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Swimming with sharks: small aircraft can fly into NYC's busiest airports, but only with sharp IFR skills, good humor and a healthy bit of chutzpah.


Call it the Masters, the Major Leagues, or the Big Show. New York City TRACON airspace is considered by many to be the Great White Way of aviation. It's a place where caffeine-laden controllers take no prisoners as they skillfully coordinate over 3000 arriving and departing aircraft every 24 hours.

The New York TRACON is unique among the many congested swatches of airspace around the world. Its five major airports, LaGuardia (KLGA), John F. Kennedy (KJFK), Newark Liberty (KEWR), Teterboro (KTEB), and Westchester/White Plains (KHPN) are all located within about 14 miles of each other beneath a patchwork quilt of ATC sectors woven together in a less-than-perfect pattern.

Heavy aircraft and corporate jets--we'll call 'era whales and sharks--move about in fierce competition to maintain some semblance of their planned schedules. Your GA, piston-powered minnow is allowed to swim here, too. The only requirements are the abilities to move fast, listen carefully, respond immediately and fly proficiently. Pilots lacking any of these essential skills are firmly encouraged to remain well clear of this particular Class B airspace.

Minnow Preparation

There are a few basic requirements that every minnow pilot must satisfy before venturing into this world of whales and sharks. The first is an extra pair of eyes, ears and piloting skills. Two-pilot crews exist in the airline and corporate world partly because two pilots are required to keep up with the flow of required duties. Having a second pilot to copy clearances, dial in frequencies, talk with ATC, watch for traffic and follow complicated taxiway routings is an essential operational resource.

A second requirement for instrument pilots is the ability to keep the needles centered as you descend down the final-approach course at no less than 140 knots. Anything less is likely to create a bothersome loss of separation between you and jet traffic following close in-trail. The standard ATC solution is to vector slower-moving minnow traffic off the final-approach course to allow faster traffic to pass. Three successive repeats of this solution is likely to send the hapless GA pilot back to the mainland for more fuel or, better yet, overnight parking and a long taxi ride into the City.

While seemingly mundane, a third requirement is a fully-charged, hand-held radio to monitor ground and tower frequencies during those many instances where flow-control procedures, ground stops, and gate holds are in effect.

The fourth and perhaps the most important requirement is consummate planning and cockpit resource management (CRM). Moving through the New York TRACON's multiple sectors requires quick frequency changes, convoluted routings via unfamiliar fixes, last-minute approach and runway changes and a myriad of FBO options. At last count, Teterboro Airport had five FBOs, each offering different parking and fuel-pricing options. Don't forget, too, that LaGuardia is part of the High Density Traffic Airport (HDTA) Reservation Program that requires an IFR reservation for flights arriving and departing during most times of the week.

Before landing, query the final-approach controller on the inbound leg about the routing you can expect out of that airport to the next airport. Having this information saves time when filing an instrument routing to your next stop.

The fifth and final unique requirement when flying into any of the NYC airports is a good sense of timing. JFK will allow you to land and park for just $25 ... if you stay for less than one hour and are off by 3 p.m. The same applies to Newark's Liberty Airport. Remaining beyond one hour or arriving after 3 p.m. will add a $100 peak-time surcharge to your bill.

Swimming Lessons

As in everything else we do in aviation, there are two parts to becoming proficient in the busiest airspace in the world. One, of course, is proper instruction. The second is to get out and do it!


Let's begin this process by taking an imaginary trip into all five of the NYC airports. Landing first at KHPN provides a good warm-up. We will have plenty of time to brief the approach and to get sequenced into a fairly smooth flow of traffic. On the way in, we'll be sure to ask the final controller what routing we can expect when departing KHPN for KLGA. His typically fast response will be, "Direct Carmel [CMK] VOR, direct."

We'll also know beforehand which of KHPN's three FBOs we will be using. Such decisions are typically based upon finding the best combination of parking fees and fuel prices. Check ahead before leaving the ground.

Departing KHPN is a different story. A call to Clearance Delivery followed by a quick call to Ground gets us quickly to the departure runway run-up pad. Once there, however, we'll discover the benefit of having a fully charged handheld radio. Flights going to any of the other NYC airports may experience a release-time delay of anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour.

Once off, a quick series of departure control hand-offs and successive radar vectors will get us sequenced onto the final-approach course for our arrival into KLGA. Be prepared to keep the needles centered at full power in order to preserve our spacing ahead of close-in-trail jet traffic. If we cannot do this, expect to be turned off the final-approach course one or more times until the desired spacing can be achieved and maintained.

It's at KLGA that we get that truly big-airport feel. Simultaneous landing and departing traffic using intersecting runways requires masterful ATC coordination to keep things moving. Once on the ground, be prepared for an eye-full of confusing signage around lots of construction. Our aim is to make it over to the Marine Air Terminal, which houses KLGA's only FBO. A crew bus will deliver us from our parking space over to the FBO, where we will pay a $116.50 landing fee and a $55 parking fee, regardless of our time of arrival. Just remember, the parking fee is for each eight hours we plan to remain on the ground, so KLGA is not our best airport of choice for weekend visits to the Big Apple.


Our short stay at KLGA is worth the price of admission just to see the recently renovated Marine Air Terminal. This is the place where international air travel began in the 1930s with Pan American's giant flying boats! Plan also to have lunch in its cafe, as this is the only convenient location for a sit-down meal at any of the five NYC airports.

The preferred routing over to KJFK, just nine miles to the south, is radar vectors to join V487, then intercept the Calverton VOR (CCC) 286 radial, inbound to Calverton, then direct to the Deer Park VOR, direct destination. This routing takes us eastward towards Bridgeport, Ct., across the Long Island Sound towards the eastern tip of Long Island, then westward nearly direct to KJFK, a routing that can add over 50 miles to our trip. As in approaches into KLGA, the final-approach controller wants at least 140 knots with strong hints that 150 would make things easier for him.

A little "sweet talking the system" goes a long way when planning our arrival at KJFK. Landing on Runway 13R or 31L puts you in close proximity to the airport's sole FBO, situated near the departure end of 31L. Landing on any other runway could involve as much as a three-mile taxi to the FBO. A tactfully made request to ATC may get us this runway if their operations at the moment permit.

The folks at the GA terminal operated by the NY/NJ Port Authority want us to call them on 122.95 before touching down so as to give them time to arrange parking. Not doing this exposes pilots to a brisk reprimand as can only be heard in New York City. Here's another spot where having two pilots to split duties is essential.

Swim up the River

No trip into the NYC Class B airspace would be complete without a quick tour up the Hudson River VFR corridor between 500 and 1100 feet AGL. Doing this from KJFK is a snap. We'll advise Clearance Delivery that we want to "punch out" VFR under 500 feet for a Hudson River tour of Manhattan. Of course, we'll have a New York VFR Terminal Chart ready on our lap board as we proceed over the New York harbor.

Our route of flight will take us west along the south shore of Long Island, over the top of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and into the New York harbor for one of the most spectacular flights of our life up the east side of the Hudson river. As we do this, we'll switch to the 123.05 air-to-air frequency. Just beyond the George Washington Bridge, we'll reverse course and follow the west shoreline back down to the Statue of Liberty, where we'll circle waiting for clearance to Newark's Liberty Airport.

After a short stay at Newark, we'll head next to Teterboro. Given the typical air-traffic delays, we could do two round trips from Newark to Teterboro in a taxi in less time than it takes us to fly this route one way. Teterboro has five FBOs, each with different fuel pricing and parking fee options. Usually, we'll pick Atlantic Aviation. Despite its $7.59/ gallon fuel charge, it still seems to offer the best fuel-price/parking-fee combination.

The final chore of the day before heading home is executing one of the most exciting departure procedures you'll ever get when mountains aren't in play. It's the infamous Teterboro Five, with a quick series of turns and climbs to avoid nearby Newark's arrival and departure corridors.

The NYC airport tour is a grind, even for the most proficient pilot. Doing it in a quick GA airplane like a Cirrus SR22 still consumes between four and six hours because of all the radar vectoring and ground delays. Once we finish, however, we can boast that since we made it there, we can make it anywhere.

Bob Miller publishes OverTheAirwaves. corn and offers day-long training flights into the NY TRACON airports.


Flying is one thing, but what if you want to land and actually go into the city? Glad you asked. Log onto our sister publication, www. and click the PODCAST button, then the Podcast Index. Bob Miller gives the lowdown on where to land, where to park and how to get into town with the least hastle and cost.
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Title Annotation:PRACTICALITES
Author:Miller, Bob
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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