ATC In The USA

“Tulsa Clearance Delivery, Warrior eight-three-three-zero-uniform depart runway three-six right, turn right heading one-two-zero via Fort Smith VOR and Little Rock VOR, climb and maintain 7500 feet, contact Tulsa Departure Control on one-one-niner-point-one, squawking one-seven-niner-three,”

“Cherokee eight-three-three-zero-uniform, readback correct, contact ground control one-two-one-point-niner when ready.”

So begins a standard VFR flight from Tulsa International Airport to Memphis, Tennessee in a Warrior. If you think the above is more involved than the average VFR flight in the UK, you’re right.

And if you think any ATC you’ll come in contact with here will have much patience for a foreign pilot who botches any step of the process, I’ve got some land to sell you outside Kiev.

For example, in the first paragraph, note the fact that I identified myself as a Warrior, while ATC considered it their prerogative to “correctly” refer to me as a “Cherokee”.

The average UK-trained pilot might find some of this confusing, but it’s really a matter of coming to grips with the fact that they’re neither wrong nor right, just different. “It’s a little like driving on their freeways,” said Jim Hart, an Australian-licensed private pilot who recently flew a couple of dozen hours throughout the USA,

“If you’ve only been driving in England, driving on a US freeway can be a bit daunting. You have to familiarize yourself the local conditions – and at least in the air, you don’t have to worry about driving on the wrong side of the road!”

Hart said that one thing he noticed in the US was ATC’s willingness to “Fit in and accommodate even the smallest of airplane in the largest of airports. In the US, you can get clearance into JFK or Atlanta, whereas in Australia I’d be mad to ask a controller in Melbourne to let me pop in with my 172 or Warrior.”

Flight Following
In the US, most VFR pilots enjoy using a free service known as “Flight Following”, the rough equivalent of the UK’s “Radar Information Service”.

Any pilot can request Flight Following and it’s granted by ATC on a “if able” basis. If they have the time to deal with you (they most often do, even in crowded airspace) it means that your plane will be given a unique transponder “squawk” code, and ATC will “follow” you along your cross country journey (it’s not recommended for local flights).

En route, ATC will periodically check in with you to let you know of traffic in your area, or to ask you to modify your course for various reasons, and they will also “hand you off” to other controllers along your route. When this happens, your current controller will tell you whom to contact and on what frequency. Repeat the instructions, change frequencies and let the new guy know you’re there, “Miami Approach, Warrior eight-three-three-zero-uniform is with you, level at four thousand five hundred feet.”

Flight Following is a must if you’re flying over water, or between major destinations . And unlike a flight plan, it means that if your plane disappears, an Air Traffic Controller will immediately see it, try and contact you and, if he can’t, he’ll summon the cavalry immediately and to the place you last were seen, and not two hours after your intended arrival time and along the entire route of travel.

You may request flight following while in the air, or from the beginning of a flight while contacting Clearance Delivery, which neatly brings us to ground procedures.

Getting Clearance To Leave
In busier US airports, getting to the runway is generally a three-part procedure, and it helps to be calm, focused and use pencil and paper for all three parts. And whether you’re on the ground or in the air, the basic rule in the US is to say, Who You Are, Where You Are, and What You Want To Do:

On preparing for departure the first call, once you’ve listened to the weather, done your pre-flight checks, started your engine(s) and re-checked the weather to ensure you’ve got the latest information, is to contact Clearance Delivery, which will gather the basic information about your current location, your plane and your intentions, to pass on to ground control, the tower and departure control.

“Teterboro Clearance Delivery, Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu at Millionaire FBO with information Foxtrot.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, go ahead.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu is a PA-28-161, we’d like a north-east bound departure for a VFR flight to Poughkeepsie Municipal Airport, that’s Papa Oscar Uniform, four-thousand-five-hundred feet and request flight following.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, stand by”

Get that pencil ready. “Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, squawk one-five-two-three depart runway 19, maintain at or below one thousand feet and turn left heading three six zero.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, squawking one-five-two-three, will depart runway 19 and maintain at or below one thousand feet, turning left heading three six zero.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, readback correct, contact ground when ready.”

Get that frequency from an Airport Facilities Directory (AFD), because unless they’re feeling eleemosynary, Clearance Delivery won’t give it to you. When you contact them, remember that Ground Control knows where you are and what you want to do, but it’s nice to let them know where you are to reduce any possibility of confusion.

“Teterboro ground, Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu at Millionaire.”

“Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, taxi to and hold short of Runway one niner at Bravo via Oscar.”

Repeat that you understand you’ve been told to hold short of the runway: “Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu, taxi to and hold short of Runway one niner at Bravo via Oscar.”

Stay on the ground frequency during your taxi and hold short, and your engine run-up. When you’re ready to depart, contact the tower. “Teterboro tower, Warrior eight-two-five-two-zulu short of one niner at Bravo ready for departure.”

From this point on it’s pretty straightforward, but be on the lookout for instructions such as “Taxi into position and hold,” which means you’re clear to taxi onto the runway and line up on the center line in as few feet as possible, and then must hit the brakes.

This is usually due to traffic that’s just landed on the same runway (you’re waiting for him to be totally clear of the runway) or departing or landing traffic on an intersecting runway (much more on that later). Repeat the taxi into position and hold instruction!

Say What You Want, And All In One Go
“One difference I notice in the US,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying Instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation, “is that in the UK, when you make an initial call, I would then stop and wait for them to come back and ask me what I want.”

In the US, ATC likes you to try, whenever possible, to reduce the time required for the overall transaction to complete. Since in this century most radios work properly nearly all the time, the added time waiting for a “Go ahead” is considered to be unnecessary unless the channel is very busy.

So if the frequency is clear, and you’ve got flight following, just say what you want the first time round: “Jax Approach, Warrior eight-three-three-zero-uniform, level at seven-thousand-five-hundred, request descent to five-thousand-five-hundred to stay clear of clouds.”

If they’re busy, use the UK style and wait for the go-ahead.

LAHSO
At many larger airports in the US, Land And Hold Short Operations may be in effect. This is a complex issue and we’ll only touch on the basics here, but it is imperative to understand the implications of accepting a LAHSO clearance.

LAHSO occur when airports with intersecting runways allow traffic to arrive and depart on both runways. One plane will have to “hold short” of the intersecting runway. If that’s you, you need to get some information and examine your circumstances before accepting the clearance – you, as Pilot in Command, have the responsibility to determine whether a) you can comply and b) whether compliance would be safe. The controller issuing the clearance has nothing to do with it if you accept a LAHSO clearance.

How It Works
LAHSO are listed in an AFD, as are the available landing distances. But when LAHSO are in effect, it’s announced on the airport’s Automated Terminal Information System and by the controller. If a controller clears you to land on a runway and to hold short, you absolutely have the right and the duty to a) ask the available landing distance and/or b) refuse the clearance if you’re not 100% sure you can make it.

Once you accept, any mistake you make – if you put one millimeter of metal across the hold short line expect FAA goons to descend on you with great vigor and furious anger – is yours to live with. If you get it, do as short field a landing as you can possibly muster, and if you have any doubt whatsoever, do a go-around.

CTAF
All of the above refers to controlled airports, but there’s another thing pilots will run into in the states, and that’s the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency system. CTAF is a brilliant convention which enables pilots around non-towered airports and in uncontrolled airspace to self-announce their intentions to the traffic in the area. The CTAF frequency for an area may be found on sectional maps and in AFDs.

An important thing to remember is that sometimes several non-towered airports will share a CTAF frequency, so it’s imperative that you announce where you are, what you’re doing, and again where you are for each CTAF transmission: “Venice traffic, Cessna 67547 five miles south of the field, entering a mid-field left downwind for runway 22, Venice traffic.”

Mid-Field Downwind
Regardless of the radio procedures around a field, entering the downwind leg of a traffic pattern is kosher in the US, but remember that you must enter it at a 45 degree angle and make sure that you’re at traffic pattern height when you get there. Non-towered airports in the US use a left-hand traffic pattern unless it’s specifically written down in the AFD, so if you’re approaching the field and can fly right into the correct side f a left-hand traffic pattern, just descend to traffic pattern altitude and enter the downwind at midfield on a 45.

The polite way to do it if you’re on the other side of the traffic pattern is to overfly the field 1000 feet above the traffic pattern altitude, fly outbound at that altitude for one to three minutes, descend to traffic pattern altitude, turn right and enter the midfield downwind on a 45-degree angle. The Unicom announcement, “Venice traffic, Cessna 67547 overflying the field at fifteen hundred feet southbound, then turning to enter a midfield downwind for runway 22, full stop landing, Venice traffic.

“Brits in the US,” said Flyer publisher Ian Saeger, “especially around Florida, where there are quite a few fields with the same Unicoms frequency, tend to forget that if you don’t say the airport at the beginning and the end of an announcement then the announcement does as much good as a a chocolate teapot.”

Lights Up
One final word on radios in the US: wanna feel powerful? Fly by a non-towered field at night (presuming, of course, your certificate allows night flying), tune into the CTAF frequency and key your mike seven times in rapid succession. Poof: the runway lights come on, in all their glory. Key another three times and you dim them to half intensity. And another three times and they turn off.

And they though the best part of flying in the US was the price!