Radio Communication in Class D Airspace

After taking almost 9 months off of flying, I got back in the air (with a CFI, of course) and I immediately realized there was something that seriously suffered in those 9 months. Radio communications!

When I first learned to fly, it was at a class C airport (KGEG) and I was very accustomed to doing all the things you need to do to get in, out and around the airspace. Now, I’m at a complete loss as to what to say and when. Unfortunately, I’m living in an area where we have 3 class D, 2 Class C and a Class B airspace all withing 200 NM of each other. If I want to go anywhere, I need to freshen up on this. So, I decided to create a little cheat sheet for myself. I’m going to print them up and have them laminated so they can go on every flight with me. No more being nervous ON the air while I’m IN the air.

Hopefully you know that a class D airspace shows up on your sectional as a blue airport symbol with a blue dashed line around it. It will extend from the ground up to 2500 AGL (above ground level).

The secret password to lawfully enter class D airspace is very simple, establish two-way communications with the tower. That’s it. Once you’ve done that, you’ve met all the requirements to enter. This means, you’re going to want to make contact long before you get there. If you’re flying at 110 knots, you’re covering 5 miles every 2.7 minutes. That means you’ll want to contact them at about 10-20NM out, just to be safe. Note: If you contact the tower and they reply with “Standby”, you have NOT engaged in two-way communications. You’re not cleared to enter.

So What Do You Say?

Before you say anything, find out a little about them. This is done by tuning in the ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Services) and getting the ceiling, wind, visibility, altimeter setting and runway in use. They will also assign each updated report a phonetic letter. Make note of this because you’ll need to let the tower know you have the latest information when you first talk to them.

  • PILOT: Stuart Tower, Archer six seven alpha papa 8 miles to the north of the airport at three-thousand five-hundred. Landing with Echo (or whatever the phonetic code was from the ATIS report).

Then you wait for them to respond. If you don’t hear anything within a couple of minutes, you may want to say it again. Make sure you’re not about to encroach on the delta airspace. You may have to start to circle just outside to keep yourself from busting the airspace. If you still don’t see something, check your radio and maybe try it on comm2, if you have one.

They know exactly who you are (Archer 67AP) where you are (8 Miles out at 3500′) and why you’re there (coming in to land). They also know you have the latest weather information from the ATIS (information echo).

It’s at this point you’re going to want to make sure you have a pencil and something to take notes on. The tower will most likely give you some sort of instruction to get you into configuration for the landing. If you’re far enough out, they may tell you to notify them when you’re within 5 miles. Make sure you listen close at this point and ASK QUESTIONS if you don’t FULLY understand. Don’t be afraid to tell them you’re a student pilot, a new pilot or just a pilot unfamiliar with the area.

  • TOWER: Archer six seven alpha papa, descend and maintain two-thousand. Fly two one zero heading and enter a left downwind for runway three zero. Traffic inbound at your 4 o’clock indicates three-thousand.

Now, something magic just happened. By engaging in two-way communications you’re cleared to enter the delta airspace. But, now you’re under their control, so you better listen and follow closely.

The next thing you want to do is start looking for that other traffic while you descend to 2000′ and turn to a heading of 210. Some say you don’t NED to read all this back and others say it’s smart to do that. I don’t think it can hurt to respond with the information you recieved.

  • PILOT: Stuart tower, six seven alpha papa. Descend to two-thousand, fly heading two-seven zero. Traffic in-sight.

You need to let them know you have the other traffic in sight and you’ll maintain a visual. If you can’t see the other aircraft let them know

  • PILOT: Stuart tower, six seven alpha papa, descend to two-thousand, fly heading two-seven zero. looking for traffic.

Once you do have the traffic in site, let them know. They can breath a little easier when they know you can see each other. If they’re talking to the other aircraft, they may see you and in that case, you should still look for them, but the pressure is off a little for the tower.

As you get a little closer to the airport, the tower will eventually give you a clearance to land. This is very important. Until you hear this you’re not cleared to land at the airport. It’s important you read this back to the tower to let them know you understand.

  • TOWER: Six seven alpha papa, turn left base when able. Cleared to land runway three zero.
  • PILOT: Stuart tower, six seven alpha papa cleared to land three zero.

Sometimes you’ll get some other specific instructions. You need to make sure you listen closely and don’t assume you’re about to be cleared. There may be a situation where they have to vector you in a different direction. So don’t assume!

Once you’ve landed, remember, you’re at a CONTROLLED airfield. If they haven’t told you which taxiway to depart, you should leave the runway as early as possible. Then let them know what you’ve done. Communication is the key. Don’t do anything that is going to surprise them. They have a lot of aircraft they’re moving around the sky AND ground.

TOWER: Six seven alpha papa exit to your left at alpha. Contact ground on point niner.

As you’re rolling down the runway, keep your eyes open for the ALPHA taxiway and turn left as soon as you see it. Once you pass the runway hold short markings, STOP and contact ground. In this case it will be 121.9. It’s almost always going to be on the 121.X frequency. That’s why you may only hear the “point niner”. Make sure you don’t turn away from the tower frequency until your told to do so. Also, don’t proceed down any of the taxiways until you’ve spoken with ground.

  • PILOT: Stuart ground, six seven alpha papa clear of three zero at alpha. Request taxi to the ramp.
  • GROUND: Six seven alpha papa, cleared to taxi via alpha to the ramp.

If you don’t know this airport (you should have brought a taxi diagram to make sure you know where you’re going) you can request a progressive taxi to the local FBO. If there’s more than one FBO, you’ll have to let them know which one you want. They’re not allowed to recommend one to you.

That’s it. You’re now safely on the ground in a class delta airport and the tower thinks you’re a 10,000 hour pro. Congratulation

When is a Class D Not a Class D?

Some class D control towers are only manned part-time. In most cases, whenever the tower is unmanned, the airspace reverts to class E or G. Typically the CT frequency will convert over to a CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency).

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