Waypoints: Thank you, ATC

January 1, 2008

Martinsburg. As I heard the clearance, my pencil stood motionless a fraction of an inch above the kneeboard. My first thought was that this must be some new guy—a controller in training who doesn’t know the ropes. I copied the clearance while shaking my head and then read it back just the way I had heard it, certain the controller would correct me. He’d say something like: “Just one correction, upon entering controlled airspace, proceed to the Westminster VOR; the rest of the clearance is correct.” After all, in nearly 20 years of flying from Maryland’s Frederick Municipal Airport I had never been given an IFR clearance that didn’t start at Westminster, located about 20 miles to the east of Frederick.

Instead of the correction on this day a few months ago, I heard, “Advise when number one for departure.”

Still convinced that he didn’t get it, I finally asked for confirmation that the first waypoint was Martinsburg. “Yes, it’s something new we’re trying,” came the confident reply. Wow! At a time when it seems that air traffic control routings and clearances only get more complicated and only seem to be issued for the convenience of the security agencies, the FAA, and the airlines, perhaps they’re lobbing a bone to general aviation.

As I’ve written here before, until this summer, anytime you left Frederick headed in any direction, you had to fly eastward toward Westminster for radar identification before you could turn toward your desired direction of flight, which is often westward. After several minutes in the air, you’d find yourself flying back over Frederick finally headed in the right direction. Headed south in anything other than a turbine-powered airplane able to climb quickly? Forget it; you’re not getting into the massive Class B airspace complex that houses the multiple military and airline airports surrounding Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Never mind the imposing air defense identification zone and the flight restricted zone around the capital city.

I turned westward toward Martinsburg, still thinking they got it wrong. But no, the helpful controller almost immediately had me radar identified and cleared on my westward way. Skeptic that I am, I assumed that it wouldn’t happen again. But it was the same drill the next flight and the one after and ever since.

To find out what changed, I called Randy Horner, one of the managers at Potomac Approach. He is one of the ones I have grumbled to over the years about the routings into and out of Frederick. He said the change to the departure routings was a result of the controllers all being in the same room and better able to manage the flow of traffic. Potomac Approach was created in late 2002 when the separate approach control facilities for five major airports were consolidated into one facility. “Everybody on both sides of the mic likes it better. Overall it’s worked well,” Horner said of the change. He was also quick to note that VFR pilots flying through the Washington ADIZ now usually have a dedicated frequency they deal with, which eases the workload for the controllers and improves service for the pilots. That combined with the recent slight shrinkage of the ADIZ has made life more tolerable for pilots in the region, but we still have numerous airports trapped under the ADIZ with severe restrictions placed on the pilots based there.

I was thinking about this new-found level of cooperation and willingness to change a few months later when I was headed back to Frederick from the Atlanta area. The XM Satellite Weather system on the Garmin GNS 530 showed a large isolated thunderstorm parked right over Martinsburg, which is the usual IFR gateway into Frederick when arriving from any westerly direction. Crossing the Montebello VOR well to the southwest of the D.C. area I was already wondering what ATC was going to do to us, given the location of the thunderstorm. The storm seemed to be stationary, but if it started moving, it wouldn’t take long to cross a couple of ridges to Frederick. The XM-delivered METAR for Frederick showed calm winds and clear skies.

Hoping to plant a seed for a convenient routing, I asked Editor at Large Tom Horne, who was in the right seat and manning the radios, to ask Potomac Approach for a clearance to the Brooke VOR then to the Barin Intersection and then north to Frederick. The routing would take us between Ronald Reagan-Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports—a convenient path we used to often get when coming up from the south. But with the implementation of the ADIZ in 2003 and the flare up of Dulles-based Independence Air, that easy passage mostly went away.

Imagine my surprise when the controller responded with just such a clearance. A few minutes later we were tooling along between the two major airports with Frederick just ahead and the storm still well to the west.

When I later asked Horner about the change, he said that such a routing may still be available from time to time when the airport is less busy. While still a busy airport, Dulles doesn’t see the spikes in traffic that it did during the brief heyday of now-bankrupt Independence Air.

Here’s a personal thank you to the FAA and the controllers at Potomac Approach who are willing to give new procedures a try. Let’s hope 2008 brings as many new improvements as 2007.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines pilots a Bonanza A36 from Frederick, Maryland (FDK).

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.