Runways and Radios

One of the biggest fears that new pilots have is talking on the radio.  I did the vast majority of my flight training at Mt. Pleasant Airport- LRO now but previously 8S5, or East Cooper Airport, a small aerodrome with an FBO and single CTAF, so I understand why people are nervous.

When I started to teach in Sanford, FL, a very busy controlled field with four runways, I found that those flight students, while completely comfortable at controlled fields, were very nervous at small, non-towered airports. It just comes down to what somebody is accustomed to, which is why Charleston Flight School, with its use of a mix of towered and non-towered fields, generates pilots who are completely comfortable in either environment. Our pilots become proficient talking to ATC because…well, they have to- they’re not getting in or out of the Charleston International airspace otherwise.

One of the keys to clear and concise communications is the realization that ATC works from a prepared script- you can pretty much predict exactly what they are going to say and when they are going to say it 90% of the time, and if you listen to the other pilots on the radio and do some common sense interpolation, you can probably improve that to 98%.

For example- if you have flight following, and while listening in on other pilots on your frequency, you recognize someone else who is flying at your same general altitude and direction, you can assume that a hand-off frequency that is given to that airplane is probably in your near future as well. That’s a good time to go ahead and enter that frequency as your standby, or at least write it down. By the same measure, if that other pilot is vectored for airspace, it might behoove you to mentally prepare for the same. This is called “staying ahead of the airplane”, something you’ve probably heard a couple of bazillion times from your CFI, and all it requires from you is to pay attention to what is going on around you.

Another thing that will help is to try to figure out what the goal of ATC is and how they may intend to accomplish it. Let’s say Charleston ATIS announces that aircraft are landing on Runway 33, but you are coming from the opposite direction. If you can figure out what they need to do to get you lined up on final for that runway, you can visualize how they will direct you, especially if you remember that your final intercept will probably be a 30-degree angle. If you are landing on Runway 33, look for the eventual turn to 300 or 360, depending on what direction you are approaching from. You will not be given a 180-degree turn- it will be incremental, so expect several different heading changes to get you lined up- you can actually see it long before it unfolds.

When talking to Approach while approaching an airport, you will be instructed “Report the field in sight.” Approach really wants you to announce you can see the airport, because then they can hand you off to the Tower and get you off their plate. The closer you get, the more Approach will talk, giving you helpful hints like “Airport is at twelve o’clock and 5 miles”, “Airport is at twelve o’clock and 3 miles” and “It’s right in front of you. Look out your windshield. There it is, see it?  Are you blind?”

Ok, that last one isn’t accurate, but you get my drift. They want to get rid of you- they have other traffic and they really want you to talk to someone else, Tower in this case. However, and this is important- don’t tell them you have the airport in sight if you don’t. Yes, you want to make them happy, and turn off the nagging, but you are the Pilot In Command, and the safety of the flight is your number one priority.

ATC knows that too. They don’t want any confusion up there either, because here is what’s happening: recently, the FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO) has advised of an increase in, “Wrong Surface Landing Incidents” in the National Airspace System (NAS). Incidents include:

I have to admit that I have done every one of those at some time in my flying career. On my very first solo cross-country trip, as a student pilot, I landed at Florence airport while looking for Lake City. Of course, I never mentioned anything at all to ATC- I just landed and let Tower sort it out later. They were much more understanding then than they are probably permitted to be now.

Also early in my aviation life, I lined up on a taxiway at Charleston while approaching to land and was prepared to fly all the way down until Tower (again, very understanding), pointed out to me that it appeared to them that I was about to make a very large mistake, at which time I side-stepped and made a successful landing, but not before a 737 Captain, transiting that same taxiway in the opposite direction, got on the radio and said, “That was interesting.” Considering he was looking out his windshield at a Cessna 150 headed straight for him, he probably was entitled to use stronger language.

As far as actually landing on a taxiway…wait. Is there a statute of limitations? You know, let’s just say that perhaps I may have landed on a taxiway, on purpose, just to prove it could be done. Again, very early in my flying life. Or maybe I didn’t do that. Whatever.

At any rate, the FAA issued a Safety Alert, which interestingly enough, referred to a commercial jet, so yes, it’s a problem for everyone, at all skill and experience levels. They included several best practices, but I am including the last three here:

  • Request assistance from ATC if experiencing any disorientation or if unsure of position
  • On short final, make final verification of correct runway and ensure that no vehicles or aircraft are present
  • If you are ever in doubt of your approach or landing on the assigned runway, perform a go around procedure and promptly notify ATC

The FAA article finishes with this:
When pilots approach a towered airport for landing, an assigned runway is issued followed by the pilot’s visual identification of the surface.  Subsequently a landing clearance is issued by ATC to be followed by landing on the correct runway.  The goal of this sequence is to ensure safe separation of aircraft at locations with high concentrations of air traffic.  In each phase of the process there are chances of miscommunication and visual mistakes which can lead to the aircraft arriving on the wrong surface.

We have one of the safest systems in the world, but it is in our power to make it dangerous. If all of the involved parties work together as professionals, we can eliminate human-induced errors.

“Uh, ladies and gentlemen, this is the flight deck welcoming you into Wichita. On behalf of the crew, we’d like to thank you for choosing Airborne Airways, where your destination is always up in the air. You may now feel free to power up your electronic devices. Um … in fact, if, uh, any of you have GPS, we’d like you to join us in a little game. A free bag of peanuts for the first passenger to tell us, uh, which airport we’re at … “

You can read the FAA Safety Alert here