Learning to See Things from the Air Traffic Controller's Perspective | Flying Magazine

An Alpha Male Flirts with Bravo Airspace on a Sightseeing Excursion

I Learned about Flying from That, No. 927.

I Learned About Flying from That

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and nobody was flying. What could possibly go wrong?

Barry Ross/BarryRossArt.com

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and nobody was flying. My open-cockpit biplane, a Great Lakes 2T-1A-1, was just the answer for a relaxing start to the day. It’s a great airplane for sightseeing. It flies low and slow, and turns on a dime. I departed Montgomery Airport (KMYF) in San Diego and put down at nearby Gillespie Field (KSEE) for a delicious cheese omelet. When I departed, it was still a ghost town; the Gillespie controller even offered an intersection departure on the perpendicular runway, just for fun. I departed into the clear, gorgeous empty sky. What could possibly go wrong?

I let my instincts take me where they wanted, and I found myself exploring East County and the wide, smooth rocks surrounding Loveland Reservoir. I circled an intriguing private airstrip called On the Rocks and imagined losing my engine but making a successful landing on the broken-up dirt runway. Then I turned back toward the coast via Otay Lake and made a low pass above the skydiving operator at Nichol’s Field (0CL3). Even the parachute guys were sleeping.

I looked at my watch and found it was time to return to Montgomery. For no particular reason, I decided to try a new path home and explore Sweetwater Reservoir and southwest San Diego. We generally stay away from Sweetwater since the Class Bravo ceiling gets down to 1,800 feet by the reservoir near the approach path to San Diego International Airport (KSAN). But it was a clear, calm day, with no aircraft in sight or showing up on my new ADS-B transponder, so I thought I would see the sights just east of the major airport.

I circled the reservoir about 1,600 feet above the ground, wondering why they named it Sweetwater; it looked more like brown water to me. Near the western edge of the reservoir, the Bravo goes down to the surface, which used to be worrisome but doesn’t bother me one bit now that I have more than 2,000 hours and a lot of ForeFlight experience. I’ve even “self-calibrated” ForeFlight against VORs, so I know that my position on the moving map corresponds to the center of the blue aircraft icon, not the wings. Five years ago, when I was getting my private pilot license, I would tease my instructor. He would get bent out of shape if I got near the Bravo. I told him he needed to get an iPad. His idea of where the Bravo began related to vague landmarks. I had GPS precision in my lap!

I headed directly west, staying under 1,800 feet, my eyes darting between the landscape, my instruments and my iPad. Just before hitting the surface Bravo I banked right, smoothly executing a perfectly coordinated turn north, and headed for Mount Helix. I studiously remained under the Bravo until my iPad indicated I had passed it. Then I turned hard west, called up the tower at KMYF and was cleared for a squeaky-clean wheel landing. Pretty much a perfect morning flight! Well, it was perfect until I started taxiing back to the hangar and ground control told me they had a number for me to call for a possible pilot deviation. Exhilaration turned to dread.

Tail between my legs, I called. It was a local San Diego number, so my embarrassment grew with each ring of the phone. When I told them why I was calling, I got a polite request to hold. I waited for the browbeating, but he could not have been nicer. “We just want to be sure, if you’re flying in this area, you know about the Bravo and the rules.”

“Of course,” I diffidently explained. “Granted, I don’t usually fly around Sweetwater Reservoir, but on this calm, empty morning, I decided to explore that part of San Diego, only because I have ForeFlight and was careful to stay out of the Bravo.” He continued to nicely explain that my deviation required they send around an American Airlines Airbus coming in from Dallas.

I was horrified. Here I was, frolicking around at 1,600 feet while above me I was creating havoc. I apologized and once again explained about my best friend, ForeFlight. I told him I likely had a misconception about how my airplane is displayed on the iPad’s moving map and asked if he could tell me exactly where I busted the Bravo.

“Well,” he said, “for that, let me transfer you to the guy who was tracking you.”

The third guy was even nicer than the other two. He emphatically explained that I did not actually bust the Bravo. I was always legal. It’s just that since I was barreling straight ahead, aiming for San Diego International Airport and not talking to anyone, they had to assume I was clueless and would just keep going on a collision course with the jet above me descending on final approach. That’s why they sent the Airbus around. A good decision on their part.

My guess is they wouldn’t have spoken to me if they hadn’t had to deviate the Airbus. I think a lot of us come close to the edge of the Bravo, but ATC probably lets it go if it doesn’t cause a problem. That morning I learned to see it from the controller’s perspective. They explained that it’s fine to fly close to the Bravo, but if you do, you need to be talking to ATC so they know your intentions. What I did was not illegal, but it caused significant stress for a lot of people, made a plane full of passengers 10 minutes late and probably cost American Airlines $10,000. I was legal, but disruptive and very impolite — and here I thought I was such a nice guy!

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