plane hops up and over the airspace.

I try the ground frequency, since we are directly over the airport. There’s no answer there, either. As we glide over, and I try the tower again, I look down at the airport. There’s no activity at all. I check the Airport Guide again (I had already looked at all the detail for the airport, that’s standard as we fly into a new place), but the airport is meant to be open. I switch back to Center’s frequency and give them a holler. They are right there, so my radio must be okay. But they are busy and don’t seem to really register my complaint that no one is answering at Manhattan tower.

We need fuel. Not desperately, but that’s one of the things that keeps us bouncing onto the ground rather than just continuing a long flight across the plains. The plane can fly about five hundred forty miles on a tank of fuel and we have gone a little over two hundred. So we’re not worried, but that’s the next order of business. So I press the NRST button to find the nearest airport with fuel. It’s a little over ten miles away and we are descending to land in less than five minutes. I announce our intention to land on the CTAF, worried that my radio is working only intermittently or only for Center frequencies. The airport is dead quiet.

This is a really little community airport where we’ve landed on the one paved runway and the two which intersect it are grass. We taxi over and park on the ramp. A fellow comes out with a fuel truck and tops us off. I explain the Manhattan tower situation and he sort of shrugs. He works at an airport that doesn’t have a tower at all, so the vagaries of all that control and personnel… obviously not something he cares a lot about.

Since I am worried about the radios he agrees to stand in the little terminal building (unmanned otherwise) and listen (it is equipped with a speaker system which broadcasts the CTAF audio so that passengers waiting for an incoming plane can hear it arriving and announcing itself). After I start up and do a “Radio check, radio check,” he runs out with a thumbs up. Well, that’s good. I always think it’s my fault at first.



So, fueled up, radio working, we take off and head back to Manhattan. As we depart tiny Freeman Field in Junction City, I point out to Bob that there’s a McDonald’s within walking distance of the field. I say that if we can’t land and lunch at Manhattan we’ll come back and stroll into town. He agrees.

On the 9.9 nautical mile trip back to Manhattan I talked to Center. I explain that we couldn’t get anyone to answer on the tower frequency and the controller says he’ll give them a try on the telephone. He comes back in a minute and says he can’t reach anyone either. We’ve made it to the field at this point and I try a few times on the tower and ground frequencies. Finally, someone answers on the ground frequency, but only to say, “Aircraft calling Manhattan, keep trying, I know they’re up there.”

So we circle the field, just above the controlled airspace. There is no motion below. I was doing steep banked turns about a point, but Bob pointed out that his stomach was empty and churning in a tight spin wasn’t helping. So we flattened out and started flying triangles. After some more consultation with Center we gave them the phone number for one of the FBOs on the field. Center called the FBO to learn that there was nothing anyone KNEW about that should keep the tower from answering. The controller came back and said, “I can’t really tell you what to do, you’re pilot-in-command, but I admit we’re pretty curious now what might be happening down there.“ My favorite thing is that the Center controller I was talking to said, “If you do get on the ground and over to the tower, it would be great to check on them. The code on the tower door is… (silence) well, it’s usually open.“ I came really close to getting him to say the little three digit code for a secure installation over an open frequency.

I’ve seen too many movies. I assumed that the tower had been taken over by those guys that are always after Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Or that the personnel opened their FAA forms that arrived in the mail and inhaled a handful of cyanide powder. You know, something dramatic. So I am guessing at all these wild scenarios, but I finally just decide we need to get it on the ground. I treat the tower frequency as a CTAF and announce my position and intentions. The Center controllers know what I am going to do, so I figure if they are guiding anyone in they will point me out. And no one can enter the airspace around the airport without speaking on frequency first. I feel a little covered.

I announce my position over half a dozen times as I enter the pattern, make my turns and line up for a landing. It was a smooth landing, and we turn off at the first taxiway to get to the FBO that has the best reviews. Just as we made the turned onto the ramp area the ground frequency answered one of my many position announcements with, “Diamondstar one romeo delta, taxi as requested.” I acknowledged and replied that Kansas City Center wanted them to give a call on the land line. There was a pause and then, “Uh, thanks.”

Best reviews, yes, but the FBO had no loaner car, no way to get a rental car over to them… really they were a shop for their usual customers. So we had to get back in the plane and taxi to the other FBO. I thought at first they were going to hit us up for a ramp fee, but I realized it was another branch of the place we had gotten fuel at over in Junction City. Once I mentioned it, the guy helping us tie down became much more friendly and gave us the crew car and directions to the lunch area.

McDonalds was the only option in the Little Apple. That was a disappointment. On the way back to the airport we took the longer, larger road route and discovered some fancier chains. The important thing is that while we were wolfing out hot-n-salty fried protein shapes the line of thunderstorms swept through the town. There were some high winds and I was glad we had tied down securely.



Back at the airport we planned the next leg (up to Goodland, KS, where a friend of mine once planned a fuel stop and arrived in the traffic pattern only to realize that the field was closed, one of those times you realize why you plan a fuel reserve). We waited for a little bit more clearing of the clouds and calm of the winds and then saddled up.

The tower had a different voice when we spoke to them on the ground and then tower frequencies. I’m still trying to figure out where to send a note to the FAA. Another pilot on the field said that the same thing had happened to him and he had walked over to the tower and climbed the steps to find the controller watching a movie on her laptop.

Goodland didn’t have a tower.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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