Monday, October 11, 2010

In the System from Tampa to Craig

Lately in AOPA Pilot magazine as well as in a couple of email newsletters that I receive, there has been discussion surrounding the pros and cons of flying in and out of towered airports. Non-towered airports do not have a controller to bark at you when you say something wrong, nor do you have to wait for a controller to clear you to taxi and take off. However, when flying in and out of an area where there is a fair amount of traffic and especially if that aircraft flown in that area are piloted primarily by students, having an extra set of eyes and clear communication requirements would be my preference.

Craig airport is a tower-controlled airport most of the time. Only if you fly very early or very late will you find the tower closed. In the past few years, I have not noticed any harshness directed at pilots by any of the controllers. This wasn't always the case, as there was once a controller that had a tendency to yell at almost everyone. The system has a way of weeding out these types and he is no longer found in our tower.

When flying in and out of a non-towered airport, the communication burden is placed squarely on the shoulders of the pilot. Often, pilots take this reporting responsibility with a grain of salt. Likewise, without a tower, there are many options available for approaching and departing the airport - some are encouraged by the AIM and some are not. Towered airports, on the other hand, require communication with the tower prior to entering the controlled airspace. Once communication is established, the tower provides clear instructions to the pilot for his or her approach as well as additional communications requirements. These requirements add an additional margin of safety but they do not eliminate the pilot's responsibility to see and avoid other traffic.

Learning to fly an airplane is pretty easy. Most people fly their first solo between 10 and 20 hours of flying time - and part of that logged time is actually spent taxiing. One of the more challenging lessons in flying is learning how to communicate properly over the radio. I suspect that this is the main reason for many pilots' aversion to towered airports. In a non-towered area, you talk to the thin air announcing your position and intent. You listen to other pilots for their reports, but you rarely have any one-on-one communication with another person. Contrast this with a towered environment where every communication is directed at a specific person and is expected to follow a certain protocol, be concise, and be correct. Communicating with the tower is no time to practice saying "ummmm". Yet even professional pilots have some issues when they communicate. Many begin their communication with "and". Why? To me, that is a waste of breath. "And, Tampa Approach, United 212 checking in at one-two thousand." An otherwise perfect communication marred by an unnecessary transmission. Still others use totally incorrect terminology. Radio communications, with the exception of the proper way to request an instrument clearance, are described fairly precisely in the AIM. 12,000 feet is pronounced one-two-thousand. 7,500 feet is seven-thousand-fife-hundred". Almost every time I fly, I hear an otherwise professional sounding pilot using something like, "Mooney three-bravo-alpha, out of seven point five for nine". That should have been "out of seven-thousand-fife hundred for niner-thousand". We all make mistakes, though. When it comes to communications, mistakes are expected and there is no shame in making a correction. Deliberate and consistent mistakes should always be avoided, though. In spite of mistakes, my preference is to fly in the system as much as possible. I like the added safety and professionalism.

Tampa International Airport is in Class B airspace. From a communications perspective, this is the most tightly controlled airspace. There are numerous commercial flights in and out of KTPA every hour and quick, clear communications are essential to preventing aircraft from bumping in to each other.

After my short visit with my mom, my sister, and my neices, we packed it up for the airport where I paid my bill and made my way on to the tarmac to my waiting Skyhawk. The tanks had been topped off - REALLLY topped off - I couldn't pour the sumped fuel back in to the left tank it was so full. As part of my pre-flight, I have added a check of the computerized fuel management system, so I reset the fuel system to full fuel (53 gallons). I like the precision of knowing how much fuel has been burned down to the tenth of a gallon.

I listened to the ATIS on my handheld radio before starting the plane - this saves me a few minutes of engine time. At current rates, one minute of time costs $2.68 or a tenth of an hour costs $16.05, so minimizing unnecessary idling time can save big bucks! I never used to worry so much about this, but with twins on the way, I'm counting my pennies as I pick them up off the ground!

After getting the ATIS and plugging the altimeter setting into G1000, I called for my instrument clearance, "Tampa Clearance Delivery, Skyhawk 6-2-0-0-quebec, ready to copy IFR to Jacksonville Craig".

A few seconds later, a woman's voice came back with, "Skyhawk 6-2-0-0-quebec, cleared as filed to Craig, after departure fly heading zero-siz-zero. Initial climb out to one-thousand-six-hundred, expect six-thousand in ten minutes. Departure frequency one-one-niner-point-niner, squawk seven-four-one-zero."

I wrote this clearance down as she spoke and then repeated it as, "Cleared as filed, heading zero-six-zero, climb one-thousand-six-hundred, six-thousand in ten, one-one-niner-point-niner for the frequency and seven-four-one-zero for the squawk. Zero-zero-quebec."

This is a shot from my kneeboard of the ATIS and the instrument clearance. The first part shows that I got ATIS information X-Ray, winds 230 at 6, visibility 10, few clouds at 5,500 feet, temperature 29 dewpoint 13, altimeter 30.01. Landing and departing on runway 36L. Clearance delivery on 133.6. The clearance is below that followed by my departure runway - 9 at Echo.

She answered, "Cessna zero-zero-quebec, readback correct. Current information is Xray, say your position".

I replied, "zero-zero-quebec has X-Ray, we are at Signature".

She then told me, "zero-zero-quebec, contact ground on one-two-one point seven when ready."

I acknowledged and then plugged in the frequency for ground followed by the tower frequency and then on the second radio, I entered the departure frequency. I entered my squawk code into the transponder (which is actually built in to the G1000 panel) and then I plugged KCRG as my destination in the GPS flight plan. It was nice to get a direct routing.

I called ground control and advised, "Skyhawk 6-2-0-0-Q with X-ray, ready to taxi for IFR to the northeast."

The ground controller told me that winds were 230 at 6, and asked if I could accept a departure from runway 9 at echo. I was expecting this since I knew that 18L/36R was closed and there was no direct taxiway over to 18R/36L with all of the closures. Before flying down to Tampa I had checked out the runway lengths from various intersections and knew that even with a stiff tailwind, I would be able to depart on runway 9 from the Echo intersection. I told the controller, "niner at echo would be just fine, zero-zero-quebec."

With my taxi clearance, I made my way to my assigned spot and did my runup as I rolled. I requested departure clearance and was quickly given the go signal. It felt odd having such a tailwind on the roll and the plane seemed to cover quite a bit more distance before it wanted to fly, but fly, it did! On climbout, I made my turn to 060 and that heading took me directly over Raymond James Stadium where a ball game was going on. Must not have been much of a game as there were lots of empty seats.

I flew my heading and about the time I was ready to level off at 1,600 feet, ATC handed me off to Tampa Departure who cleared me for 4,000 feet. I leveled off at 4,000 and continued my 060 heading until I was nearly out of the Class B airspace at which point, the controller cleared me for 6,000 feet and turned me to 020 before clearing me direct to Craig, which not coincidentally was on a heading of 020.

Clouds were right at 6,000 feet so I found myself in and out of them quite a bit. There was a fair amount of air traffic around Tampa and since I began this entry with a discussion about radio communications, I am compelled to relate the following interaction.

If you are flying VFR, you must contact the Class B airport's approach controller, establish two-way communication and receive permission to enter his airspace before doing so. It is usually a good idea to have "VFR Flight Following" and fly "in the system" as this will simplify contact with approach and it will provide a greater measure of safety as ATC will warn of traffic workload permitting.

I heard two problematic communications in a span of about 15 minutes. First, a VFR pilot without flight following called Tampa Approach speaking with a very thick, almost unintelligible accent, "Tampa Approach, ??? 1-2-3-6-6".

Approach responded, "V-F-R traffic calling Approach, call back in five minutes".

This elicited another call from 12366 immediately and identical to the first call. This second call was ignored by Tampa Approach. The controller was busy; he didn't have to respond the first time. The VFR pilot should have shut up. When he called back five minutes later, the controller, undoubtedly annoyed by the initial interaction, told him again to wait five minutes. Eventually he was given a squawk code and was permitted to head towards Vandenburg.

The second interaction involved a Mooney. I automatically assume that if a pilot is flying a Mooney, he knows what he is doing. Mooney's are high-performance, complex aircraft, so one would assume that a pilot of such an aircraft would have some experience. This is not a good assumption - it would be like assuming JFK,Jr. was a competent pilot. His inverted landing in Long Island Sound suggests otherwise.

So the Mooney pilot who had a tail number ending in six-zero-quebec, similar to mine, contacted approach control. Approach told him to wait and he would have his code for him shortly.

A few minutes later, the controller called "November six-zero-zero-quebec, squawk 1053".

This was not the tail number of the Mooney, but it was close. It was also close to my tail number. The Mooney pilot responded, "Approach, was that for Mooney six-zero-quebec?, if so, say again, please."

The controller sounding quite annoyed replied, "Standby".

I wasn't sure if the controller had made a mistake, so I hit the playback button on the radio. Yup, the controller screwed up.

The controller never owned up to his mistake - he probably didn't know he made one and the Mooney's subsequent conversations with ATC suggested to me that he was fairly inexperienced, so the controller would probably have assumed the pilot made an error. Eventually, they sorted this out.

The point is that pilots and controllers both make mistakes in communication and the only safe thing to do is to say "Say again" when you aren't sure what either has said.

Flying in and out of the clouds, I made my way back to Craig. About 25 miles out, I was cleared to descend to 4,000 feet at pilot's discretion. The sky was very clear and I spotted Craig field about 15 miles out. I has already listened to the ATIS and had adjusted my altimeter. I called Jacksonville Approach saying, "Approach, Skyhawk 0-0-Q has Craig in sight."

The controller replied, "November-0-0-Q, cleared for the visual to runway 5. Be aware of the tower farm on your left. Contact the tower on 1-3-2-point-1"

I acknowledge and immediately called the tower, "Craig tower, Skyhawk 0-0-Q is 10 to the south with India, full stop."

She responded, "November 0-0-Q, make 2 mile right base for 5".

I began my descent from 4000 to pattern altitude, 1000 feet and leveled off. The tower farm was about a mile to the west of me, nevertheless, the controler's alarm must have sounded as she called me with the alarm blaring in the background warning me of the towers.

I touched down gently on runway 5 and taxied to the ramp.

The flight each way took 1.5 hours with tailwinds in each direction. I encountered more IFR on the return flight, but it was clear at the destination. Another great day of flying.


  1. There are several pros and cons of flying in and out of a towered and non-towered airport. Craig is a towered airport and hence the pilot needs to carry an extra burden on their shoulder.

    1. I would argue that the burden is greater at a non-towered airport. Without a tower, each pilot is expected to 1. See-and-avoid all other aircraft, 2. Announce their position inbound, entering the pattern,and at various points in the pattern, and 3. ADHERE TO THE AIM for their trip in and around the patter. The first part is relatively easy, but there are accidents every year at non-towered airports were two planes collide in the pattern.

      The second is more problematic. First, many pilots do a poor job of communicating. I've found pilots using the wrong frequency (calling Palatka positions on the St. Augustine tower frequency, for example), failing to call positions, announcing their position as 5 miles East, when they are 5 miles West, and many other poor comm techniques.

      But the biggest problem is adherence to the AIM and the AF/D. I have witnessed touch-and-gos at airports where the AF/D specifically prohibits them, pilots flying left traffic on a runway where right traffic is documented in the AF/D - this is a big problem when you are already on the downwind leg and another pilot is entering your leg improperly and head-on.

      With a towered airport, you have the burden of communicating clearly, but you have an extra set of eyes watching out for you and directing traffic. Think of driving through a major traffic intersection when the power is out and the traffic lights are not functioning - sure everyone must follow the rules of the road treating the intersection as a 4-way stop, but watch as the more aggressive drivers blaze through without stopping. A non-towered airport is like a country intersection without a traffic light. If everyone does what they are supposed to do, there isn't a problem, but many folks make mistakes.

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