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Training Tip: In a class by itself

A pilot receiving flight following service from air traffic control was instructed to contact the control tower of an airport in Class D airspace but penetrated the airspace before radio communication was established.

Photo by Chris Rose.

The cause of this unfortunate event was (pick one):

  • A rookie error by a student pilot on a solo cross-country;
  • Sloppy flying by a 5,300-hour pilot with advanced ratings;
  • Distraction of a new flight instructor teaching about airspace.

Before you make a snap judgment, let’s look at more of the evidence. ATC had instructed the flight to contact the control tower during descent and had cautioned the flight to avoid another airport’s airspace.

That part went well, but the controller at the airport in Class D airspace—where numerous training flights were in progress—was busy working two positions; that is, the controller was controlling airborne aircraft and those taxiing on the airport.

Remember the adage, “Aviate, navigate, communicate”? Someone didn’t.

“After finally making contact with the Tower, the Tower operator got upset because I entered his Class D airspace,” the pilot wrote in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

You probably know from ground school or self-study that when arriving or flying through Class D airspace, you must “establish two-way radio communications with the ATC facility” providing service “prior to entering that airspace and thereafter maintain those communications while within that airspace.”

Filing a timely ASRS report may forestall disciplinary action in the interest of raising awareness of a system safety issue, provided the infraction was not intentional.

If the handoff is hindered by a heavy ATC workload, don’t go barging in there—especially if the airport’s local area is abuzz with multiple aircraft. Instead, plan to give yourself enough lead time to maneuver, or adjust your route, or climb, to avoid the bust.

Returning to the question of which of our three “suspects” didn’t dodge the Class D: Was it (a) a rookie error, (b) a high-timer’s hijinks, or (c) an inexperienced instructor’s inadvertent incursion?

The answer is (b). Surprised?

The pilot shared a tip learned (or relearned) from the event about how to deal with a communications breakdown involving a task-saturated air traffic controller.

“In the future I will make sure that before I enter controlled airspace I will be in contact with the person controlling that airspace and not depend on being handed off by another Controller,” the pilot wrote, vowing to be “more diligent about controlled airspace.”

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Airspace, ATC, Communication
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