Class C Airport

Wow. It has been a long time since I’ve flown. The weeks have gone by fast and this is the longest break I’ve had between flights since I started.

I spent a lot of the break time studying radio communications with air traffic control (ATC). I purchased two recommended books on the subject and search out many tips on the Internet. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s as much an art as any other language. While there are some widely accepted standard procedures and phraseology, there’s really very little that the FAA requires you to say. Certain phrases do, however, have important legal meaning. For example, when a controller instructs you to “hold short” of a runway or taxiway, you must repeat the instruction back to them using the words “hold short”. Saying “Roger”, or “OK”, or “sure thing” won’t cut it and they’ll insist you say it back. When a controller says “cleared to land”, you have the right to land. “Cleared to enter xyz airspace” and you can enter the airspace. “You can go ahead and land/enter xyz airspace” is not the same, but you’d never hear that from them anyway. The phrase “declaring an emergency” is basically a ticket to break any federal regulation necessary to maintain the safety of the flight. You get priority over all other aircraft; you can fly wherever you want, land wherever you want, do anything you want, without getting into trouble with the FAA. Of course, nobody wants to be declaring an emergency, and if you do, you better have a good reason for it.

I could go on and on about the details of communication with ATC, but suffice it to say that it’s a source of much anxiety for pilots, especially student pilots.

Today I was prepared to fly into Fayetteville, a Class C airport with a control tower and approach controllers. I went over the chart and gathered all of the expected frequencies I would need for the 32 mile flight. I arrived a little late, and Gene had forgotten we were going there, so we spent some time reviewing the “what to expect”. 89333 was our plane today; I hoped I wouldn’t mess up by saying 4640B since I fly it most of the time.

The Class C procedures go (and went) something like this:

As soon as a signal can be received, you listen to the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Service) to get the latest information on runways in use, weather, and any other procedures pilots need to know without the controller having to repeat it over and over. ATIS is generally updated every hour and includes an identifying phonetic letter so the pilot/controller can communicate the “version” of the information. Information Sierra it was, and runway 4 was in use. Nothing else worth noting.

Within 20nm of the airport (before entering Class C airspace, which usually has a 10nm radius around the airport), I contacted “approach control” on the published frequency. Approach controllers sit in a dark room with a radar scope and headset and guide approaching and departing aircraft to and from the area around the airport. They may not be anywhere near the airport itself. Closer to the airport and on the runway, the control tower people take over with their binoculars and tower view of the real world happening around them.

Me: “Fayetteville Approach, Cessna 89333”
Approach: “Cessna 893…2…3 I think it was. Fayetteville Approach, go ahead”
Me: “Cessna 8 9 3 3 3, 15 miles SW of Sanford at 2,500, landing Fayetteville, with Sierra”
Approach: “89333, squawk 0248”
Me: “0248, Cessna 333”

At this point I’m changing my transponder to 0248 so they can identify my plane on their scope.

Approach: “89333, radar contact 36 miles northeast, maintain current heading, expect runway 4” or something like that… and probably some other stuff I didn’t catch.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to this, but I think it was “expect runway 4, Cessna 333”

No response, so I guess he was okay with that.

A few minutes later, as I was fighting the turbulence and trying to maintain altitude, the controller chimed in “89333, maintain at or above 2,500 feet”. That was the nice way of telling me to pick and altitude and stick with it. “At or above 2,500, Cessna 333”.

A few more minutes later and they passed me on to another approach control frequency since we were moving from the north to the south area of the airport. After a basic “hi” exchange, he passed me on to the control tower.

Approach: “89333, contact tower on 118.3”
Me: “Contact tower 118.3, Cessna 333”

I switch to 118.3, listen to make sure I don’t step on anyone and report in with the tower:

Me: “Fayetteville Tower, Cessna 89333 at 2,500”

They already know I’m coming because the approach controllers told them I was, but they like to verify what I think my altitude is vs. what they’re being told it is by the transponder, so I add that to my initial call.

Tower: “Cessna 89333, Fayetteville Tower, something something, enter left downwind, cleared to land runway 4”

We were running behind, so instead of the normal landing, taxi to parking that we wanted to do for practice with ground controllers, we opted for a touch and go and back to Sanford.

Me: “Left downwind, cleared to land runway 4, request touch and go, Cessna 333”
Tower: “89333 cleared for the option. What are your intentions.”

I was still pretty far out, but since there was little traffic in the area, he cleared me to land early. “The option” is one of those official phrases that means I was cleared for any type of landing I wanted (touch and go, stop and go, full stop, low approach — not touching down at all). This is where things started getting too far ahead for me.

Me: “Cessna 333 is departing to Sanford”
Tower: “333, after takeoff maintain runway heading, climb and maintain 2,000 feet, expect departure 133.0”

Here I am about 4 miles before landing and he’s instructing me on what to do after I take off again. Too much information!

Me: “(thinking uhh…) after takeoff, climb and maintain 3,000 (thinking uhh…) Cessna 333”

I forgot most of what he said and that’s not a typo… I said 3,000, he said 2,000.

Tower (in an emphasizing, but polite voice): “Maintain runway heading, climb and maintain 2,000 feet”
Me (ah!): “Runway heading, climb and maintain 2,000, Cessna 333”

That time I understood. Not once, by the way, did Gene chime in. I was asking him questions and he was assisting me a little with what to say, but I was doing well enough that he didn’t feel the need to take over.

Approach and landing went fine, though my touchdown was a little off center. Too much concern with the radio and I lost concentration on my landing.

Normally, we would’ve landing and exited the runway passed the “hold short” line. Then we would’ve been told to contact ground control on 121.7. After telling ground control where we wanted to go, they would instruct us on how to get there. Once there, we would shut down.

When ready to takeoff, we would get the updated ATIS, contact ground and let them know where we were headed. They would tell us to taxi to whatever runway and when we got there, we would contact the tower and let them know we were ready for takeoff. Since we skipped all of that, we still had the tower on the radio.

On climbout, the tower quickly passed us on to approach/departure (it’s the same people, sometimes called by another name depending on your direction of travel).

Tower: “Cessna 333, contact approach 133.0”
Me: “Approach 133.0, Cessna 333”

Me: “Fayetteville Approach, Cessna 89333, runway heading, climbing to 2,000, VFR to Sanford” (or something like that)
Approach: “Cessna 89333, climb and maintain at or above 2,500, turn at your discretion, blah blah”

I missed some of what he said, but basically he was telling us to head straight for Sanford.

A few minutes out and we were passed back to the north-side approach controllers. They informed us that there was traffic behind and above us about 7 miles and 500 feet that would be overtaking. We spent a few minutes looking for each other with approach control updates on our relative positions, but we never spotted him (due to our high-wing plane). He spotted us shortly before we had Sanford in sight and told approach we would be descending.

Me: “Cessna 333 has Sanford in sight, we’ll be descending”
Approach: “89333, squawk 1200, resume own navigation, frequency change approved”
Me: “Squawking VFR, Cessna 333, Good day”

I changed the transponder back to the standard VFR code of 1200 and changed frequencies to Sanford’s CTAF. From there to landing it was all simple and familiar radio calls.

I’ve heard that pilots who learn at towered airports are intimidated by radio communications at non-towered airports, just as pilots learning at non-towered airports are intimidated by towered airports. I feel much more comfortable talking casually to airplanes in the area than one-on-one with rapid-fire-speaking ATC, but with experience I’m sure that will change.

Other than the rough air, we did have to steer ourselves around the smoke from a controlled ground fire near Fayetteville. I should also mention that we passed very near Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg.

It was an exhausting 1.1 hours due to heightened anxiety of unfamiliar communications procedures, an unfamiliar airport, rough air and a long break. Still a lot of fun, though. 🙂

I have 54.2 total hours and my next flight will be my first solo cross country.