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The general point of this question is to understand how civilian aircraft operate around controlled airspace designated for military airports, in terms of communications, in the US. I think the best way to phrase it is to give a few of specific examples--

The image below shows the airspace around Wichita KS. My question is about civilian aircraft transiting through the Class D airspace designated for McConnell Air Force Base (KIAB). The ground level in this area is around 1300' MSL, so an aircraft below about 1400' AGL would be below the overlying Class C shelf designated for Eisenhower National Airport (KICT). I know civilian airplanes on pipeline patrol missions sometimes fly as low as about 500' AGL on a flight path that takes them roughly along the course of the river that flows through the SW portion of the KIAB Class D airspace, approaching within about 1.5 miles of the nearest runway of KIAB.

Would the pilot of such an aircraft, assuming that he/she is flying VFR and has no intention of actually landing (or shooting an approach) at KIAB, typically be talking to the tower at KIAB? Or would the pilot more likely be talking only to civilian entities, such as the tower at KICT, or Wichita Approach Control?

If it matters -- which I'm not sure that it would-- assume that the flight originated at KICT, flew due east to the river, then followed the river though the KIAB Class D airspace at roughly 500' AGL/ 1400' MSL, exiting KIAB airspace in a generally southerly direction.

Similarly, what about a civilian aircraft doing pattern work at Beech Factory airport (KBEC) when the KBEC tower was open and the KBEC Class D was therefore in effect? Would the pilot of such an aircraft typically be talking to the tower at KIAB whenever the aircraft was in the KIAB Class D airspace? Or would communications more likely be handled entirely by the tower at KBEC, even when the aircraft was in the KIAB Class D airspace?

And what about a civilian aircraft doing pattern work at Beech Factory airport (KBEC) when the KBEC tower was closed and the KBEC Class D airspace therefore had reverted to surface-level Class E airspace? Again, would the pilot of such an aircraft typically be talking to the tower at KIAB whenever the aircraft was in the KIAB Class D airspace? Or would communications more likely be handled entirely by a civilian entity, such as Wichita Approach Control?

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Military ATC facilities in the USA follow the same rules and procedures as civilian ATC facilities. There are a very few differences; certain branches of the military require Tower controllers to say "check wheels down" to all aircraft when issuing a landing clearance, for example, or require controllers to state the current wind with every takeoff clearance instead of only when a tailwind component exists. But for the most part everything is the same.

This means that yes, if a civilian pilot is within airspace controlled by a military ATC facility they are expected to communicate with that facility just the same as if the airspace was controlled by a civilian ATC facility.

You may not be permitted to land at a military airport, but that's an administrative decision which is made much higher up than the air traffic controllers talking on the radio.

As you can see from this map depicting TRACON airspace (more versions available at my answer here) it's not just Towers that are run by the military. If you're flying a long cross-country from the Wichita area to Illinois you could be instructed to "Contact Whiteman Approach" just as easily as "Contact Kansas City Approach." The only way you would know you were talking to a military approach facility would be the higher proportion of callsigns like "DOOM12" that you would overhear on the radio.

September 2013

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I've seen one case where banner tow aircraft operating east-west offshore about a mile (or less) from an Air Force base's runway 18/36 did talk to the military tower. Offhand I can think of two cases where airline traffic routinely talks to military approach controllers on their way in to non-military fields, and there are probably several more of those I'm not coming up with immediately.

Local airspace with multiple fields in close proximity can be complicated, and the different towers & approach control facilities can have letters of agreement how they will handle traffic doing particular things in particular places, so the best bet to find out about how things work in Wichita would be to call one of the facilities there and ask. You may have to wait while they transfer you to the right person (i.e. an actual controller or supervisor), but facilities like this are generally quite willing to discuss how they handle this sort of thing. That's especially true since a conversation before the flight can save everybody -- themselves included -- some tense moments if things go badly during the flight!

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    $\begingroup$ I can think of tower and approach examples in WA, CA, and AZ. $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2023 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ @tedder, see my answer. Military-run approach controls own airspace in more than half of the 50 states. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Dec 19, 2023 at 15:18
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Frankly, you treat their airspace like you would any other class D airspace. The only thing required to enter is two way radio communications. Their controllers may divert you to other areas of the air space to stay away from the immediate vicinity of the airbase, but other than that, operations would be identical to any other civilian towered airport with class D surface airspace surrounding it.

You can also contact Wichita approach. Their TRACON remains in contact with the controllers out at McConnell and may elect to divert traffic through the Class D, if McConnell controllers are having a light traffic day.

Again, keep in mind that the national airspace system, in and of itself, is a joint civilian and military operated space in order to provide for flight operations within the United States. There is no separate space for the military only.

I have a little bit of experience operating around Wichita. I have never flown out of the Beech as KBEC is a factory airport for Textron; there are no FBOs on the field and most of the local flight training is done out at Jabara (KAAO) or Augusta (3AU). I believe both Beech Tower and McConnell have letters of understanding concerning flight operations out there.

Oddly enough, most controllers at military airfields are very easy to deal with. Like I said, they may vector you away from the immediate vicinity of the airfield, or ask you to depart the airspace if they have a high volume of traffic coming in and out. For example, the controllers out at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas will probably ask you to remain clear of their airspace during Red Flag operations. Workload permitting otherwise, there’s no problem with you flying in their airspace, and they will often let you shoot instrument approaches there, provided you go missed. When I did my Instrument check-ride in 2011, one of the approaches I flew was the ILS Rwy 28 into Hunter AAF (KSVN) in Savannah, GA. You would typically contact Savannah approach about doing that first, and the TRACON would contact Hunter controllers to see if their operations were light enough to accommodate. Their controllers actually like to have fixed wing traffic going in there, because they were most likely going to begin careers as civilian air traffic controllers outside of the army and like getting the practice working with fixed wing aircraft.

In the example you cite, departing Eisenhower (KICT) you would be immediately handed over to Wichita approach, who may have instructions for you regarding operations in McConnell’s class D, as they at least technically control the Delta not in the immediate vicinity of the airbase and may hold letters of understanding between their tower and the TRACON.

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  • $\begingroup$ Re "Wichita approach ... as they at least technically control the Delta not in the immediate vicinity of the airbase" -- can you explain a bit more about how we know this to be true? $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2023 at 15:42

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