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The VFR Pilot's Guide For Landing At Busy Airports

Do you feel comfortable flying into busy, unfamiliar airports? Here's what you should know as a VFR pilot...

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What's So Different?

Increased ATC requirements, costs, equipment requirements, complex taxi routes, and procedural differences can make these airports intimidating. But depending on where you're flying, it might be your best, or only, option.

In the end, you shouldn't feel intimated flying into these airports. Here are some tips to help you get started.

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Get Flight Following Early

When you've picked up flight following, ATC helps you out with traffic, weather, and airspace avoidance. ATC can help find routes that will keep you clear of heavy traffic. They can also warn you of traffic that's approaching your flight path. Navigation is still up to you, and you don't have to accept ATC's advice as long as you stay in Class E or G airspace. But following their advice can be a big asset.

The best way to work with ATC in airspace is to be proactive, and that includes flying into Class B and C airports. When you let them know your destination on the initial call, ATC will eventually coordinate your arrival into the busy airspace. As you get close to your destination airport, ATC will likely hand you off to a local approach control for that airport. If you're flying into a Class C airport and you're in communication with ATC, you've been cleared into Class C Airspace. When you're flying VFR into Class B, you need to hear the words "cleared into the Class B airspace" from ATC.

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Know The Weather Requirements

Class B airspace has some of the most relaxed weather requirements because in Class B, Air Traffic Controllers are tracking your every move - altitude, speed and heading. It's the only type of airspace where this happens for all VFR aircraft, and because of it, controllers can allow you to fly in worse weather and still allow you to "see and avoid" other aircraft.

The requirements are very simple: 3SM visibility, clear of clouds. What does staying "clear of clouds" mean? It means that your airplane can operate up to, but not touch a cloud. That's pretty close.

Class C minimum weather requirements exist so that you can see and avoid other aircraft. ATC wants you to stay far enough away from the clouds so you can see and avoid other airplanes, especially jets flying fast approaches.

An easy way to remember VFR weather minimums for Class C airspace is the phrase "3 Cessna 152s". Day or night, each number in the phrase stands for one of the distances:

  • 3SM visibility
  • 1000' above
  • 500' below
  • 2000' horizontal

What Are Your Equipment Requirements?

In both Class B and C airspace, you'll need a two-way radio, Mode-C or Mode-S transponder, and ADS-B out onboard your airplane to enter the airspace, so that you can maintain communication with ATC and so that they can track your location and altitude on their radar scope.

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Have Your Frequencies Ready

Having ATIS, approach control, tower, and ground frequencies loaded in your standby comm is always a good idea. Keep in mind that at many large airports, there are multiple frequecies for each service, depending on your arrival direction, or your location on the ground.

If you're using an EFB, which we highly recommend, load your destination airport page. All of the frequencies will be listed and available there for a quick reference.

You May Have To Hold, And You May Be Vectored

Flying into a Class C airport is usually no problem. However, you may be asked to hold outside of the airspace at some Class B airports during a busy arrival/departure block.

If you really need to (or want to) fly into a Class B airport, calling ahead might be a good idea. Call the local ATC Approach Control to ask when a good time to fly in might be, which will usually fall between blocks of departures and arrivals, or at night. Some airports like Salt Lake City and Phoenix have a lot of GA traffic, with one runway located near FBOs. Others, like Chicago O'Hare or New York LaGuardia, simply won't be able to fit you into the traffic flow under normal operations. Check out this video of a Cessna C172 landing at Chicago O'Hare...

Study The Airport And Find Your Parking Spot

Before your flight, or at least well before you begin descending, take a thorough look at the airport diagram. Find the FBO where you plan to park, and look at the runways/taxiways nearby. While you can never really plan out exactly how your approach/taxi will go, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the airport well ahead of time.

Expedite, But Don't Rush

Airports are usually established as Class B or C due to increased traffic. That means busy frequencies and a lot of airplanes that are faster than you. Flying into these airports isn't the time to linger, take pictures, etc.

Keep your speed up as best you safely can, and anticipate flying either a long or short approach to landing. That's one way that ATC will sneak you in between faster jets. Don't rush yourself, maintain a sterile cockpit, and keep your eyes outside. If you need help, ask. The last thing you want to do is assume you understand an ATC instruction and create a traffic conflict.

Live from the Flight Deck

Have You Flown Into A Busy Airport?

Tell us about a time that you flew into a busy Class B or C airport. What did you do to prepare? Did anything unexpected happen? Tell us in the comments below!

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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