At the Airport (Private Pilot)

Welcome to the airport, as a kid did you ever enjoy going to the airport and planting your face on the windows to watch the airplanes land and takeoff, along with watching all of the different things going on just below you?

The airport is a place where the operation of aircraft, normally begins and ends its flight. Some airports are small and rather quiet, and some have grass runways. Whereas other airports a large, busy and very complex, which are utilized by large air carries. Airports also have many different facilities such as passenger terminals, cargo, hangars, FBO's and more.

 

An FBO or fixed based operation is a place located on an airport that offers aviation services such as fueling, hangaring of aircraft, tie-down and parking on the ramp, aircraft rental, aircraft maintenance, flight instruction, and much more.

Types of Airports

​The definition of an airport is an area of land or water used for the landing or takeoff of aircraft. There are two types:

  • Towered airports

  • Non-towered airports

Towered airports:

Airports with an operating Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower. Pilots are required to maintain two-way radio communication and comply with all instructions issued by ATC.

Pilots may deviate from any ATC instruction ONLY in an emergency, but must still advise ATC of the deviation.

Non-towered airports:

Does not have an operating Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower. Two-way radio communication is not required, but very highly recommended for safety.

These airports do have a radio frequency to provide any airport advisories. They are:

  • Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) – is used to communicate any advisory practices when operating to and from the airport.

    • CTAF may also be called a UNICOM, MULTICOM, and Flight Service Station (FSS).

  • Universal Integrates Community (UNICOM) – By tuning in, it will provide any weather information, wind direction/speed, recommended runway, and more.​

 

Airport Data

When flying into a different or even an unfamiliar airport, pilots should review the information about that airport such as communication frequencies, available services, any closed runways, even any airport construction. The sources of information a pilot can use to gain information about any airport are:

  • Aeronautical Charts

  • Chart Supplement U.S.

  • Notice to Airmen (NOTAMs)

  • Automated Terminal Information Services (ATIS)

Aeronautical Charts:

(Further discussed in Navigation lesson)

 

Chart Supplement U.S.:

These books give the most detailed information on all public airports, such as; airports, heliports, and seaports in the U.S. There are a total of seven books, organized by regions, and are revised every 56 days. Chart Supplement is also available online at www.faa.gov/air_traffic/flight_info/aeronav.

 

Other than providing airport information, the Chart Supplement also provides additional information such as phone number for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Weather Service (NWS), visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR) routing information, as well as VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) and frequencies, and much more.

 

Notice to Airmen (NOTAM)

NOTAM’s are time-critical and are temporary. The may come out without any advanced notice. Prior to any flight a pilot should check for any NOTAMs, pertaining to that flight. This a part of the preflight list in Part 91.103 Preflight Actions.

Such information in a NOTAM may include; hazards, such as airshows, parachute jumps, rocket launches, Presidential or heads of state movement, taxiway and or runway closures, construction, communication or any changes in status for navigation aids, as well as any information for en-route, or landing operations and much more.

There are a couple of different types of NOTAMs:

  • NOTAM (D)

  • FDC NOTAM

NOTAM (D) information is pertained to all navigational facilities within the National Airspace System (NAS), and to all public airports listed in the Chart Supplement U.S.

The information in NOTAM (D) include taxiway and or runway closures, personnel or equipment near taxiways or runways, airport lighting aids not affecting instrument approach criteria.

FDC NOTAMs are issued by the National Flight Data Center and provide information, but not limited to, navigational chart changes, changes to procedures, airspace, and temporary flight restrictions (TFRs).

 

The best ways to get the most current updated NOTAMs is ether call FSS or online at https://www.notams.faa.gov/

Automated Terminal Information Services (ATIS):​

The ATIS is the looped recording that is on a particular frequency that broadcasts the local weather and any other non-controlled information.

It is updated every hour and it is assigned with a code.  When the new ATIS is recorded a new code is assigned.

Prior to contacting air traffic control (ATC) for taxi clearance and instruction, it is required to tune into the ATIS frequency and listen to the ATIS. This is done at control airports.

All ATIS information ends with the phrase:

For an example: “Advice on initial contact, you have information X-ray.” X-ray is the code.

Upon contacting ATC tower for taxi instruction, it is required you state the ATIS code that was received.

TIP:

Always listen to the entire ATIS, even if you need to listen to it a couple of times. There are a few things you need to write down for your own information. The first and important one is the information code, as stated earlier. The other things you should write down are; winds, cloud ceilings/visibility, and altimeter setting.  

Markings and Signs

Airport marking and sings are used to provide direction to pilots for airport operations. Airport marking are painted on the surface, whereas signs are vertical.  It is very important that pilots be familiar with airport markings and signs.

Runway Markings and Signs:

Runway markings can very depending on the type of operation. For an example if the runway is a basic VFR runway, then it may only have a centerline markings along with runway numbers. Larger runways used for different operations will have multiple markings on it.

Runway numbers are in reference to magnetic north.  With airports that have two or more parallel runways, they will have the runway number and a letter to distinguish them, such as runway 36L (left), 36C (center), and runway 36R (right).

Displaced Threshold:

A displaced threshold means the threshold is located on a point of the runway other than the designated beginning of a runway. Pilot's need to be aware of a displaced threshold, due to it shortening the runways available landing length.

If white arrows are marked along the centerline on the portion of runway behind a displaced threshold, that portion can be used for takeoff.

Runway Holding Position Signs and Markings:

Runway holding position signs are like stop signs for an airport. These signs are always collocated with holding position markings on the surface, where taxiways and runways intersect.

  • If noncompliance with a runway holding position sign is made, it may result in a pilot deviation against you filed by the FAA. 

  • Always be aware of your surroundings and where you, as the pilot are located, while taxiing.

The holding position sign is arranged with the corresponding runway number. If the sign is located on an intersecting taxiway other than at the threshold end of the runway, the sign will show both of the threshold numbers “18-36”. Such as; the threshold for runway 18 is to the left and the threshold for runway 36 is to the right.

Other than just showing the runway number, these signs also will show the taxiway you, as the pilot are located on.

Runway Holding Position Markings:

There are two types of runway holding position markings that are painted in yellow across the enter width of the surface of a taxiway.

The runway hold position marking, also known as the VFR hold short line is made up of four yellow lines, two solid and two dashed.  These markings indicate where aircraft need to stop when approaching a runway.

  • DO NOT cross this line until a clearance has been received from ATC. If the ATC tower is closed or at a non-towered airport, you may cross the runway hold position marking only if the runway and final approach is clear of aircraft.

The other runway hold position marking is the ILS critical area hold sign. This line is used to protect the ILS arrival traffic, by ATC.  ATC will instruct aircraft to hold short of a runway at the ILS critical are.

This line is also painted in yellow, to represent a ladder, across the enter width of the surface of a taxiway, prior to the runway hold position marking or VFR hold short line.

Runway Distance Remaining Signs:

These signs are located along one or both sides of the runway. The numbers indicate the remaining landing runway distance

lift, in thousands of feet.

Example, "3" means 3,000 feet of runway remaining.

 

Taxiway Marking and Signs:

Taxiway signs with yellow letters and a black background indicate the taxiway you are located on.

Taxiway direction signs, with black lettering and yellow back grounds are located on the left side of the taxiway and prior to an intersection. These signs also have arrows that show the direction of a new taxiway.

Enhanced Taxiway Centerline Markings:

These lines are located at most towered airports, to enhance the taxiway centerline and warn the pilot of an upcoming runway and to prepare to stop, along with to help reduce a runway incursion. The yellow dashed lines on either side of the solid taxiway centerline extends up to 150 feet prior to the runway holding position markings.

Temporarily Closed Runways & Taxiways:

If a runway or taxiway is closed temporarily for any reason, a yellow “X” either one laying on the ground or a vertical lighted yellow “X”, over the runway numbers at both ends.

 

A vertical lighted “X”, is a very effective and preferred visual aid for approaching aircraft.

 

Airport Wind Indicators​

​Wind direction and speed is provided by both wind indicators and ATC or FSS at towered airports. 

At most non-towered airports the wind is provided by both wind indicators and AWOS.  But, at some non-towered airports where there is no source of verbal communication of the current winds, wind indicators are used.

 

Indicators are found near the runway and located in a segmented circle, which shows the traffic pattern directions. There are a few types of indicators used.​

  • Windsocks

  • Tetrahedron

  • Wind tee

Windsocks:

​Wind socks can give the pilot an indication of wind velocity and or wind gusts.  As the wind speed increases the wind sock extends more. An indication the wind is gusting, the windsock will be moving back and forth.

Windsocks are broken into wind speed segments. 

Wind tee and Tetrahedron:

​Wind tees and Tetrahedrons can move freely in the wind.  They also can be manually aligned to the current wind direction or show the runway in use direction.

The pilot should look for the windsock to verify the Wind tee or Tetrahedron is indicating correctly, and use the windsock as the primary source.

 

Traffic Patterns

At non-towered airports a segmented circle visual indicator system is used to provide traffic pattern information to approaching aircraft. Segmented circles are placed in a highly visible location, these circles are made up of:

  • Wind direction indicator (wind sock, wind tee or Tetrahedron)

  • Landing direction indicators

  • Landing strip indicators

  • Traffic pattern indicators

At most airports including military bases the traffic pattern altitude for piston aircraft is from 600 feet up to 1,500 feet above ground level (AGL). Traffic pattern altitude for any airport can be found in the Chart Supplement U.S. book.

When operating in the traffic pattern at an airport, traffic pattern altitude (TPA) should be maintain unless otherwise directed by ATC or cloud criteria per FAR Part 91.155.

TIP:

Traffic pattern altitude (TPA) for piston aircraft is recommended 1,000 feet AGL above airport elevation. Unless otherwise established.

 

Radio Communication

​When flying in and out of towered airports and around the airspace, two way communication is required with ATC. It is also good practice and highly recommended to use radio communication at non-towered airports, but not required.

Radio License:

A radio license is not required to fly within the United States. 

If a pilot where to fly internationally into Canada or Mexico or any other country i.e. the Caribbean or Bahamas, a pilot must hold a restricted radiotelephone permit issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

There is a station license requirement for general aviation aircraft in the U.S.

Lost Communication Procedures:

Losing a radio in flight can happen at any time to anyone. There are a few steps we must know, to enter a towered airport and land safely. If able squawk code 7600 on the transponder (radio failure).

  • Remain outside or above of Class D airspace, until traffic flow has been determined.

  • Enter the traffic pattern and watch for light gun signals from the tower.

  • Acknowledge any ATC transmission or light signal, by ether:

    • Day time​ - rocking the wings

    • Night time - flashing the landing light.

 

ATC Services

Radar Traffic Advisories:

ATC facilities that are radar equipped provide assistance to aircraft on either IFR flight plans, along with VFR aircraft that are in radar coverage.

For VFR aircraft ATC can provide safety alerts, traffic advisories, limited vectoring if required, and sequencing at airports that have traffic procedures established.

  • For an example ATC issues a traffic advisory, such as: N123RA “Traffic 10 o’clock 5 miles east

bound, Cessna 152, 3,000 feet.”

As the pilot of N123RA, you should note that the aircraft is at your

10 o’clock position, using the noise of your aircraft, like a clock as

the 12 o’clock position.

Note, these service provide by ATC is not to relive the pilot of their responsibility to see and avoid.

In addition to radar services, terminal radar service areas (TRSA) have been established at certain terminal airports; for an example Palm Springs (KPSP) airport in Southern California.

These TRSA are depicted on sectional charts and are also listed in the Chart Supplement. The purpose is to provide separation between IFR and VFR aircraft. Whereas Class b and Class C service provides approved IFR and VFR separation.

Transponders:

In General Aviation (GA) there are two types of transponders you will see. One is the older dial version and the other is the new fancier digital push button version. Both operate the same way.

These are a part of the airborne surveillance radar system. Transponders are required to be able to fly in controlled airspace.  A transponder identifies the aircraft on the controllers radar screen by aircraft type, altitude, and direction. 

When ATC request a transponder code, it is called a "squawk." A squawk code is a four digit code from 0-7 that can be assigned by ATC, there are 4,096 possible codes that can be used.

Button functions:

  • When set to ON – Reports to ATC the 4 digit code selected

  • When set to STBY (Standby) – It is warming up and not relaying information to ATC.

  • When set to ALT (Altitude) – Reports to ATC the 4 digit squawk code selected and your Pressure Altitude (PA). Transponder and Altimeter do not work together.

  • OFF – Use common sense.

  • IDENT (Identify) – Pressing once will send a pulse that will flash your target on ATC’s radar screen to help locate you. 

    • NOTE: Only press when directed to by ATC.

 

The four basic squawks used are:

  • 1200 – (VFR squawk) this code is used as a default code and should be used when flying VFR, when not assigned a specific code by ATC.

  • 7700 – (Emergency) such as engine failure, all fires, flight control problems, medical emergency.  

  • 7600 – (Lost Communications) radio failure and you require light gun signals from the tower, if flying near a towered airport.

  • 7500 – (Hijacking) this code is not used in general aviation flying by yourself. If used there will be military jets escorting you to the nearest airfield.

  • All other squawk codes will be assigned by ATC.

Mode Types:

There are three types of mode transponders used. The Mode C is the one you will be using:

  • Mode C – Transmits the aircrafts altitude, position and Pressure Altitude automatically to ATC.

  • Mode S – Transmits altitude, position and other data exchange between aircraft and ATC.  Normally used in commercial airliners and larger aircraft.

  • Mode A – Only transmits an identifying code.

Where are transponders used?

Here is the short version of what 91.215 says for the locations you must have an operating transponder:

  • It is required for all aircraft in Class A, B and C airspace.

  • Within 30 NM of an airport (Class B airports, Mode C Veil) and from the surface to 10,000 feet MSL.

  • Required in all airspace above and below the ceiling and lateral boundaries of Class B and C airspace up to 10,000 feet MSL.

  • Within all airspace of the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia at and above 10,000 feet MSL.  Except for the airspace at 2,500 feet AGL and below.

  • Within 10 NM of an airport from the surface up to 10,000 feet MSL, except below 1,200 feet outside the lateral boundaries of that airports airspace.

 

References

Private Pilot ACS PA.II.D.K1 - PA.II.A.K4

PA.III.A.K1 – PA.III.A.K7

PA.III.B.K1, PA.VI.B.K3 - PA.VI.B.K4

PHAK FAA-H-8083-25 (Ch. 14)

AIM Chapter 2 Section 1

FAR Part 91.215

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