Technique

Playing in the Big League

May 1, 2006

Flying into big airports can be fun — really

"Reading departure signs in some big airport/Reminds me of the places I've been." So sings the captain of Air Margaritaville himself, Jimmy Buffett, in his song, Changes in Lattitudes, Changes in Attitudes. I sometimes think of that song when I am sitting in the terminal of a little airport, one that doesn't have but a fraction of the air-carrier operations of the megaplexes.

Generally speaking, flights from a smaller, class or type of airport connect to one of a handful of major hub or hublike locations, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, Chicago O'Hare International, and New York City's John F. Kennedy International. If you've ever flown into a major facility like one of those as a passenger on an airliner, you can only imagine what it must be like to operate in that type of busy, high-volume airspace. If you have ever listened to the radio in the vicinity of one of these locales, you know that you can get thoroughly intimidated by the machine-gun pace of the radio chatter, and if you have ever heard someone get a little short-tempered, then it only adds to your concerns. It doesn't help that almost every CFI teaches that Class B airspace stands for "big" and "busy."

But some of the largest airports in the United States are actually some of the most fun to fly into (see " Waypoints: Flying America's Airports," December 2005 Pilot). The fun quotient can be from more than one source. In a few places, the view on the arrival might be the best part. In others, it might be knowing that you can hold your own with the controllers. Either way, you can't enjoy it if you don't try it.

I remember well how nervous I was about my first foray into a major field — for me it was Baltimore/Washington International Airport (recently renamed to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport). Since then, I've been to a number of large airports, and while I will always favor going to a small grass strip with no radio, I've still managed to find a few favorites among the big fields. I've learned a few secrets along the way as well.

First, the secrets. Even old and grizzled airline captains make mistakes. Some mistakes are because we are unsure of what the chart says or what the controller means. Others are because we are in a hurry, we are first-time visitors, or we are just plain tired. If the captain is fresh out of training, he may be nervous and make a wrong turn.

I know. I've done it. And guess what? I've lived to fly another day.

It doesn't make any difference what kind of equipment you are flying, you need to try to figure out where the controllers likely will have you land. At some airports, you can look at the diagram, and it is obvious which runway you will be assigned. If you're in a general aviation aircraft, it's almost always the one that puts you closest to the general aviation ramp. In the event that you need to land on a different runway, you should look at the diagram and figure out the simplest way the controllers have for making you taxi to your final destination. You can be pretty sure that you won't be taxiing on or across any airline ramps. This isn't an absolute rule, but there are very few exceptions. Making yourself familiar with the airport layout will allow you to plan the arrival runway and the turnoff you will probably make. At places with lots of runways, use a localizer to verify you've lined up with the right one.

Here are my favorite "big" airports:

Boston. General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport sits out in the water a bit, on the eastern edge of the city. Coming into Boston from the south can be a real treat, especially on a clear autumn day. Time it right and you can catch a stunning view of the colorful New England trees. Where the leaves have fallen, you can see some of the older homes, going back who knows how many years. If traffic is landing on Runway 27 or on the south parallels, you can be vectored slightly to the east, where you can clearly make out Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket Island, and the curve of Cape Cod. They look exactly like they do on that grade- school map you studied. As you approach the airport, expect some beautiful views of the famous old New England lighthouses; the city skyline stretches over the airport to the west, providing a nice mixture of old and new.

Surrounding the airport are some small harbors and inlets and, typical of the Northeast, the development is extensive. The homes are old, but somewhat stately. Those on the water have a phenomenal view of the operations at the airport. As you fly over those old neighborhoods, you cannot help but look down at the narrow streets and wonder how it would be to live where you can see a Boeing 747 in Virgin Atlantic colors mix it up with a Cape Air Cessna 402. I have no idea who lives in those homes, but I like to think some of them are pilots. Whoever they are, I'm jealous.

Most likely, if you land in Boston, approach control will try to set you up to land on 15L/33R, a 2,500-foot-long runway. Wake turbulence from other aircraft may be an issue, especially with operations on intersecting runways, so be aware and plan accordingly. Watch out, though, as the landing and parking fees here also can be truly breathtaking.

Atlanta. Atlanta's international airport is the busiest airport in the world, and one of the most challenging when the weather turns sour. But the controllers are some of the best. A sense of humor abounds, and it helps if you can contribute without going overboard. You'll be parking on the north side of the airport, and in all probability, landing there as well. No matter which side you land on, it will be on the outboard runway. Land on 26R and it will be a quick right turn to the ramp.

Miami. Miami International Airport is best described as "controlled chaos." There are a number of foreign carriers that operate in and out of this airport and seemingly every variety of aircraft can be seen here: Boeing 747s and 777s, McDonnell-Douglas MD-80s and Douglas DC-3s, and everything in between. On top of that, most of the foreign carriers coming to Miami are coming from Latin and South America, with a few from Europe thrown in for fun. On the radio, the thick accents and truncated English can be difficult, if not impossible, to decipher. The controllers are among the best in the business, and sometimes I wonder if even they understand what is being said. I've often wondered if they just give an order and hope it is followed.

Throw into the mix the sudden fury of south Florida thunderstorms and things can get dicey in a hurry. Times like these are when the controllers really shine, vectoring traffic away from both the weather and other traffic. Their workload is intensified by the fact that just to the north is Fort Lauderdale, itself a busy port. Training aircraft are all over the place — I've seen those DC-3s land single engine, and helicopters and banner towers are all trying to transit the airspace. Yet, it works, and well.

The arrival into Miami plays right into your imagination. From the north, you'll fly just off the beaches, looking down at the pristine waters and white sands you've seen on postcards and Miami Vice. From the south, you might be lucky enough to fly over Key Biscayne, with a number of boaters out sailing, fishing, or just relaxing. If you catch the controllers vectoring you across the extended final of the east/west runways, you'll see the Orange Bowl, site of a few Super Bowls and national championship football games. The inlets and classic Florida houses will have you pining for real estate down here before you land.

All of the general aviation parking is on the north side of the airport, so in all probability you will land on one of the two parallel runways on that side. You will, however, be expected to respond quickly to commands from the controllers. Once you are on the ground, clear the runway quickly.

Salt Lake City. Salt Lake is one of the most beautiful cities in the world to fly into. The valley is in a north/south configuration, as are all but one of the runways. To the east, the mountains tower over the airport and city. To the west are the lake itself, Antelope Island, and a copper mine. Arriving from the west, you might cross over the Bonneville Salt Flats. From the east and southeast, you will see some of the most rugged mountains in the Rockies.

My first exposure to Salt Lake City International Airport occurred on an overcast day. The mountaintops were poking through the tops of the clouds, and when we entered the layer, I was not prepared for just how stunning the view below would be. Those snow-covered mountaintops were the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and the sheer size of them as you descend is quite humbling. In clear weather, little rivals an approach to Salt Lake from the east. The mountains are true frontier, and the valley, lake, and city spread out before you like a carpet.

In the winter, fog is very common in the valley, often requiring an ILS approach to near minimums. The biggest adjustment here for people not used to it is the elevation of the airport: 4,227 feet msl. You would be wise to study mountain operations and the performance charts in your pilot's operating handbook to know what your climb rates and maximum takeoff weights are likely to be. Practice a few go-arounds at reduced power to experience the diminished engine performance.

Salt Lake does have a smaller municipal airport colloquially known as Number Two (I swear) — because of its name, Salt Lake City Municipal 2 — but even though the international airport is technically a hub airport for Delta Air Lines, there is plenty of room for the GA guys to fit in, as traffic is not too terribly heavy. The GA ramp is on the east side of the field, next to Runway 17/35, so expect to use that runway. A benefit of flying here is that the controllers often announce which way the airport is landing, which is nice because sometimes you need to be closer to the airport than you are accustomed to before you can fully pick up the ATIS, and the heads-up makes your planning a little bit easier.

JFK and O'Hare. Two airports that see little, if any, general aviation traffic, John F. Kennedy International and O'Hare, are still fun places to visit. The controllers are all business, and for good reason. Controllers at both airports are working some pretty congested airspace with smaller, satellite airports nearby (Chicago Midway International in Chicago and La Guardia in New York). The key to flying into both is to listen. Because there are so many airline flight numbers, nonairline call signs stand out. Listen carefully, listen as fast as they talk, and do what you are told, and you will be OK. Besides, at both of these places, you will see some airplanes from all over the world, mostly 767s, 747s, and 777s, one after the other. And at JFK you might gain hope for world peace: Air India and Air Pakistan park right next to each other.

Flying into busy, crowded international airports does not have to be hard. A few minutes with an airport diagram, which you can download from AOPA's Airport Directory Online, and maybe a phone call to the tower, will go a long way to easing your nerves. Study the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) for proper ATC lingo, and practice with your instructor or another pilot. Leave plenty of room between you and the big beast in front of you and, before you go, review the wake turbulence and vortex avoidance procedures found in the AIM.

The first time truly is the worst. It won't take long for you to feel comfortable, especially when you see a "heavy" make a mistake and say to yourself, "What was he thinking?" Who knows, maybe that 747 will be forced to follow you to the runway. That's when you know you belong.


Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet pilot for a commercial airline.