Are you planning on flying to a new airfield any time soon?
Unless you’ve been doing this for years, it can easily become an intimidating experience to plan and fly somewhere you’ve never been before. The safety and familiarity of your home or usual airfield will be miles behind as you navigate to a new landscape, negotiate the correct approach, speak to them on the radio, and find out where to park your plane once you’re safely on the ground.
Then you’ve got the silence suddenly coming over the room as you enter the club house door and the locals instantly catch glimpse of a stranger daring to enter their lair.
Of course these are just the fears that go through our mind. In reality flying is a friendly pastime which is full of welcoming and encouraging flyers from all walks of life who love to see a new face visiting their airfield.
And a simple telephone call beforehand, or even asking advice over the radio is usually all you need to do for advice on procedures and airfield information.
So, here are 10 easy steps to learning a new airfield:
1. Get Hold of the Airfield Chart
There are two main books produced in the UK each year by AFE and Pooleys which cover nearly every airfield and airport in the UK and Ireland. These are incredibly detailed and invaluable resources for learning a new airfield and are often all you need in order to navigate around the airfield and plan your radio frequencies.
The charts also include important instructions such as no-fly areas, how to approach, telephone numbers for PPR, and important runway lengths for calculating aircraft performance.
If you haven’t got access to one of these boos, the CAA also produce charts which are usually available online (link).
Finally, check the airfield’s website as these often also include charts to print off or download to a tablet for reference.
Once you have the airfield chart, study it and get to know the layout of the airfield.
2. Study the Area Map
Make sure you also have the up-to-date area navigational map that includes the airfield you’re travelling to (and the route to get there). This is vital for checking out the local landcape and getting a feel for the different classes of airspace, restrictions and other airfields in the vicinity.
Start to think about the route you’ll take to get to the target airfield and think about who you’ll be speaking to and what landmarks you’ll need to look out for.
3. Look on Google Earth
Google Earth, or Google Maps in satellite view, are a fantastic way of learning the landscape as it will actually look from the air.
A printed map shows all important information for navigation, but in the air the view looks very different and it can be hard to spot the airfield and important landmarks.
Try to view the airfield from the direction you’ll be travelling. What can you see nearby that will help you identify it? Can you also see no-fly areas or controlled airspace boundaries easy? What do nearby towns and villages look like?
4. Plan Your Radio Frequencies
Flying to a new airfield means new radio frequencies which you won’t be familiar with. Find out all of these and make sure you have them written down or readily available on the airfield chart when you’re flying. Try to reduce the workload and stress in the cockpit as much as possible by having all information to hand.
What kind of radio service does the airfield provide? Is it full ATC, or just A/G radio which may or may not be manned at the time? Plan for every eventuality and plan the calls you’ll make if you’re not familiar with that kind of radio service.
5. Work Out Where to Park in Advance
Once you land you’ll be in a new environment and suddenly aware that you don’t know where to go. If there are no other aircraft on the ground it can be hard to know where to park your aircraft, and the airfield may have one area for based aircraft and another for visitors.
In most cases the airfield chart will indicate where aircraft are to be parked. Again, looking on a satellite view may show where aircraft are parked.
If you’re unsure, ask for advice when telephoning the airfield before the flight, or simply ask on the radio after landing for directions.
6. Call PPR and Ask Questions
It’s important to telephone the airfield in advance in most cases.
You’ll see ‘PPR’ mentioned a lot on airfield charts. This means ‘Prior Permission Required’ and lets you know that you can’t usually just turn up and expect to land.
Firstly, airfields like to know who to expect, and sometimes have to decline permission for operational reasons.
It’s also important for you to check the airfield conditions, such as how muddy the runway is or any differences to the published charts that you need to know about.
It’s also useful to ask questions to help you familiarise yourself with the airfield. Ask what runway direction they’re using, and whether they prefer overhead joins, straight-in approaches, or circuit-joins. They’ll tell you about local villages you’re not allowed to overfly and you can check the cost of the landing fee.
7. Watch YouTube Videos
The advent of action cameras and sites such as YouTube has opened up a world of video content which is useful for learning new airfields.
Try a search for any airfield name and there’s a very good chance that a multitude of pilots have recorded their flights into and out of that airfield using in-cockpit cameras, or cameras attached to the wings.
In many cases they also record ATC conversations to help you understand the type of R/T you’ll experience.
This is a great way to familiarise yourself with a new airfield and how it looks from the air, how to approach or depart, and what it’s like on the ground.
8. Ask Others for Advice
Similarly, there may be many other pilots in your flying club or local flying community who have flown to the airfield you’re planning on flying to. Ask them questions about how it was, anything they found difficult or unusual, what route they took, even how good the airfield café was!
9. Rehearse Your Route
A day or two before your flight, plan out the route on your map (or navigation software) and rehearse it in your mind.
Think about the radio calls and frequencies, the landmarks and no-fly areas, and the approach path into the airfield.
Look for other airfields that could act as a diversion in case of emergency, too.
Then, on the day of the flight, check weather conditions and update your route accordingly, taking into account the runway direction you’ll be using.
Print out a PLOG and mark the route on your map ready to have handy in the cockpit.
10. Take Some Money!
Remember that you’ll need to pay for your landing fee (unless you have a magazine voucher) when you land. You may also need to refuel the aircraft (check the airfield has fuel available).
So take money with you to pay for this, and the obligatory coffee and bacon sandwich in the club café!
I hope that has proved a useful guide to planning a flight to and learning a new airfield.