Be Prepared!

General aviation pilots are welcome at busy airports, but only if they can fly like the professionals.

Check out Dick Collins's BIG AIRPORT CHECKLIST

This safety piece, which first appeared in the August edition of the Flying, was written months before the September 11th attacks on America. While the nature of our airspace has changed, and continues to change, we believe the general message, that you need to be prepared and profession when you fly in busy airspace, is more timely now than ever.

  • Don't fly to a major airline airport until you are totally comfortable with air traffic control communications. The controllers are busy; the frequency is congested; and there is no time to repeat instructions. The whole system works because pilots and controllers anticipate each other's words and actions, and there is very little margin to repeat words or explain a clearance. Any time spent talking to a pilot who can't keep up is communications time that is unavailable to keep airplanes separated in the air and on the runway.
  • Don't fly to a major airport-no matter how nice the weather-unless you can fly to IFR standards of heading, altitude and airspeed control. Even on perfectly clear days the major airports operate to instrument flying standards, so, even if you don't have an instrument rating, you will be expected to be able to fly to that level of basic aircraft control. Radar separation is the norm, and it only works if every pilot follows the controller's instructions exactly.
  • Don't fly to a major airport unless you are prepared to maintain at least 100 knots indicated airspeed until reaching the middle marker, which is approximately one-half mile from the runway threshold. Most basic singles are capable of flying that fast, particularly since you are descending to land, but many pilots don't know how to do it. You must forget all of that stuff about a "stabilized approach" and keep the power and flaps up. There will be plenty of runway ahead of you to slow down and land at any airport where that kind of speed is required on final.
  • Don't fly to a major airline airport if there is a viable general aviation airport alternative. I know that it is our right to fly into any airport, and I cherish that privilege, but we can only keep it by not abusing it. General aviation is only a tiny component of the airport and airspace congestion problem, and we need to keep it that way.

Having said all of that, when your mission for whatever good reason takes you to a big airport, how do you prepare?

An obvious first step is to study the charts for the airport. And I would start with the airport diagram because no matter how confusing the airspace may be around a big airport, the maze of runways, taxiways, terminals and ramps is even more overwhelming. And making a mistake on the ground can be even more hazardous than in the air. The FAA has identified runway incursions as a major safety threat, particularly at large airline airports.

Jeppesen produces the best and most detailed airport diagrams, usually printed on a fold-out page to double the size of a normal approach chart. There are other airport directories, including the official Airport/Facility Directory from the FAA, but none has the detail of the Jepp diagram. If you are not a Jeppesen chart subscriber you can still buy a Trip Kit that includes all of the charts associated with the airport and surrounding area. The charts in the Trip Kit won't be updated, so they have a limited useful life but are ideal for the occasional trips into complex airports.

Jeppesen usually marks the general aviation FBO location on the airport diagram for large airports. By studying the chart, you can usually figure out which runway, or runways, controllers are likely to assign to general aviation airplanes. They don't want to make the taxi trip any more complicated for you than necessary. In fact, at some major airports that have two FBOs, the controllers will ask where you plan to park so that they can try to put you on the most convenient runway. If you are familiar with the airport layout, the taxi in and back out will be less confusing than if you look at the chart for the first time after clearing the runway.

With a phone call to the FBO on the big airport you can learn about landing, parking and ramp fees. Many major airports have substantial fees and a few, such as New York's JFK and La Guardia, have peak period fees that add at least another $100 to the tab. If you need fuel, expect to pay a premium price. Much of the cost comes from "flow fees" and other taxes levied on aircraft using major airports. There are several sources of FBO names and phone numbers, but my favorite and the most accurate and complete source for major airports is Ac-U-Kwik. This fat little directory is sold by FBOs, or you can call 800/400-5945 for information.

The next chart that requires study is the terminal area chart, either IFR or VFR, depending on how you plan to conduct the flight. If you plan to fly IFR into Washington National, New York JFK and La Guardia, or Chicago O'Hare, you will need a reservation for certain times of the day.

The IFR reservations can be made with a touchtone phone by calling the FAA's Automated Voice Airport Reservation System at 800/875-9694. The computer voice talks you through the reservation process, and it all makes sense, until it comes time to enter your N-number. The drill is to push the phone button that shows the letter you want to enter, followed by the number that represents the desired letter's position on the button. For example, to enter "N" you press the six button and then two because N is the second letter shown on the six button. The computer voice reads back each entry as you make it. Digits are entered by pressing zero and then the desired number button. The Ac-U-Kwik directory-along with a treasure trove of useful information-contains detailed instructions on how to use the reservation system. You'll need a separate reservation for landing and departing IFR.

When you examine the terminal area chart, try to familiarize yourself with as many fixes as possible. You won't be able to anticipate all of a controller's instructions because routing around a major airport is not obvious due to the constraints of departure and arrival corridors and conflicts with other airports. However, if you have studied the terminal area chart you will not be as stumped when the controller clears you direct to BREZY intersection as if you have never seen the word before.

Whether arriving IFR or VFR, don't expect to enter a traffic pattern at a major airport in the conventional sense of the word. You may be vectored on a wide downwind, but don't expect instructions to enter the pattern on your own. In visual conditions the controller will point out the traffic around you and assign you somebody to follow. If you don't see the other airplane the controller is talking about, say so. And if you aren't sure that you're looking at an Airbus 320 instead of a Boeing 737, say so. Make sure you have the right airplane in sight before you accept the clearance to follow it.

Most runways at big airports are served by ILS approaches. No matter what the weather, it's good practice to dial up the localizer frequency for the runway you are assigned. It's easy to confuse one runway for another at many large airports, and if the localizer needle doesn't center when you are flying toward what you think is the correct runway, there is a problem and you will have time to sort it out.

Another reason to monitor the ILS when approaching a big airport visually is to aid in avoiding wake turbulence. Pilots of large airplanes are required to fly on or above the glideslope guidance-either the electronic ILS type or the visual VASI-to the runway. When you are behind a large airplane flying radar vectors the controllers will keep you the required distance in trail for wake avoidance. But when you accept a clearance for a visual approach and to follow another airplane to a runway, the wake avoidance task shifts to you, with, of course, the cautionary note from the controller.

The best way to avoid a large airplane wake is to stay above the flight path of the airplane leaving the wake. Because the large airplane will track close to the glideslope, you can fly well above the glideslope and reasonably expect to stay above the wake. Plan to touch down beyond the touchdown point of the large airplane, because the wake ends when the wings stop lifting. Your extra speed on final should make a long landing more natural.

Unless the tower tells you otherwise, turn off the runway as soon as possible. Your study of the airport diagram will help you know which way to the FBO, and turn that direction if possible. Be sure your tail is clear of the runway hold short bars on the taxiway or you haven't really cleared the runway. It's better to enter a parallel taxiway than to leave your tail on the runway side of the hold short bars.

Many ground controllers will offer progressive taxi instructions to a pilot who is obviously not familiar with a big airport. If they don't and there is any doubt in your mind about your taxi clearance, ask for progressive instructions. You will be required to read back exactly any instructions to hold short of a runway or taxiway.

Your departure from the major airport will be easier. The same taxi complications exist, but you will be departing with a specific clearance to fly, no matter if you are leaving IFR or VFR. The IFR clearance will most likely be a standard instrument departure (SID), which often includes the initial altitude and departure control frequency as part of the procedure. Many SIDs require a turn to a published heading when climbing through a specific altitude. Be sure you understand every detail of the SID notes for the departure runway you will be using. And then expect everything to change. It's much more common for a controller to issue a new heading or altitude or route shortly after takeoff than it is to fly the full published SID procedure, but you need to be ready to fly the full SID just in case.

A VFR departure clearance is typically an altitude and heading. You may be cleared to a VOR or some landmark, but most likely you will be given vectors to fly out of the Class B or C airspace.

It is an exciting challenge to fly into a major airport if you are up to the task. You can practice the communications skills and aircraft control that are required in less congested airspace, and you can study all available information to prepare. But once you go into the major airport terminal area you are expected to fly with the same level of professionalism as the other pilots using that airspace. It's not so much what airplane you fly, but how you fly, that makes the difference.