Time to talk to the Tower

“Cherokee 44055, say intentions.”

This short phrase can strike fear and confusion in the towered airport uninitiated.

Physical and mental reactions include cold sweats and the inability to utter anything but “Um” when the microphone button is depressed. Phobias develop, leading even experienced pilots to navigate around any airspace that requires a dialogue with the great unseen air traffic controller.  Avoiding the microphone might work in other, less congested areas of the country.  But if you fly out of KSMQ and try to dodge all Class Bravo, Charlie and Delta airspace, you are seriously limiting your flying opportunities, airports, and altitudes. More importantly, you are passing up safety tools your tax dollars fund.

Growing up as a pilot at Somerset Airport provides plenty of challenges and rewards. By the standards of our Morristown based brethren, the runway is compact, helping us develop precision landing skills.  On a sunny Saturday or Sunday, we can generate more traffic movements than many fields with “International” in the title.  Most student pilots quickly acclimate to the friendly banter and exchanges on the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) and by the time they solo can effectively communicate their whereabouts and intentions. Yes, it’s a party line we share with Belmar, Blairstown, Linden and about a dozen other airports within range, and we have to wait our turn.  But our transmissions on CTAF generally take the form of announcements as opposed to a negotiation for a Class Bravo clearance.  It is this lack of regular exposure to controllers which contributes to Mike-Fright.

Luckily for us, we are a short hop from facilities where we can practice our communications skills. Trenton (KTTN) and Morristown (KMMU) are student friendly Class Delta fields.  Morristown has even done away with landing fees to roll out the red carpet for students, instructors and private pilots.  Allentown (KABE) to our west is a class Charlie where you can practice calling Clearance Delivery for a VFR departure.  It’s also the site of our local FSDO, or Flight Standards District Office.  Want to see the human face of the FAA?  Call and make an appointment.

And then of course there is the big, scary New York Class Bravo.  I’ve seen grown pilots shudder at the mere sight of those solid blue lines marking its perimeter.  Because New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Control) has a trifecta of primary airports, Newark, LaGuardia, and JFK, avoiding the Class Bravo entirely rules out a lot of real estate.  So grab a flight instructor or fellow pilot and start talking to the tower.  Like most things aviation, success starts on the ground.

Do your Homework. AOPA has a bunch of great online courses.  Try Know Before you Go: Navigating Today’s Airspace, Runway Safety, and Say it Right: Mastering Radio Communication.  Review Airport signage and markings in the FAR/AIM. We are all familiar with Hold Short lines and Displaced Threshold arrows because we see them every day taxiing into position on Runway 30.  Towered airports utilize a much larger catalog of signs and markings.  Get to know the difference between a yellow Taxi Direction Sign and red Runway Holding Position sign.

Rehearse. Find a flight instructor or fellow pilot; write out scripts and role play.  I know, it sounds and feels goofy, but practice makes perfect (or almost!).  On a visit to Trenton, for instance, a simple scenario might go something like this–Listen to the ATIS, Airport Terminal Information Service when 10 miles out.  Carefully!  The alphabetical identifier is the least important information on this recording.  What are the winds doing? Which runways are in use?

Next, listen before pushing that button.  Many controllers work multiple frequencies. Wait till the controller has stopped talking before forging ahead.

Introduce yourself. A simple, “Trenton Tower, Cherokee 44055” will get the ball rolling. When the controller responds with your call sign, keep it short and sweet. Who you are, where you are, what you want: “Trenton Tower, Cherokee 44055, 7 miles north, Information Tango, inbound to land.” Brevity is the key to a welcoming reception.

Prepare. Start with the Airport Facility Directory (AFD). This little green book contains everything you ever wanted to know about fields in your region.  In the back are full page airport diagrams of towered airports.  Even better, print out a full size copy to keep on your lap when taxiing where you can write down the ATIS and any taxi instructions you receive.  The internet is full of aviation sites bursting with frequencies and diagrams.  Print them out or write them down.

For flights into or around Class Bravo airspace, make sure you have the appropriate Terminal Area Chart (TAC).  These charts have a more detailed scale then their cousins, sectional charts, and contain control frequencies for different sectors.

For flights within the Hudson SFRA, a NY TAC is now required on board.

Make sure you have a thorough weather briefing, either telephonically with flight service or through an online supplier.  Knowing which way the winds are blowing, and what is forecast to develop during your flight, can help you anticipate likely scenarios.  Going back to our flight to Trenton, knowing that the winds are 10 knots from the southwest might lead to a tower instruction to report a four mile final for runway 24.

Timing is everything. The Friday before a long weekend at 5 PM is probably not the best time to make a first crack at Class Bravo communications.  Listen up!  You know that tone your spouse gets when you’re inches away from spending the night in the dog house? Controllers have a similar tone when they are swamped launching rush hour Citations into our busy skies.  Don’t give up on experiencing flight in the Bravo.  You just might want to wait till things settle down for a friendly reception.  On a recent flight home from the Boston area I was greeted with “Happy New Year Cessna 132ME and Welcome Aboard!” It was a cold Sunday afternoon, the frequencies were quiet and 127.6 was directing traffic with all the enthusiasm of a cruise director.

Say Intentions. When ATC asks you to state intentions they are simply asking you what you want.  Are you just passing through or looking for practice approaches? Touch and Goes or Full Stop Taxi Backs?  Controllers aren’t mind readers. Speak up.  Speak clearly.

And most importantly, do you need anything?  If there is a problem with you, your aircraft or your passengers don’t be shy and don’t wait.  Let them know and let them help.

The skies above northern New Jersey are busy and pilots have to remain vigilant to the boundaries and requirements of neighboring airspace.  But we also have the most professional and experienced controllers in the world to work with.  Start off with the Deltas and work your way up to the Bravo.  Don’t give up if you have a bad experience or feel tongue tied at first.  And if you want a coach those first few flights over New York, call us.  We’re here to help.


Image Credit: “Newark Airport” by Kevin Coles is licensed under CC BY2.0