Technique: Tackling the tower

You can do this! Tips to handle the towered environment

October 1, 2010

A Cessna 172 pilot, disoriented at an unfamiliar airport at night, receives a taxi clearance he didn’t anticipate and winds up on an active runway.

The pilot of an airliner lands at a complicated airport with multiple runways. Missing the taxiway he’d been directed to, he exits at what he believes is a taxiway but which turns out to be another runway.

With stories such as these coming out of NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System Callback newsletter, it’s no wonder many VFR pilots are reluctant to fly into towered airports. Some avoid them altogether.

But if you stay away, you’re missing out on more than 500 new and exciting places to land. If your discomfort tempts you to avoid towered facilities, a little extra work on the front end will help to make you feel more confident and professional.

On the ground

If ever there was a time to go above and beyond the mandate of FAR 91.103 to “become familiar with all available information,” this is it. Glancing at an Airport/Facility Directory entry or squinting at a sectional chart while en route won’t do it.

Review your chart and airport diagram. Look at the layout; find out where you’re headed when you land (are you going to an FBO? a GA terminal?) and circle it. Get a good, thorough weather briefing and be sure to request all notices to airmen. I once flew with a demo pilot who kept a copy of an airport diagram at hand while getting his weather briefing. As the briefer described taxiway closures, the demo pilot marked the changes on the diagram that he would carry with him in the cockpit. Airport diagrams can be downloaded from AOPA Airports online.

Brush up on signs and markings so that you don’t have a second’s hesitation as to what white numbers on a red background are telling you. The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Runway Flashcards can be downloaded free, and there’s a single-sheet quick reference page that you can print and take along on your kneeboard. While you’re at it, review the ASI’s Runway Safety online course.

Get the gouge. Finally, don’t overlook information from other pilots. Planning a recent trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, I was inclined to head to a nontowered field 20 nm in the wrong direction to avoid mixing it up with the traffic at Atlantic City International (ACY). I reached out to a pilot on Twitter who is a first officer with Spirit Airlines and makes many runs into ACY. Is it GA-friendly? I asked. Her response: “It’s primarily a GA airport, actually! Besides a few [FAR Part] 121 [airline] flights a day, it’s a lot of spam cans. And [Air National Guard] activity. But they’re very friendly!”

In the air

Now you’re on your way. Say you’ve got 75 nm before you arrive at Big City Airport. Do you use up 50 of those enjoying the view? It’s tempting, but no.

Set up for your arrival. Make sure you have the correct ATIS, ground, and tower frequencies loaded into your radio and airport diagram ready. Before you contact the approach control or tower, you’ll listen to the ATIS to get the current weather. The ATIS may broadcast which runway to expect for a visual approach, which makes your job that much easier. Knowing your expected runway and the direction from which you’re approaching the airport, you can anticipate the controller’s instructions for entering the traffic pattern.

How far out do you call? If heading to an airport in Class B or C, the sectional chart will tell you where to contact approach control and which frequency to use. For Class C and D, plan to make your initial contact 10 to 15 nm out.

Talking to air traffic control causes many pilots to get sweaty palms. Before you launch, you can listen to live feeds on LiveATC.net for examples of how things work at busier airports. In the air, remember to breathe, don’t step on other pilots’ transmissions, and be alert for your N number so that the controller doesn’t need to call you repeatedly. Ask the controller to “say again” if you don’t understand his or her instructions.

Once you’ve established contact with the tower controller using the Who Are You, Who Am I, Where Am I, What I Want (who you are, where you are, what you want) mantra, he or she may ask you to report a two- or three-mile base or final. Why two miles? So that the controller can spot you and sequence you into the flow of traffic. If you’re uncertain what two miles looks like, you can review a topographical map or Google Earth image and pick out a landmark near the airport—or glance at the distance readout on your GPS, if you have one. (Or know how long the runway is. If it’s 5,000 feet, two miles is a little more than two runway lengths.)

Anticipate what the controller wants, but be ready for changes. He or she may ask you to fly your final approach at a faster speed (“Maintain best forward speed”) to keep up the flow of traffic into the airport, or “Make short approach.” If you can oblige, do so; if not, simply say you’re “unable.” The same advice goes for land and hold short operations. Comply if you feel you can safely do so, but don’t take chances.

Keep watching for traffic. In Class B airspace, the controller provides separation, but see-and-avoid responsibility doesn’t end just because you’re talking to ATC.

While you’re there

You’ve touched down. The tower controller will direct you to a taxiway. If you’re simply going to taxi back to your original runway and depart, he might keep you on the frequency with him, especially if he’s not too busy. But if you’re headed to a destination on the airport, you’ll be switched to the ground controller, who will shepherd you from there.

I’m sometimes nostalgic for the days when I could use the “student pilot” declaration with ATC: the code words that let them know they are dealing with a neophyte. There isn’t an equivalent for pilots who don’t feel comfortable in the ATC environment. But there is the progressive taxi.

Ask for a progressive taxi—essentially, turn-by-turn instructions from the ground controller—whenever and however often you need to. Even if you feel foolish, it beats the heck out of taxiing onto an active runway.

Speaking of runway incursions, new taxi rules took effect July 1. Controllers must now give landing and departing aircraft specific clearances for each and every runway crossed. You may be told to “taxi to” a destination after you land, but you won’t hear that phrase when you are ready to taxi to your departure runway.

Going home

When it’s time to leave, listen to ATIS for wind direction and special instructions. Then contact ground control, tell him where you are, and that you’re ready to taxi for departure to your home airport. He’ll direct you to the runway in use. Also, watch what the other airplanes are doing as you arrive at the airport and start your engine as you’ll likely be given the exact same instructions.

As we mentioned, new taxi rules that took effect in July mean you won’t hear the controller tell you to “taxi to” your departure runway. Your instructions will start with the assigned runway and specify the route and any initial runway crossing and/or hold-short instructions.

Have your airport diagram ready to enhance your situational awareness. Ask questions if you don’t understand your clearance. The Cessna pilot at the beginning of this article taxied onto not one but two active runways because he anticipated a clearance that he didn’t get and became disoriented. In a NASA ASRS report, he acknowledged that he should have asked for progressive taxiing instructions.

If you need to run up, find and use the designated runup area; you don’t want to block traffic behind you. Once ready to depart, taxi to your departure runway and contact the tower. You may hear new verbiage at this point as well. New taxi rules also did away with “position and hold”—which meant, taxi onto the departure runway in takeoff position and hold until released—and replaced it with “line up and wait.”

Still feeling squeamish about traveling to a towered airport? Then by all means take a flight instructor or a pilot friend with you. He or she could share the workload and make the trip less stressful and more fun. And that’s the whole point, after all.

(Also, remember that controllers really are there to help pilots, and they’re not trying to trick or confuse us. And if you want to help them, use standard phraseology “affirmative, negative, fife and niner” and they’ll appreciate it.)

E-mail the author at jill.tallman@aopa.org.