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I'm a student pilot at a class C airport in the USA. Last weekend I did pattern work. Mostly touch and goes, but it was busy and my approaches were less than perfect so there were some go arounds and some 360s for traffic.

Being in the pattern on a busy day was a little stressful. I was constantly reading things back, changing traffic direction, switching runways R/L, etc.

I am curious to know what it's like flying in class B airspace. Are traffic patterns different from class C? Are there additional skills that pilots must have? For example, I know that I'm not even allowed to be in class B airspace as a student without a class B endorsement.

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On my first cross-country as a student (dual), we actually transitioned through the class B airspace just north of us, flew to a smaller airport north of town, did a landing there, followed by flying back to the class B and landing at the primary airport there before returning home.

Basically, I had a few key experiences:

  • The controllers work quickly and expect you to pay attention. More than once, as a rather inexperienced pilot, my instructor had to help with the radio, either in understanding the instruction, or helping reduce my confusion by handling communication.
  • Even on a slower Sunday, the center was training a new controller, so there were times the person training had to step in to clear up some of the radio congestion -- we almost had to turn away from the class B, since they hadn't yet assigned us a beacon and cleared us through the bravo.
  • We got vectored around pretty quickly... which, basically threw out all our flight planning (we were expecting this to happen anyway).
  • Talking to approach to land, they told us to expect the visual approach to one of the parallel runways, and the tower controller didn't toss us any curve balls there. Although, with the headwinds, even with a fair amount of power, we weren't moving very quickly, and probably got cleared to land a bit too early (thankfully, the airspace wasn't busy... but there were a few jets waiting for us to land and taxi off).
  • Ground control and clearance delivery was combined, and they were pleasant enough to give us progressive taxi without asking (I was expecting to write furiously), and also let us taxi to depart off the intersecting runway.
  • Departing after cleared and returning home was pretty uneventful. At this point, I was out of the way for most traffic. Much more like being under regular flight following.

Granted, it's not like I was flying into ORD -- it was a pretty slow day at an airport that isn't busy much to begin with -- but I have a feeling if you've been used to flying from a Class C airport, not much will feel different for the most part, especially at one of the smaller Class B airports (and for the bigger ones especially -- DEFINITELY get to know the airport diagram beforehand).

To answer some of your specific question, the A/FD will list traffic patterns (probably going to be opposing right/left traffic for parallel runways so people don't end up head on at each other) ;) Controllers will guarantee separation from all aircraft, so you'll be assigned a heading and altitude (maybe "at or below"), and possibly a speed. So really, if your radio communications are good and you're able to fly straight and level, you won't have many problems (it just comes down to obeying clearances, and not violating any airspace). You're right that you would need an endorsement to fly solo into a Class B airspace, but this would not apply if you were dual with your instructor, since they are PIC.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! Very insightful. Thanks for taking the time to write it up $\endgroup$ – OneChillDude May 13 '14 at 16:11
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There are several big differences between working around a Class B airport versus a Class C.

  • Explicit clearance required. Operation in Class C airspace simply requires establishing two-way contact with the airport approach prior to entry. Now, it's good manners either way to request entry or indicate your plans involve entry; while it's legal to transition Charlie space with just a "handshake", it's always better when the controller knows what to expect from you while you're in his airspace, so good radio etiquette typically involves an implicit request to enter (giving the controller the opportunity to have you "remain outside" if he can't deal with you in his airspace right now).

    In Class B airspace, that request is not just a good idea, it's required; you must establish contact, state your intentions and be "cleared Bravo" before you can enter. The nature of class B airports is also such that transitioning GA traffic is often turned away, and if you want to land a GA plane, you probably won't be doing it on the main runways. Class Cs only have one or two runways to begin with, so you might find yourself spaced in between commercial jetliners (in which case you stay high and land deep to avoid the wake). A request to T&G your Piper Cherokee on DFW runway 18R (the opposite side of a five-runway complex from the GA hangars) will be given a curt "one-eight right is full go around to one-seven left" unless it's three in the morning and the controllers are just that bored.

  • Shape of airspace. Class C airspace regions tend to be fairly regular; a 5NM surface cylinder, 10NM 1200' cylinder, and a 700' floor for Class E space underneath in a pattern tailored to the needs of the region. Variations in this pattern are typically increased ceilings through sections of the outer cylinder. Very simple to remember and negotiate.

    For Bravo airspace, it's not so simple, primarily because Class B airspace by definition is for the biggest airport in a region that may have grown up with several. Boston Logan's Class B space is pretty regular, because Logan is pretty much the only thing to worry about in the region; I see three Class D fields underneath Logan's outer Bravo layer and that's pretty much it. However, D/FW's Class B space is much more geometrically complex. Its surface footprint encompasses another major airport (Dallas Love Field, technically class C in size/traffic but too close to DFW to be managed separately) and there are 11 fairly busy class Ds in its umbrella, whose controllers and pilots constantly advocate for higher local Bravo floors to allow the airport sufficient control during approach (most flights into and out of somewhere like Addison or Meacham typically end up having to be cleared Bravo anyway, but that requires radio handoffs between one airport's approach and another's tower). LAX's Bravo space isn't even circular, due to the limitations of the urban area, military bases and mountain ranges surrounding the airport. We won't even talk about Washington DC (OK, yes we will; Dulles, Reagan, Baltimore and Andrews AFB all within 50nm of the most heavily defended surface area on the planet; you need a special FAA training course just to fly here).

  • Radio management and conduct. Class B airports are that way because they're big, and they're busy. Austin-Bergstrom Int'l (AUS), a fairly busy Class C, has approach/departure controllers in the Northeast, Northwest and South directions, plus tower and ground control frequencies. When you come in, you contact approach in your general direction, who vectors you in and hands you off to the tower for final. At LiveATC.net there's only one feed for all these frequencies, and if you're familiar with radio chatter you can easily keep track of everything happening around the airport. The controllers and pilots are also fairly casual and jovial with each other ("United 1234, increase rate of climb", "United 1234 is currently climbing 2600, what works for you?", "Oh, anything better would be good, 1234", "Roger, 1234 pulling vertical").

    DFW Int'l has 4 approach "feeders" (one per quadrant), 3 approach "finals" (one per landing runway), two towers each with two frequencies, and three ground control frequencies. Each of these controllers are about as busy, radio-wise, as everybody in Austin, so they don't mess around; they issue quick, curt instructions that can be really hard to catch, and they don't like hearing "say again". While you're talking to DFW approach, you say what you need to say and keep your thumb off the button otherwise.

    If you want jovial, fly into Love Field; everyone associated with that airport is all one big happy Southwest family. I just heard the following burble: "Hello Love, Southwest 123 turning base runway one-three", "Southwest 123 welcome home, runway one-three-ra-mmm-left cleared to land", "Aww, you almost said it, 123 runway one-three left cleared in". They have fun.

  • Traffic size and density. Again, Class B airports are what they are because they handle a lot of really big planes. If I were to try commuting to work by plane from the Mid-Cities over to north of Dallas, I'd have to negotiate DFW's Bravo space (or the class E underneath the northern approach - shudder) while the overnight jumbos from Lufthansa and Emirates were inbound on 18R. That's just not a good time to be puddle-jumping around Bravo space. Around a Charlie airport I'd probably get away with it, as the jets are smaller and fewer and the tower has more time for me.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wonderful post as well. Actually, you bring up a good point I didn't learn until I visited the TRACON facility: they use a "standard" traffic flow where there are arrival and departure corridors--arrivals come in on the four corner "posts" and departures go out the middle (between the corners) in all four cardinal directions (this is apparently not uncommon). This helps them expedite traffic flow (nobody going nose to nose), and while they mostly exist for large jet traffic, the controllers may vector you around them to avoid conflict. Just nice knowing that's what the controller is thinking. $\endgroup$ – dougk_ff7 Dec 17 '15 at 22:59
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Just to add a few observations to the excellent answers already given, particularly if you're aiming to land in Class B with a small GA plane in VFR:

  • in my experience, you fly no standard traffic pattern, but they'll vector you as they need you and then pretty much straight in.
  • given the other traffic, I try to go in pretty fast (fast for a C172, that is). The runways are long, so I've been on final with 120+ knots (and yes, that was a no-flap landing!)
  • as Keith said, be prepared to be handed off from one frequency to the other for quite a bit - be sure to have your pens and kneeboard ready...
  • taxiing might be more taxing (ta-da) than the flying itself - as Doug said, review the airport diagram, ideally know whether to turn off the runway left or right, know where you want to go for when you talk to Ground (XYZ FBO, transient GA parking, ...), and have the airport diagram handy once you're off the runway.
  • review the radio sequence for departure, typically they want you to speak to Clearance Delivery before you talk to Ground (just establish 2-way communications, and say location and intentions - they'll probably give you a squawk, then you contact Ground when ready to taxi)
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