Big Airports, Little Airplanes


I love flying out of grass strips, with their camaraderie and Friday night barbeques. I also enjoy the demands of flying into and out of large commercial airports, surrounded by Class Bravo airspace. I like the challenge of fitting into the flow of busy jet traffic, and being as professional as I can when dealing with approach and tower controllers.

In return, I have found that the controllers who work the big airports are the most professional and proficient in dealing with all kinds of different traffic.

Then there are the perks. I like parking my little 6 seat Bonanza between multi-million dollar private jets, just as other folks enjoy seeing their Chevy Malibu parked between the Bentley and the Lamborghini in valet parking outside the hottest club in town.

When you arrive on the ramp, who wouldn’t enjoy stepping onto a red carpet, being handed chilled bottled of Evian by the lineman, and stepping into the waiting rental car with the air-conditioning already running? Kinda sooths the pain of paying $7.50 for a gallon of avgas to be a part of that world for a few minutes.

Admittedly, I also feel a little smug when taxiing past busloads of people crammed into their B-737, having just endured the indignities of the TSA, grumpy Trolley-Dollies and airline food. I sometimes wonder what the people must be thinking as they peer down on my little propeller plane from seat 37F.  Most likely it is what the hell is he doing here?”

In the past I have flown into Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and various other International Airports for Angel Flight and business. My biggest complaint is the GA landing fee at MIA.

It’s true that small planes are more likely to use the 5,000 small airports across the country rather than the 30+ large airports that dwell within Class B airspace. That’s because these airports are more likely to be closer to their final destination.

But many general aviation pilots avoid big airports such as ORD, LAX, ATL, MIA, and TPA like the plague. Why will some pilots fly a hundred miles out of their way to avoid talking to approach or tower controllers? The truth is that many are intimidated by the “heavy iron” sharing the same airspace. Or, they are afraid of being criticized by ATC, talking on the radio, violating a clearance, or even a runway incursion.

I pondered this as I prepared for a short flight in my single-engine Bonanza into Tampa International Airport for some business meetings this week.

My trip to Tampa required that I fly into TPA. The lunch meeting at the Brio Tuscan Grill in the International Plaza was less than a half-block from the Tampa International Jet Center FBO at Tampa International. I could have flown into Tampa Exec (KVDF) or Peter O’Knight (KTPF) Airport. Both serve Tampa GA exclusively, but the cab rides would have been at least 30 minutes in each direction, negating the advantage of flying in the first place.

So who is allowed to land at a big airport? The only requirements that you must meet to land at these airports is to hold a private pilot certificate, or have logged time with an instructor, and received an endorsement in your logbook.

Beyond that, there are a few suggestions I have that can make the process easier:

1. When flying VFR, you MUST have a Class Bravo clearance from approach control before entering. Listen for the magic words: “Cleared into the Class Bravo. Do not assume that a heading you receive from ATC that takes you into the Bravo implies a clearance.

2. Know what you want, and how to ask for it, before you contact approach. Give the controller basic information on initial call-up, telling him who you are, what you are, where you are, what you want and that you have the latest ATIS arrival information. Keep it concise and simple.

That conversation might go something like this:

You: “Tampa Approach, November 1234, a Cessna 172, is 30 north-east at 2,000 feet, landing Tampa, with Information Zulu.”

ATC: “Cessna 1234, squawk 0330.” Then, “Cessna 1234, radar contact, cleared to enter Class B, fly heading 220 for traffic, descend and maintain 1,600.”

3. Make you are comfortable holding heading and altitude as you are in positive control airspace.

4. Stay above the glideslope when following a “heavy” to avoid wake turbulence. What’s a “heavy”? Anything bigger than you.

5. Don’t you hate following people on I-95 doing 50 mph in the far left lane? It’s the same situation at busy airports. Learn to fly your approach at 110 knots or better.  Don’t dawdle down a 5 mile final at 60 knots when you have a 757 behind you doing 140. Shoot, following a Cherokee at 60 knots on final when I am doing 110 annoys the dickens out of me. It will probably give the 757 captain or the controller a “thrombo”.

6. Plan ahead as to where you are going to be parking on the field so you generally know which way you will be turning off the runway, towards the GA ramp. Ask for a “progressive taxi” from GC if you don’t know where the FBO is located.

7. Invest in Foreflight or WingX Pro 7 and an iPad. Then watch yourself move along the taxi diagram, eliminating the possibility of a runway incursion. Big airport taxiways can be daunting, especially at night when all you see is a sea of blue taxiway lights.

In the end, the size of your little airplane’s “blip” on the controller’s radar scope is exactly the same size as that of a B-747. Even as a 100 hour private pilot in a Citrabria has the right to fly into big airports when it fits your schedule and destination. But remember that your performance reflects on all GA pilots, either in a positive or negative manner.

Here are some photos from my trip:

Taxiing onto RWY 19L for departure at Tampa International, an 8,300. ft by 150 ft. runway, using the Foreflight moving taxiway map on my iPad:

Taxiing past the “big” planes parked at the terminal:

Requesting and getting a shortcut from my planned IFR route from Tampa departure. If you don’t ask, you don’t get:

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