Sunday, 20 October 2013

Two Phoenix Transitions

The flight line at dawn - Red Mountain in the background

Phoenix Transition 1

As predicted, our move to Falcon Field over on the east side of Phoenix has not gone entirely smoothly. The operation here is cursed with a horrendous computer system for planning and dispatch that is the source of a lot of stress, maintenance is a perennial problem and I don't think the staff were quite ready for the extra workload of 45 extra students, 10 instructors and two more aircraft fleets.

Despite the wrinkles, we are making slow but steady progress and getting familiar with the area. I have been lucky with another excellent instructor who also happens to be an examiner and hence knows exactly what we need to learn for the tests.

Yes, another test is looming — progress test three — due around the end of this week. This one is a navigation test, where a flight is planned and flown on visual 'dead reckoning' techniques, no radio aids or GPS allowed!

Falcon Field - our new home base
At some point en route the examiner will call for a diversion. We then have a few minutes to plan a new leg in the air, figuring out the distance, time and heading (accounting for wind), altitude, fuel burn and arrival time. Arrival at the diversion point must be within three minutes of our stated time, which is actually a lot more generous than it sounds. The hardest part is flying the aircraft competently and keeping a good lookout while our head is down and hands are busy figuring out all this stuff.

It is also a dead-cert that at some point the engine will "catch fire", and we will need to execute an emergency descent to a forced landing on a suitable spot with all the associated checks. A forced landing in a small plane is really no different to a normal landing in a glider, except the glide ratio is a lot worse and there are no air brakes, so good judgement of our height relative to our landing spot is needed. We don't actually touch down in the desert of course, once the examiner is happy the engine will magically restart and we "go around" which is simply a full-throttle best-climb get-the-hell-out-of-there manoeuvre.


Phoenix has some of the busiest skies in the world. Of course, there are commercial jets in and out of Sky Harbor, one of the world's busiest airports. But the good weather and large distances attracts lots of general aviation (small private planes) and skydivers. Then there are extensive military operations, helicopters, some gliding and ballooning and of course heaps and heaps of student pilots. One of the ways this mess is kept in some sort of order is through classes of airspace.

An airspace is simply a defined region of space that has special rules attached to it. They may start at the surface or they may be suspended in mid air. Their boundaries are clearly shown on our maps, but sadly no one has yet worked out a way to mark them in the sky so these vital boundaries are totally invisible to the pilot.

Some types of airspace are strictly off-limits to us, and entering them even if briefly and accidentally has serious repercussions. Prohibited and active restricted areas fall into this category, as does class B airspace such as the one protecting the busy Skyharbour international airport.

Others we can use, but only if we follow the correct procedures. Our own base for example is a class D airspace, which means we can only enter if we are in communication with the control tower.

Airspace around Falcon Field

There is a lot of other airspace near Falcon field. Just to the west we have Sky Harbor's class B starting at 2700'. Our airport is at 1400' and we fly the pattern at 2400' so this does not give a large margin for error.

To the south we have the busy Phoenix Mesa Gateway airport which operates regional passenger jets. It has not only a class D zone to 3900' but also an instrument approach, which means large, fast traffic will approach the airport through 'our' practice area without looking where they are going.

Just south-east of this is restricted area R-2310 which for years lay dormant, but is now used for testing unmanned military drones. Let's not tangle with those!

Above all this, between 5000' and 10,000' is a huge aerobatics box used by a local company for upset recovery training. We will be doing this course soon, which is going to be an amazing experience, so I'm not moaning too much about that one.

Finally, a little further south we have some very busy parachuting areas and some radio beacons where a lot of people practice holds and instrument approaches. These latter two are not strictly airspace, but definitely best avoided.

Phoenix Transition  2

Sky Harbor seen from the transition
Phoenix Sky Harbor has its three runways running east-west, and with its extensive airspace and constant traffic it effectively cuts the entire area in half making it very difficult and long-winded to fly from the north to the south of the city and visa versa.

To address this problem there is a special route called the Phoenix transition. This allows small aircraft flying visually to enter the class B airspace and fly straight across the ends of Sky Harbor's runways.

Although this sounds balmy, flying at right-angles over the middle or ends of a runway is fairly safe as all the traffic taking off and landing will be well below you. You will only be in anybody's way if they make an early go-around or missed approach, meaning they didn't like their approach to land and want to climb up and try it again. Plus you have air traffic control keeping a close eye on things for you.

Still, it is not something to undertake lightly and student pilots are not permitted to try it. So it was a nice surprise when our instructor decided to shoot the transition during a lesson last week. It was quite an experience trundling overhead down-town Phoenix and one of the world's busiest airports, the heavy traffic passing just below.

Downtown Phoenix, with the Chase Field baseball
stadium in front, roof open.


  1. Good work buddy - although I have to tell you that I drove around the North Circular today. So there.

  2. Sounds very scary to us, no wonder we haven't heard much from you lately, you must be very busy. Hope all goes well.


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