Familiarizing Yourself with an Unfamiliar Airport

Familiarizing Yourself with an Unfamiliar Airport

I have this theory that pilots have a finite amount of mental resources available to us when we fly, and everything that doesn’t go exactly as we expect it to subtracts from them. Presuming you start every flight at 100 percent — and if you don’t, take a minute and ask yourself if you should be flying at all — then little things come along and start to chip away at those resources.

The ceiling is lower than forecast? Subtract 5 points. The wind changed and now it’s a direct crosswind and it’s been a while since you’ve done one of those? Ten points. You’re running late and you get to the hangar and find that you’re boxed in and have to move a bunch of airplanes to get to yours and then you find that one of your fellow flying club members didn’t gas it up so now you have to? Subtract a bunch more.

In reality, of course, it’s all but impossible to quantify, but you get the idea.

For a lot of us, flying into an unfamiliar airport is guaranteed to cause us to lose a point or two. It’s not stress, per se; it’s just that discordant delta between what you know and what you don’t — or between what you know and what you know you should know. However you want to think of it, it can sap your reserves and leave your attention divided, however slightly.

But it doesn’t have to.

In addition to the usual preflight planning, checking weather, TFRs, and NOTAMS, not to mention the Chart Supplement—that thing that people like me will probably always call the Airport Facility Directory — here are a few ways you can familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar. Note that not all of these will apply to all airports:

Ask Around

Yes, it seems absurdly obvious, but it’s still worth pointing out. Talk to people who’ve been there before, someone local if possible. If nothing else, call the FBO. Ask them for any tips, anything unusual about or specific to the airport like local reporting points. It’s nothing but frustrating to fly into an airport where someone is announcing their position as “over the old Johnson place” when you have no idea where that is. You should also ask what they call their airport — do they use the airport name or the name of the city? With a lot of uncontrolled airports sharing frequencies, you’ve got to know what to listen for.

Check the Web

Try posting questions on our own EAA Forums where there are lots of users ready to help. You can also head over to sites like AirNav and, in addition to the usual stuff like runway information, look for any user comments. And speaking of user comments, check out AOPA’s airport directory, where you’ll find a lot of helpful comments from pilots who’ve been there. For those of you in the U.S., check with your state’s Department of Transportation as they may publish some pretty useful information. For example, here in Wisconsin, our state DOT publishes an airport directory that includes a nicely annotated color aerial photo with supplemental tips like whether or not the runway is plowed in the winter, locations of nearby RC model fields, and the likelihood of hitting a turkey on landing.

Go Old School  

I’m a complete techno-nerd and love flying with my iPad, but I’m also a bit of a curmudgeon that believes in the tried-and-true, so I always fly with a paper sectional as a backup. But there’s another benefit, maybe a bit less tangible, to charts made from trees: When you lay one out on a table before a longer flight into unfamiliar territory, it really does give you the big picture — literally. If you only plan your flights by pinching-and-zooming a screen at a time, take a look at a paper sectional; you might be surprised at the perspective you gain by being able to eyeball your whole route, or at least major portions of it.

Listen In

The coverage isn’t available everywhere, but it’s always worth checking out LiveATC. If their service covers the airport in question, spend some time listening in. While they obviously emphasize controlled airports, they stream a number of CTAF frequencies from around the country as well. This can help you get a feel for traffic flow, reporting points, naming conventions, reporting points, and those kinds of things. 

Fly Before You Fly

In my opinion, you can get the most bang for your buck by doing a little virtual flying before you go and do the real thing. Fire up a copy of X-Plane or any incarnation of Microsoft Flight Simulator — either the Steam Edition from Dovetail Games or as Prepar3d from Lockheed Martin — and pre-fly your flight. Both platforms effectively model the whole world, with generally accurate topography, navaids, customizable weather, etc. You can do things like increase the rate of the simulation so you don’t have to do the whole flight in real time, then bring it back to normal speed once you’re close. Just getting the lay of the land — “the hills are over there and then the river cuts just south of town, which puts the airport just on the other side of the train tracks” — can go a long way toward making your first trip into an unfamiliar airport feel like your second. If you don’t have a flight sim on your computer, then you can do much the same thing with Google Earth or the Bird’s Eye View feature of Bing Maps, though you don’t get the same sensation of flight.

As you think about where you’re planning to go, don’t forget to think about where you might actually end up. In other words, stay flexible, and take some time to get acquainted with possible alternate airports as well. Oh, and if the unfamiliar airport you’re thinking of happens to be Oshkosh in late July, be sure to read the AirVenture NOTAM — more than once.

Whatever you do, just do your best to keep mental reserves as close to 100 percent as you can. Whenever you’re flying to someplace you’ve never been, even if it’s just an hour hop, it pays to pre-think as part of your preflight. If you ever do have an emergency, you’ll want every possible resource at hand. None of this is rocket science, and I’m sure that many of you have your own ideas that you swear by. Let us know in the comments what you do before you set off into unfamiliar territory.

Once you get to that airport, you’ll need to figure out how to move on the ground. See my friend Tom Charpentier’s story, “How to Get Around Once You’re There”, for some great tips.

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Hal, EAA Lifetime 638979, is senior editor for EAA digital and print content and publications, co-author of two books, and a lifelong pilot and aviation geek. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at halbryan or e-mail him at hbryan@eaa.org.