So you’re thinking about flying your light aircraft to a “big” airport, but you’re a bit worried about what you should be prepared for. After all, you don’t want to be a burden to the big iron as you squeeze in between them.

I can’t say I blame you. Recently, I flew my Cherokee Six from my home base in Marion, Illinois to Houston. Which airport did I choose in Houston? Easy, KIAH – George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Yep, that’s right, hub of Continental Airlines. So how would I fit in among them? I’m happy to report that I was, at least as far as I know, no burden at all.

IFR vs. VFR

I did my flights IFR, and I must say it’s easier than going into busy airspace VFR. If you’re instrument rated, I highly recommend filing IFR. If you’re going VFR, I highly recommend flight following (every time, but especially here) long before you reach the edge of Class B (or Class C) airspace. This helps the airport be ready for your arrival. If they have warning you’re coming, they can prepare a slot for you in their arrivals. It’s not easy to sneak in an aircraft that might approach at 70 knots when you’ve got a constant stream of 150 knot arrivals. The more warning they have, the better.

PreFlight Planning

For purposes of this article, I’m assuming you’re going IFR. Before you file, be familiar with every ILS approach at the destination airport. Remember that big airports often use ILS approaches even on VFR days. Also, be familiar with any other approaches your aircraft is capable of. I just heard KJFK using a VOR/DME approach yesterday on LiveATC.net.

If the airport you’re going to has parallel runways, is one of them closer to the GA section of the airport? If so, you’ll likely be assigned that runway.

In addition, review the airport diagram. Print it out. Pick your FBO and mark it on the diagram.

The Approach

I follow Richard Collin’s advice to get the ATIS at least 70 miles from your destination. Nothing wrong with being prepared a bit early. I’ve found that on my radios, this often requires setting the radio to test in order to hear the ATIS. If the ATIS gives you an ILS in use, have the plate(s) ready right after listening to the ATIS.

The last two times I’ve gone into big airports, I’ve been cleared for the approach directly from my cruising altitude. In one case, this was an ILS from 6,000 feet down, the other was a visual from 5,000 on a left downwind.

I can’t stress enough that you need to know your airplane. My Cherokee Six cruises at 140 knots. I can get 160 or more on decent if I leave the power in. But I can’t put flaps in until 105 knots. What does that mean? It means I have to know how to get my airplane to slow down, while descending, without using flaps. If your gear isn’t welded down, chances are you can slow down faster than I can. I did a few practice approaches slowing the airplane down about two miles from the runway while on a steep approach. It’s far from hard in the Six, but I’d hate to be on final to Houston and be learning something new.

Approach control may ask you to “keep your speed up.” I’ve personally never been asked that, but I deliberately wait to slow the aircraft down….maybe that’s why.

In the end, it’s an approach. There’s pavement at the end. Fly the plane first and be safe.

The Landing

You should assume the words “caution wake turbulence” will be coming out of your headset. On my approach to Houston, I was given the following information from Houston Tower, “Cherokee 41X, Houston Tower, previous arrival an ERJ-135 on 2 mile final, caution wake turbulence, runway 26L, clear to land.”

Now, I should mention that scattered clouds prevented me from seeing the RJ ahead of me. But, I knew where I was on the approach, and I knew it would take me more than three minutes (the standard wake turbulence gap) to get to the runway. I therefore decided to land normally on the ILS.

After touchdown, you should already know which direction you’re going to turn off the runway, and expect to be told to make the first taxiway you can. The 10,000+ runway I touched down on in Houston was an easy turn on the first high speed taxiway.

If you’re accustomed to stopping after exiting the runway to run your after landing checklist — don’t expect to do that. Practice the checklist while taxiing. It’s not hard to do, and some things can always wait until you’re parked. In my Six, for example, I retract the flaps as soon as I touch down, mainly for braking effectiveness. Lights and fuel pump switches are together, and mixture comes back for ground ops. Everything else can wait.

As soon as you exit the runway, grab your printed airport diagram and put it on your kneeboard. The tower will likely give you a couple of taxiways and a hold short point. In Houston, I was given “Cross NB, right turn NA, hold short runway 31R.” Remember that you are REQUIRED to read back the hold short part. So your response needs to be complete, “Cross NB, right turn NA, hold short 31R, four one x-ray.”

A 737 landed behind me and made a high speed in front of me. This resulted in the 737 needing to cross the taxiway I was on. It was at this moment that I had a moment to appreciate the controller’s words, “Cherokee 41X, the 737 off your right will give way to you. Taxi straight ahead, hold short 31R.” Sometimes it’s just cool. But, back to work, there’s a 737 holding for you, push a bit of power in there and hurry-up out of his way.

The Departure

To be honest, the departure requires a bit more work than the approach and landing, if you ask me. I call this my “big airport” departure. Let me explain.

First, the FBO is likely used to much larger aircraft than you, and they may even provide you with an escort as you start and taxi away. It’s a bit annoying to me, as I feel like I have to rush. However, you don’t. The guy will stand there forever if you need him to.

Next, time for your clearance. What I’ve always done is to taxi to the edge of the FBO’s ramp and point my prop wash into an area that it won’t hurt anything. I call up Clearance Delivery and get my clearance. Then, with the engine somewhat warmed-up, I do my run-up. Yep, right there on the FBO’s ramp.

With your run-up done, run through your pre-takeoff checklist, yes, now. The reason I put this here is to have your aircraft fully ready before you begin taxiing to the runway. Now, depending on your aircraft, you may have to leave a couple of items until you’re actually on the runway. In the Six, I leave the fuel pump off, anti-collision strobes off, landing light off, and mixture leaned. Everything else gets done, flaps and all. This leaves me only three switches (which are right next to each other) and one lever to pay attention to when on the runway.

When you’re fully ready for take-off, call for taxi clearance. Expect to be given a “Monitor tower.” rather than “Contact Tower.” as you near the runway. This simply means switch frequencies, but don’t say anything. The tower controller knows you’re there, and assumes you’re ready. I have been asked if I was “Ready upon reaching.” This usually indicates the controller is going to give you an immediate take-off clearance when you reach the runway, probably with an aircraft on final approach behind you. Be honest, if you’re ready to go, tell him, if you need 30 seconds, admit it.

Once airborne, be ready for vectors as the controller gets you safely out of the terminal area. Nothing major here, in my experience. I did take-off once pointed towards a nasty thunderstorm. An aircraft ahead of me was given a turn a bit late, and told the controller he would have to turn within 1 mile. I was given a turn earlier, and it was no big deal (I was flying away from the storm on course).

Radio Communication

I trained at a towered airport. I’m comfortable talking to ATC. If you’re not, have a refersher course with your CFI before going.

Also, know your radios and what tricks you can play with them. I have two “flip-flop” radios, so I can have four frequencies programmed in at any time if I need to. Always have the next frequency already in a radio. When you’re on approach, put the tower frequency found on the approach plate into a radio somewhere and know how to switch to it immediately. As long as you manage your radios, you won’t have any trouble. Be prepared for the controllers to simply tell you “Contact Tower,” rather than give you a frequency, which may be standard operating procedure at your home field.

Conclusion

Overall, I could not be happier that I’ve chosen to land at big airports. Every time I’ve done it, it’s been a good experience. If you’ know what to expect ahead of time, you won’t be surprised as you go in or out. LiveATC.net is a great resource to listen to a standard day at the field you’re using. Are there some runways they don’t like to use? For example, at KSTL, runway 6/24 is rarely used. However, one day I went in the wind was 240 at 15 knots. I was initially given a visual to 12L, but I asked for 24 and was given it immediately. I’d much rather land into the wind as opposed to a quartering tailwind.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Have I made a mistake or left something out? Leave a comment!

“Big Airport” Operations

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