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Oct/Nov 2000

Table of Contents
San Juan
River Magic
The Maverick TwinJet
Extreme Air
Albuquerque Aerobatics
The $100 Hamburger
The Galley, Flagstaff, AZ
Back To Basics
Retro-reflective Approaches
Hangar Flying:
GA Flying Tips for Flying Phoenix Sky Harbor
SWAV News Update

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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172
Flying to Phoenix
Class B Made Easy

Phoenix Sky Harbor is the busiest two-runway airport in the world, and the tenth busiest airport in the country. However, all these commercial jets have not yet squeezed general aviation out of Sky Harbor, as the several thriving FBOs and flight schools here will attest. Sky Harbor is popular with corporate and general aviation pilots because of its close proximity to Phoenix’s downtown business and cultural areas; and to the nearby Cardinals football, Suns basketball, and Diamondbacks baseball stadiums. I am based in Phoenix, and would like to share some insights on flying general aviation aircraft in this busy, challenging environment.


Arriving VFR into Sky Harbor usually involves flying to one of the VFR checkpoints marked on the Phoenix VFR Terminal Area Chart. Arriving from the south, the checkpoints are Firebird Lake and Ahwatukee golf course, and from the north they are Metro Center and Squaw Peak. During busy times, you may be issued a VFR hold at the checkpoint. VFR holds do not involve a pattern like IFR holds. Typically, controllers will ask you to fly at 3500´ or 4000´ MSL and stay relatively close to the checkpoint. Direction of turn, legs, etc. are up to the pilot unless the controller specifically mentions the information.

Regardless of whether you are held or not, being vectored-in with jet traffic is common. Wake turbulence avoidance is a constant concern. Also, be aware PHX approach may bring you in high, or ask you for the fastest possible ground speed to the airport. In either case, do not hesitate to ask for other options if you feel uncomfortable. I have asked for (and received) extended vectors and 360s, even on final approach.

If the approach still does not work out, go-around. Usually, a go-around involves turning to hold at the pattern altitude of 2133´ MSL. To the north, expect to circle over Greyhound Park, the racetrack just past the north field boundary midfield. If you go-around to the south, hold over Interstate 10.

A word of caution on landing. The approach ends of all runways have ruts in them from repetitive takeoffs and landings of heavy jet traffic. Small GA planes are prone to nose wheel shimming on landing due to these ruts.

Ground Operations

It is imperative you get familiar with the airport layout ahead of time by studying pictures, charts, diagrams, etc., prior to venturing onto the airfield. Currently, Sky Harbor is lengthening runway 08L, reconfiguring taxiways B and C, and building a third runway parallel to 08R/26L, exacerbating the already congested ground operations.

When taxiing, it is not unusual to share the taxiway with airline baggage carts, fuel trucks, and opposite direction jet traffic. It is also not unusual for ground controllers to ask you to taxi on ramps. Due to the lack of markings on these parking ramps, take extra care to avoid wingtip strikes.

Communication is probably the biggest ground challenge for GA pilots. However, with a few simple steps, communication can go a lot smoother. First, pull out an AFD, airport guide, etc. and write down frequencies ahead of time. Second, check to make sure that your radio, knobs, volume control, knowledge of avionics, etc. is set before you taxi out of your parking spot. Third, know your status and the appropriate time to talk. For example, if you are a C172 with a short cross-country flight, you might give way to XYZ Airline’s B757 running behind schedule. Finally, when you are ready to talk (during busy times), it is wise to announce your call sign only. Doing this means the appropriate controller should get back to you when they are ready. Also, if you hear some dead time on the radio that does not always mean it is appropriate to talk. There are many times that controllers will be asking a question to another aircraft (or vice versa), making this a bad time to jump in.


When departing Sky Harbor, the goal is to get out of the jet traffic pattern as soon as possible. On occasion, intersection departures are issued. With both runways well over 10,000 feet long, this is rarely a problem for GA aircraft, and can be an effective wake turbulence avoidance measure. However, if a controller asks you to perform an intersection departure, it is still your prerogative to reject the request if you feel it would be unsafe.

When holding short of a runway at an intersection, watch for commercial jetliners trying to squeeze past. I have had a few close calls from jetliner wingtips almost striking my tail. If you find yourself in a similar situation, do not hesitate to alert the controller to the possible ground collision.

It is not unusual to be cleared onto the runway from an intersection in front of a commercial jet that is waiting for takeoff as well. If this is the case, expect an early turnout after rotating, with a fifteen-degree change in course. Turns to a heading of 190 or 350 are also common. When performing an early turnout from 26L to the south, be careful not to overfly the south cargo area and Air National Guard ramp. Performing an early turn to the south off of 08L, or to the north when departing 26L, can cause collisions with the control tower, parking structures, or cranes in the center of the airfield between the two runways. Wait until your aircraft has climbed above these obstacles before completing the turn.

Once safely airborne, there are four places where approach tends to vector outbound traffic. On southerly departures, South Mountain and Ahwatukee golf course are common vectors. Going north, expect Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak. Again, all points are clearly marked on the Phoenix VFR Terminal Area Chart. Programming the checkpoints into your GPS can be extremely helpful if you are unfamiliar with the Phoenix area.


Most tricks I have learned involve ways to save time. The first trick is to know when not to use Sky Harbor. Times to avoid (in local Phoenix time) are Monday through Friday 7:30 to 9:30 and 15:30 to 18:30; Saturday 11:30 to 13:30; and all day Sunday and holidays. If you attempt to fly during these times, delays of up to fifty minutes are possible.

When departing Sky Harbor for a destination on the opposite side of the field, consider requesting VFR to a nearby satellite airport first. For example, if you are parked near the north runway and are going south to Tucson, you can request VFR toward Scottsdale, northeast of Sky Harbor. After departing, you will be vectored northeast. Then, once clear of the Bravo airspace, remain at a low altitude, and fly under the class Bravo to the southeast. This method can save a lot of taxi and vector time. Of course, you lose the safety advantages of radar flight following, so use caution when considering this trick.

When arriving, picking the closest VFR arrival checkpoint to the airport may save time. For instance, choosing Ahwatukee golf course over Firebird Lake may get you in quicker. Other good points for this trick are the Beeline-Y when arriving from the north or east and the Tank Farm when arriving from the south or west.

Often the initial arrival frequencies of 120.7 (north) or 123.7 (south) are extremely congested. Controllers may ignore or forget about you. If this happens, try the intermediate arrival frequencies of 120.4 or 126.6.

Finally, if you are given a lengthy hold on one side of the field, consider transitioning to the other side of Sky Harbor. For example, if upon arriving at Firebird Lake you are given a thirty-minute hold, try monitoring the north side arrival frequency. If they are not busy, ask approach for a transition to the north side.

Night Operations

With cars, parking structures, terminal lights, etc., Sky Harbor is a bright place at night. Getting your eyes adjusted at night can be difficult. When passing opposite-direction on the taxiways, big jets usually do not shut off their taxi lights for you. However, this should not deter you from turning off your lights for oncoming traffic. Bright lights, combined with the pitch black of the surrounding desert, make it difficult to see commuter planes (or smaller) ahead of you on the taxiway. Often, the tail lights from these planes are not sufficient to make an outline of an airplane.

Remember to watch out for construction cranes when departing from Sky Harbor at night. You can be vectored straight towards them, and the crane’s red anti-collision lights blend with city lights.

If you are unfamiliar with Phoenix or Sky Harbor, finding the airport beacon may be tough. The beacon sits about thirty feet high on a small building. The beacon is not powerful, so it blends in with the surrounding city lights making it difficult to spot. However, the expansive ramp and runway areas are easy to pick out.
When landing, watch out for back angled taxiways. It is extremely difficult to find these taxiways at night if unfamiliar with the airport. Studying the airport diagram will help here too. As you transition from the runway to the taxiway, do not be surprised to see solid green lights. These lights are the taxiway centerline.
If business or pleasure takes you to central Phoenix, Sky Harbor may be the place for you. However, the intense commercial jet traffic, busy controllers, and long waits are not for everyone. Advance planing, solid aircraft and radio skills, and concentration are the keys to success.

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publishing, Inc. and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.