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Navigating Airports from Big to Small As a Pilot

Some student pilots think the toughest part of flying is simply staying aloft. However, the mechanics of taking off and landing at an airport extend far beyond the aeronautics of the matter. Outside of checking the weather, filing a flight plan, and assessing the airworthiness of your airplane, there are many decisions to be made and a wealth of factors to consider when entering or leaving an airport.

One aspect of landing to keep in mind is the size and type of airport you’re approaching. Do you need to watch out for other aircraft on your own or will air traffic controllers help you? How should you approach the runways, and where should you taxi after you land? Having knowledge of how airports of different sizes operate will assist you in taking off and landing safely and efficiently.


What to Keep in Mind

The FAA classifies airports into different categories: Commercial airports, divided into hub sizes; cargo service airports; reliever airports; and general aviation airports. No matter the size or business of the airport, there are several ways to prepare for your takeoff or arrival. Knowing as much as you can about the airport will assist you and your fellow pilots before you ever touch a runway. A great deal of this information is available on charts or from aviation apps. Since airport diagrams are updated frequently, it’s important to ensure you are using the most recent one.

A primary source of data is an airport diagram, available from the FAA. These contain a wealth of information. Every airport, no matter how small, is given a unique airport identifier, which you can find by using the airport’s title or location. These diagrams will let you know how much volume the airport handles on a typical basis, how to talk to air traffic control, any security restrictions you need to know about, the names of the runways and the directions they face, where airplanes may taxi, the location of any fire stations, the airport’s field elevation, its latitude and longitude, when transponders should be used, how much weight the runways can bear as well as how long and wide they are, whether or not a control tower is present and where it is located, any slope along the runways, what to do if communications are lost, and more.


Working With a Large Airport

As passengers, most people are familiar with commercial service airports. These airports are large, publicly owned, and situated at large cities. They process over ten thousand passengers a year and are subdivided into large hubs, medium hubs, small hubs, and nonhub primaries that primarily act as relievers for these busier airports. Pilots of passenger jets land and take off here most often.

While small jets and light aircraft may land at these large hubs, it’s not a simple process. By design, these airports concentrate on large commercial jets with many passengers, and small general aviation airplanes might slow down the process of bringing in a constant stream of major airline-affiliated jets. Landing fees, fuel prices, and security or ramp fees may be prohibitive, although they might be more reasonable at off times. Some airports with multiple runways may have a few shorter ones reserved for general aviation customers.

If you will be landing or taking off from a major airport, you might have to meet certain prerequisites. You must be alert and confident in your skills with speaking with air traffic control, as the controller won’t have time to hold your hand and ensure you can keep up with the pattern and taxi directions. In addition, the sheer size of a major airport might deter general aviation pilots from landing a smaller airplane there, since taxi times are significantly longer than those at airports catering to general aviation.


Working With a Medium or General Aviation Airport

Student pilots might be most familiar with these airports, as flight schools might be situated near such airports. These can serve small cities, such as South Bend, Indiana; Daytona Beach, Florida; or Lexington, Kentucky. Medium sized airports are almost always towered, although the tower might not be staffed 24 hours a day. They might cater to general aviation or small jets, and their traffic might spike dramatically at times of highly populated local events.

If you will be entering or leaving one of these airports, it’s important to check with an FBO situated at the airport to ensure that such events won’t be interfering with your trip and drastically altering traffic patterns or runway availability. For example, ahead of the Kentucky Derby, airports local to Lexington host so many private jets that they are parked on the taxiways and runways.


Small Airports and Untowered Strips

One of the great joys of general aviation is exploring the world through small airports. These airports usually have a distinct character and interesting histories. They might be located in areas so remote that they are open only during summer months. Small airports might have a tower which are staffed a few hours a day or certain days during the week. Because of the quirky nature of these airports, it’s just as important to verify their chart information as in larger ones.

The United States hosts about 20,000 non-towered airports, so it’s likely you will experience one at some point in your piloting career. It’s important to avoid assuming that the airport has fuel available. While some small airports offer self-service pumps, not all do. And some of these airports have temporary mobile towers to control traffic for specific occasions, as for firefighting operations or fly-ins at out-of-the way airports.

While it’s always important to make visual checks for other aircraft, it’s never more vital than at these non-towered airports. Be certain to make callouts on the radio, even if the skies seem empty. Without ignoring instrumentation, be aware at all times of neighboring aircraft, especially if you’ve heard a fellow pilot in your headset.

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