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Briefing the airport: briefing the approach as you descend from cruise should be the last step in a long chain when you're flying somewhere new.

With some experience, reviewing approach charts and setting up the avionics for an airport that's new to you is second nature. But there's more to being prepared for a new field than the approach. Let's take a top-down look at some of the "big picture" items that IFR pilots should be aware of when preparing to fly to a new destination. Think of it as, "Briefing the Airport."

The first step is to peruse the sectional chart containing your destination. Where's the water (rivers, lakes, oceans or bays)? Are there mountains, forests, deserts or big cities? Are there other nearby airports? You're looking for anything that affects the potential weather, arrival and departure routes, or even identifying the correct airport.


Reviewing the Monterey Bay area of the San Francisco sectional should cue you to the effect that Monterey Bay and the attached Pacific Ocean might have on the local weather. The area often gets "AIRMET Sierra for IFR and mountain obscuration." That's usually followed by, "Ceiling below 1,000 feet and/or visibility below three statute miles in mist or fog." Be aware of the implications of "below." That can mean ceiling indefinite and visibility 1/4 mile or less. This weather can affect just one airport or all four local airports simultaneously.

While you're reviewing the sectional, take a close look at the area for urban development. If the weather at the time of your arrival is questionable or if you are arriving at night, it's comforting to know where any city or lighted areas are relative to the airport. If you see a glow of lights to your right while descending on an approach that jives with where the city should be, that confirms your approach. On the other hand, if you overfly the city toward the airport and there is no urban development on the other side of the airport, be prepared for the "black hole" effect where it's difficult to judge your altitude visually--especially when deciding to go missed.

The Monterev Bav area also contains a reasonable amount of mountainous terrain. Mountains of any sort are something to keep in mind anytime, but especially near water. The orographic effect of moist air being pushed up the mountainside means that they make their own clouds, and mountains make pretty impenetrable objects when hidden.

Jeppesen and the newer NACO charts display topographical information that might help a visiting pilot understand where the rocks are. But in an interesting irony, the higher mountains at one of the local airports probably won't show on the approach charts because they are just off the chart. That doesn't mean they are far away; just far enough to not be on the approach chart yet close enough that you need to be aware

of them.

The minimum safe altitude (MSA) circle deserves more than a passing glance in mountainous areas. The MSA is based upon a radius from a specific VOR or NDB. The MSA circles on one airport we frequent utilize an NDB located just off the airport for the LOC and NDB approaches but a VOR almost 19 miles away for the VOR/GPS approach. The MSA altitudes are noticeably different on these charts, but the mountains around the airport remain the same height.

Pick a Spot

There are often a number of airports near your destination to choose from. Within just a few miles of Denver, Colo., there are seven potential destinations. Atlanta has at least 12 and San Francisco has six. Is your preferred destination an IFR airport with reasonable instrument approaches and adequate runways? Or (sometimes more importantly) is the airport so busy with airline operations that GA is discouraged from landing there?

Call the FBO ahead of time at larger airports. At San Francisco, for example, landing and parking charges for the first eight hours will run $160 or more. San Jose doesn't charge a landing fee, but the FBOs charge at least a $40 ramp fee. You might find that if you refuel and meet a specified minimum number of gallons, they'll wave the charge.

If you're flying into smaller airports, check the airport elevation and calculate the highest likely density altitude at time of year you'll be flying. Couple that with the runway lengths and you'll have a better sense of whether that airport can support your aircraft's operations.

Find out if the airport has local weather reporting -both METARs and TAFs. If not, you'll have to rely on reports from a nearby airport and the area weather forecast to make decisions about your destination's weather. Just in case, get the ATIS/ AWOS/ASOS phone numbers so you can call to verify the weather.

While you're thinking about telephones, call local FBOs or flight schools to learn about local weather patterns and IFR procedures. Find out how you can get both weather and clearances on the ground and if they have any local operational tips. While you are talking to them, find out if you can expect vectors or whether you'll have to fly the full approach. It doesn't hurt to find out when the Approach facility operates. If the Approach facility closes, then typically control is handed to another facility (often a Center) and the radar coverage and operational requirements may change.

Even if it's a controlled field, what are the Tower's hours of operation? When the Tower closes, the airport becomes "uncontrolled" and local weather reporting may cease. A distant altimeter setting may affect your MDAs.

Note how many runways the airport has. Multiple runways, especially in noticeably different directions, might be a hint that the area has winds or significant weather at certain times. It isn't unusual that the runway used for inclement weather is different than the runway used for normal operations.

You should also determine which runways are lighted and which aren't and how you activate the lighting if the airport is uncontrolled. If the weather dictates landing on an unlit runway, you have a non-starter and it is nice to know that and have an alternate plan. The wider runways are typically the runways used for normal operations, but that isn't always true.. Sometimes the prefered runway is simply the one with the shortest taxi to the FBO. Note the traffic-pattern direction and altitude for each runway and any noise sensitive areas around the airport. If you have access to a taxiway diagram, a few moments there are well spent too

Finally, does the airport have services you'll need, like fuel, maintenance, oxygen, transportation, and so forth? Even more to the point, if you need service or even to make a phone call when you arrive, check ahead of time to make sure that the FBO or airport office is open or if they charge a fee to come out.

In these days of gated airports, it also behooves you to make sure you can get off the airport grounds and back at the time of day you need to arrive and depart.

Given we go into detail in this magazine about the nuances of approach charts, we won't cover that here, other than to suggest you review all of the approaches for all runways.

Preparing to fly an approach involves more than just a review of the approach chart. It includes the other approach charts, the local sectional, AF/D, and any other material you might find relevant. Local weather, probable runways, lighting, the impact of chart notes and topography on circle-to-land or missed, arrival procedures, general topography (mountains, obstructions, lakes, bays, oceans, towns, etc.), and times of operation for services are all part of the big picture.

The more you learn about a place you've never flown to, the more it will seem that you've been there before when you actually arrive.

RELATED ARTICLE: Get the NOTAMs flight service skips.

It used to be you could walk into an FBO and find a well-turned copy of the Notice to Airman Publication, or NTAP, tied down somewhere near the phone with the local number for Flight Service and a photocopied menu of the only pizza place in town that delivered to the airport.

Not only are those days gone, it seems many pilots don't even know the NTAP still exists. (Actually, I wonder how many knew it existed in the first place.) We're all over getting the NOTAMs in our briefings, but forget that they can be published and then omitted. NTAP is where old NOTAMs go to live out their leisure days (or years) and it behooves you to check them when you're going somewhere you didn't get a briefing on just a couple weeks ago.

The cool side of technology is the document is available online (http://www. airtraffic/air traffic/publications/notices/) and it's searchable. It opens in Adobe Acrobat Reader. Click the search button once you find it and type the three-letter identifier of your destination. Every instance of that three-letter string appears on the right. Click the line on the right and you're taken right to the page with the potentially useful tidbit. Given that the NTAP runs around 450 pages and is reprinted every 28 days, this can save a lot of searching. That is, unless your destination happens to be "OTS."--Jeff Van West


Joe Shelton is an IFR contributing editor based in the Monterey Bay area.
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Title Annotation:TRICKS'O THE TRADE
Author:Shelton, Joe
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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