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"Learning to Fly - Student pilots can get help from the tower"



Monday, December 30, 2002

Learning to Fly - Student pilots can get help from the tower
BY PHIL DIEHL
The North County Times, San Diego (CA)


Editor's note: This is the latest in our series on what it's like to learn
to fly.

We headed out of Carlsbad to practice landings at Ramona on my most recent
flight lesson.

The small, rural airport at Ramona is good for practice because it has less
traffic than the airport at Carlsbad, my instructor told me. Fewer planes
line up for take-offs and landings at Ramona, and there's no control tower
to talk with on the radio.

Instead, pilots near the airport tune into a common radio frequency to talk
about traffic. They listen for calls from other pilots, and then announce
their own intentions as they approach the pattern around the airport.

Bigger airports have air traffic control towers run by the Federal Aviation
Administration.

McClellan Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, where I'm taking lessons at Grey
Eagle Flight Academy, is one of the busiest single-runway airports in the
United States. Private airplanes, corporate jets and commercial airliners
land there every hour, so the traffic in the air and on the radio can be
daunting to a student pilot like me.

Air traffic controllers coordinate as many as 110 takeoffs, landings, missed
approaches, instrument approaches and other operations in a single hour,
said Rich Pyke, who supervises 11 employees in the five-story control tower.
Traffic peaks on weekends between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and slows down each day
after sunset.

Controllers limit radio calls to essential information because of the heavy
traffic. Callers tell the tower who they are, where they are and what they
want to do. The controller in the tower responds, and the pilot repeats the
response to confirm it.

"We like to keep it short, sweet and to the point," Pyke said.

Sometimes radio talk can be too fast or too brief for a student pilot to
fully understand, he said. If so, a student should not hesitate to ask for
clarification.

A student should tell the air traffic controller that he or she is a
student, he added. That way the controller can help tame the stress felt by
anyone facing their first solo flight or cross-country trip.

"We encourage students to let us know they are students, even though it may
not be something they want to broadcast," Pyke said

"We will slow down a little for them. We want to make sure they understand
their instructions and their place in the (air traffic) pattern. We don't
want to make it intimidating for them."

We heard no one on the radio as we approached the Ramona airport during my
most recent lesson.

We had been in the air nearly an hour, reviewing a series of flight
maneuvers over Valley Center and the Pauma Valley. My instructor, Chris
Smith, switched on his mike and announced to any nearby pilots our intention
to try a touch-and-go, my first at an airport other than Carlsbad's.

I landed the Cessna 172SP on the runway with a short hop, rolled a hundred
yards or more, and quickly lifted off again without stopping. Not bad, for a
student in a cross-wind.

Our second time around, my landing was smoother, and we taxied off the
runway to stop the plane and look around on the ground. The lobby of the
small terminal was empty. I declined the doughnuts on the counter, glanced
at some planes being repaired in the adjacent hangar, checked out the men's
room, and we were ready to go again.

Back in the air we decided to try another touch-and-go. This time my
approach was too high, but we'd already accomplished a lot, so we called it
off without a landing and headed home to Carlsbad.

I'll have my own first solo in a few more weeks, if all goes well, and I
won't hesitate to tell anybody who's listening that I'm a student.

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