December 8, 2009
By Ian J. Twombly
You want a good grade from the FAA when traveling in Class C and D airspace, because the alternative is a violation reported to your local FAA Flight Standards District Office. Yet it may have been years since you had to deal with either class of airspace.
The simple plan for this article was to fly to Class C and D airspace, interview controllers, and report the results. Then things got complicated. I realized the old-fashioned Terminal Radar Service Area (TRSA)—there still are a few of them out there—borrows from both C and D airspace, so that was added to the list.
When trying to find a simple Class D airport I got FAA approval to interview the helpful controllers at Reading, Pennsylvania, but Reading turned out to be one of only three Class D airports in the nation with approach and departure control—not a real Class D airport (more like a D+ airport). I dubbed it “Stealth Class D” because you won’t find either the outlines of the airspace or the approach control frequencies on a sectional chart. The controllers at the top of the tower (called a tower cab) also act as approach controllers. Normal tracons (terminal radar approach controls) like those at TRSA and Class C airports direct aircraft from a darkened room on the first or second floor of the tower.
I first flew to Class C airspace at Allentown, Pennsylvania. You’ll notice on your sectional chart that most Class C airspace has magenta flags outside the boundaries. They are generally five nautical miles (nm) outside the outer boundary. Those are reporting points where you can make your first contact with controllers if you desire. I chose to fly to one of them and radar contact was almost instantaneous; the controller knew exactly where to look on his scope. Allentown controllers don’t care whether or not you fly to one of the reporting points, but other Class C airports may have different preferences.
“Tell us who you are, where you are, what you want to do, and where you want to land, whether it’s the primary airport or a satellite airport,” said Allentown controller John Herber. Problems result when pilots wait too long to call or are not sure where they are, and stray into the airspace without permission. Permission comes when two-way radio contact is made, but the controller must use your call sign. If the controller says, “Aircraft calling Allentown, stand by,” then you must remain outside the airspace. But if the controller says, “November One-Two-Three-Four, stand by,” you may continue into it. Two-way contact has been established.
What if you enter the airspace without two-way radio contact? “If you don’t call approach, it is supposed to result in a pilot deviation report that is passed on to the Flight Standards District Office,” Herber said. “Even if you are not in Class C, you need a transponder when operating near it.”
Class C airspace usually extends to 4,000 feet above the ground, but a Mode C transponder is required up to 10,000 feet msl when above Class C airspace. “We may launch a jet off the primary airport. He’s not going to stay at 4,000 feet [above ground level]. Somewhere he’s going to fly through your altitude. We want to be able to see you and know what altitude you are at so we can give traffic advisories to the traffic we’re working,” Herber said.
TRSA airspace is outlined on sectionals with black lines and can be in any shape that serves local needs. The one at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, looks like a pie left on a counter in an employee snack room. By the end of the day that pie, like the Harrisburg airspace, is anything but round.
The important thing to know is that unlike Class C airspace, the approach and departure airspace is voluntary. If you choose—at your own risk—not to participate, it becomes like any other normal Class D airport. As long as you stay generally four nm away from a Class D airport and 2,500 feet agl you should be OK, unless some airspace planner has reshaped the airspace. It doesn’t have to stop at four nm. The Class D airspace at Hagerstown, Maryland, extends to 4.1 nm on all sides.
Some of the pilots operating near Harrisburg are abusing the voluntary TRSA system, ignoring approach control and cruising across the departure corridor in conflict with the aircraft on downwind. While that is legal, it is not wise. Harrisburg controller Mike Clark said there is even a pilot periodically doing spins from 3,000 feet above the final approach fix to the airport. (Here’s a suggestion to that pilot: Start your spins from at least 4,500 feet agl, and go somewhere other than an airport approach corridor to do them.)
“We’re attempting to get a Class C area here because of some of the close calls we’ve had in the last year and a half to two years,” Clark said. “It gets very nerve-wracking when you have to turn a regional jet or Airbus that wants to land [because of] a small aircraft.”
On the first call just give your call sign. If you hear no reply after 30 seconds, make a second call. Once the controller responds, give your call sign, type of aircraft, position, and indicate what you’d like to do. If you want to practice an instrument approach, limit your call to the first approach you want to do, not all the approaches you plan.
Fortunately there are few Stealth Class D airports in the country. On a sectional chart the Reading, Pennsylvania, airport appears to be like any Class D airport. There’s no box listing approach control frequencies as you would see near Class C airspace on a sectional chart. While Reading airport frequencies are listed in the tab on the side of the sectional chart, approach control isn’t one of them.
The Reading controlled airspace extends to 5,000 feet vertically, and laterally it goes 15 nm north and south, 18 nm west, and 10 nm east. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at a sectional, which shows only the Class D airspace.
As any pilot might do, recently an instructor and student called Reading Tower and were told to contact approach control. They thought they did something wrong, but there were no repercussions. Happens all the time.
Pilots have set up for final, called the tower, and discovered they were between two other aircraft already cleared to land. What’s the solution? One idea is to publish the approach control information on VFR charts, since it currently is listed only on terminal procedures. However, the FAA has a rule that unless the approach controllers are current in airport surveillance radar approaches, where the controller tells you to turn left and right, the approach facility can’t be listed or shown on the VFR map (or IFR chart). Reading controllers can’t stay current because of the low demand for ASR approaches.
The other tip is to call at least 20 nm out, since that is outside of all the unmarked Reading airspace. It’s voluntary approach control airspace so you don’t have to participate, but if you call the tower you will be asked to contact approach control. At the time this was written the approach frequency was 125.15 MHz.
Reading Supervisor Sean McFadden said another problem concerns poor radios. “Four out of 10 are poor,” he said.
Watch for Class D airports with nonstandard airspace. An airport in Pennsylvania has airspace stretching to five nm on one side, and the standard four on the other. Most Class D airspace reaches up to 2,500 feet agl.
By staying 500 feet higher than the published airspace limit, you’ll avoid entering the airspace inadvertently and provide a greater safety margin for any jets that may come rocketing up out of it. Take note that the airspace limit is “agl,” meaning if the elevation is 700 feet above sea level, then Class D airspace at that location will be shown on the chart as 3,200 feet msl.
“What we need most from pilots is clear and concise communication and accurate and timely position reports,” said a controller representative at Easton, Maryland. “I always advise our local flying community to contact the tower within about seven to 10 [nautical] miles with aircraft call sign, type, a good position report, and landing intentions. That way we have all of the information we need to provide the best pattern entry instructions and the best service to the pilot.
“When we have multiple aircraft inbound, we formulate a sequence plan based on everyone’s position reports. When one or more aircraft are giving us inaccurate information, it’s less efficient for everyone. It’s equally important to report where the tower asks. It’s not uncommon to report a couple different positions while inbound to Easton due to the fact that we are trying to get you in sight visually and sequence you into the pattern,” the controller said.
You can brush up on your radio procedures through a new interactive online course, Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communications, produced by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Select it from ASF’s online courses page. Halfway through it you’ll receive specific information on Class D and C operations. If you fly in a region that offers little opportunity to practice controlled-airspace radio skills, it will serve as a great brush-up course.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.
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