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At the FBO - A New Pilot's Guide

Not every new pilot grew up in an aviation family. So a new pilot’s early solo adventures away from their home training airport may be confusing. Some pilots may have only trained at a handful of local airports, perhaps with minimal services, or even none at all. An FBO, (Fixed Base Operator), is basically an Airplane Service Station. They can vary greatly in services provided. Some may have a wide range of services and provide fuel, hangers, aircraft rental, flight instruction, have rental cars on site, and more. Or less, perhaps providing only fuel or some other minor services. Some may service large corporate jets and have everything from oxygen refill and food service, whereas others might have a fuel truck and an outhouse; if that. It varies greatly across the country. (And the world for that matter.) If interested, there’s a quick history of the term FBO in the Wikipedia Fixed-base operator entry.

Reminder for when you get anywhere… First, if you filed a VFR flight plan, don’t forget to make sure it’s closed. If you’re using flight planning software for automation, if it doesn’t have connectivity, it might not have been closed. Remember that in some places, cell service may be lacking, especially given that different services have varying coverage areas. You should be aware if you’re going to an area lacking in services such that you can get to communication services if necessary.

Getting to and from the FBO

If you’re a relatively new pilot at an unfamiliar airport for the first time, (perhaps especially an unstaffed or lightly staffed field), your situation may seem confusing or intimidating.

  • Before you leave your home base, you should already have a taxi chart for your destination on your flight board. (Or ready to pull it up on your electronic flight bag app; though it’s really best just to have a printout as backup as well.)
  • Know which FBO you’re going to. Larger airports may have more than one. And chances are there’s one that caters more to smaller planes than others. If you end up at the ‘pro’ one you may end up parked next to some jets and pay that level of parking fee vs. the place down the taxiway which might be free.
  • When you pull off the runway, if there’s ground control, don’t be shy about asking for clarifications of directions or progressive taxi instructions.
    • You’ll likely say something like “Arrow 190FT off 34 at Lima for Atlantic West” or “to restaurant parking” if there’s a restaurant on the field. Or whatever.
  • Use your compass to orient yourself, or your GPS or Foreflight, but even with these tools; be sure. It’s great to use georeferenced airport diagrams, but these of course need to be up to date.
  • Look for signage and pavement markings, but understand that at some airports, these may be in poor repair or even non-existent.
  • Note that if you should have occasion to fly into a larger airport, these are usually designed for larger jets. It can be a shock the first time to realize you may have trouble even seeing some of the more distant taxiway signs from your low and distant vantage points. (Again, a georeferenced chart may be available by zooming in with your GPS navigator or using your Electronic Flight Bag chart.) Often, a large airport may use a particular smaller runway for smaller aircraft and the light aircraft service area will be right near an end of that runway. But, maybe not. It can be useful to have a co-pilot managing the taxi map to help.
  • Don’t get confused about runways vs. taxiways. That nice clean blacktop area might be a freshly paved taxiway, even though it looks like a runway. Whereas the light gray semi-cracked concrete might be the actual runway. Appearances can be deceiving. Use your chart(s) and others tools to orient before moving down an incorrect surface.
  • When you get to the FBO, you might not need to talk to anyone on the radio. Often it will be somewhat obvious where to park. Or someone will come out to guide you. (Remember, you can always try calling on the phone before your flight; maybe days before, and simply ask… “Hi, I’m stopping my next Thursday, can you tell me your procedures or just where’s the best place to park on the ramp?) Many FBOs will have a radio if you need to talk to them. This should be in your flight info you’ve already gathered, or it may be posted on their building. Or it might be no one happens to be at the radio. Or maybe they don’t have a radio at all! Everyplace will have it’s own deal going on. If you call, it’s casual… like, “billy bob flight services, this is the red/white arrow pulling into your ramp; any special place you want me to park?” Or it could be a unicom and not an FBO per se, in which case, maybe it’s “Orange County Unicom, radio check.” Or whatever. If no one is available, you’ll have to use some common sense to figure out parking. Ideally, there’s some well marked tie-down areas or other planes parked in such a way that this is obvious. Just try to confirm you’re where you want to be before shutdown. And it’s probably a good idea to have your own set of wheel chocks just in case you’re someplace with no tie-downs or chocks. (You’re not going to want to leave the parking break on in case someone there has to tow / move your plane in case you parked it in the wrong spot.)
  • When Leaving…
    • Don’t forget to pay for your gas! (And for that matter remember to sump and chek fuel.)
    • Ask if there are any special departure procedures if you’re unclear about any of that.
    • Study the taxiway diagram again. It can be confusing sometimes, especially that first departure from what might be a large ramp to get on the correct taxiway if there’s a multi-taxiway / runway intersection area.
    • Automated Radio Services: While these services may actually be more useful on arrival, they’re also useful prior to departure. Note that some small airports may have automated radio services; e.g., a certain number of clicks on the correct frequency can get you the ASOS weather or a radio check. These may be called “superunicoms” (which is actually a brand name.) Or maybe something else. It might work with three mic clicks for advisories, four for radio checks, or whatever. The point is, you should be able to check for such capabilities before you leave for your destination. And of course, there may be a frequency and mic click sequence to control airport lighting.

General Services

  • General
    • There are many types of FBOs with varying levels of service. You should use the usual sources to check on what services are available before you go.
    • Larger FBOs will likely have a variety of services and facility capabilities. These may include pilot briefing areas with computers or internet access, pilot rest lounges ranging from simple chairs to crew rooms with bunk beds. In all cases, these should be considered courtesy areas that you leave as well or better than you found them.
    • Smaller FBOs may have… almost nothing. Maybe even just an outhouse, if that. Know before you go.
    • There may be landing fees or minimum tie-down costs for the day or maybe only for overnight stays, etc. Some of these may be waived if you buy fuel or other services.
  • Maintenance & Hanger Services
    • Maintenance capabilities will vary widely from absolutely nothing to airframe or avionics shops. A typically decently staffed line service will have fuel, air (for tires), possibly pre-heat capability, (likely for some fee), and may have hanger space. In cold climates or if your aircraft ends up covered with snow/ice, you may be able to use a heated hanger to clean off. But this may have fairly expensive fees.
      • Remember, you need to talk to a club maintenance coordinator or lead before having in depth work done on an aircraft. If you need a battery charge – at your expense – because you left the master on, that’s one thing. But checking mags, anything needing parts, etc., you need to call a club maintenance person first.
    • Preheat – While not really maintenance, line service may be able to offer you pre-heat. Especially if all you need is power via extension cord to an existing block heater, they might be able to park you next to an extension cord and hook that up. (Or if you know you’re going someplace that might have very little, throw an extension cord in back of plane if you think you’ll need preheat; maybe you can at least get near a plug.)
  • Gate Codes
    • This can be a big surprise for some new pilots who could get locked out of the ramp area, at night, with a family member or two, and no one around to help while your spouse glares at you and the kids’ are complaining they’re cold.
    • Especially at smaller airports, access to the ramp area may be through a secure gate, typically with a keypad for access. Before you leave, you need to get the gate code from local personnel and make sure to take note of it in your iStuff or notepad or whatever. (And don’t just walk away with it. Test it out. Make sure no one forget to tell you to hit # after putting in the number, etc.) If any service staff are gone by the time you get back, you could get locked out of being able to get back to your aircraft. It’s also possible you could land someplace where no one is currently at the facility. And yes, this could even mean you could get locked in at a ramp area. Or have a very long walk to an emergency exit, but you wouldn’t know where that would be anyway. Yes, plenty of places could be like this. Can’t re-emphasize enough, know before you go.
    • You really don’t want to just casually go out of a gate from the ramp and have no means to get back to your aircraft. And maybe have this happen after hours with no one around to help you, and you left your cell phone in your flight bag. Or you just don’t have service where you happen to be. And you’re miles away from anything at all; gas station, convenience store. Nope. It’s nighttime now, it’s getting chilly, you’re alone and trapped outside of a gate looking at your plane where you left your phone, a sweatshirt, water bottle… everything. Maybe a few years ago you could have climbed that fence, but then again… this one is tall and with razor wire. Got it? Don’t just walk out of a secure area until you’re sure you can get back in to your plane. Or if for some reason you really must, bring what you think you’d need first; like your cell phone, etc.
    • It’s still wise before leaving the airport to have any phone numbers for the airport services. Just know that some numbers may forward to “the guy” after hours. And if he picks up, you could be interrupting dinner or sleep for him to make the 20 – 30 minutes drive back to the airport to help you. (Consider a generous tip if you actually do this to someone.) Or make sure to ask before you leave what the hours are. Remember as well, not everyplace has lighting, so you may have some departure challenges if leaving late. I’m not just talking about runway lights, but the ramp area itself. Having multiple flashlights – and ideally a headlamp – is always a good idea for nighttime. 
  • Airport Recon
    • These days, there’s no good excuse for not being familiar with an airport to which you intentionally plan travel. Either ForeFlight or AirNav or AOPA or any one of dozens of sources should be able to clue you in to services. And you can always just call as well. Not terribly long ago, it could be challenging to get much beyond a taxi diagram at some places. Now this should be much less of a problem with online sources. And if you are having trouble getting info? That’s a clue you’re going someplace out of the way and you’re really better get proactive about making sure what you’ll find at your destination.
    • Google Earth or similar tools are great for actually doing a dry run approach and departure. Besides getting familiar with sight pictures, you can pre-plan emergency options. Several mapping services have satellite overlays so you can see exactly what’s around your destination. Just remember while modern services are typically somewhat up to date, satellite imagery isn’t real time. The images you’re using could be months or even years old.
  • Fuel
    • FBOs might be fancy where they pump $millions in jet fuel per month. Or maybe just scraping by. That free coffee and the paper towels in the bathroom, etc. is barely covered by their modest income. Typically, one courtesy you can do is to buy some avgas at places you go. You like to fly with plenty of fuel, right? Unless the pricing is just crazy non-competitive, it’s good to top off at places you fly. It helps their business so it helps all of us maintain destinations. Obviously, you need to fuel based on your mission and weight and balance needs first, but unless pricing is egregious, why not launch with full tanks anyway? So top off at your destinations if you can.

Dealing with Personnel

When you first land and make your way over the FBO ramp, you may find one of a few things…

  • No one there at all.
    • In this case, try to figure out where to park by looking at any other aircraft or ground markings, which may be faded or non-existent. You may see tie down rings for ropes, which also may have either bright, shiny new lines… or crumbling concrete blocks. Either way, that’s probably a parking spot. As mentioned earlier, ideally you’ve brought your own chocks or at least one for the nose wheel.
  • Talk to Someone
    • Sometimes there is a frequency painted in large text on the top of a building or hanger. Sometimes someone will even answer you if you call on it! Or there may be a UNICOM frequency with someone on the other end on a handheld who’s also the fuel and maintenance and groundsperson all in one. You can try to ask where to park.
  • Lineperson to marshall you.
      • As you pull in to a larger well staffed shop, look for a lineperson with – or without – some flashlights or batons in hand to guide you. If you see the lineperson just exiting a door and heading out to the ramp for you, perhaps pause on entry from the taxiway, (AFTER getting out of any active areas and don’t block others), to give them a chance to get out there to guide you. They’ll likely point to a spot, and then stand in the front of it. So go there, spin around as necessary to point towards them and they’ll wave as necessary to guide you to your spot. Taxi slowly. It’s considered incredibly rude to kill, maim or otherwise injure relatively low paid personnel who are just trying to help you park.
        • Once you shut down, they may approach the plane. It’s a common safety practice to shut down, and make sure mags are off. When you pull out key and shut off master. It’s good to hold up the key to show the person so they have confidence the mags are grounded; though of course, no one should ever assume this is true. And it’s possible some line folks don’t actually understand this gesture, but it is a good simple safety protocol action. Remember, make sure engine is stopped after pulling mixture out before you switch off mags… you don’t want to leave any fuel in cylinders as this potentially makes a hot prop issue and accidental start an even worse potential occurrence, among several other potentially more serious problems from fire to engine damage. (Mixture cut off. Engine fully stopped. Then mags off.) If using the electronic/rocker switch type ignition, it’s possible you might not have a key to hold up, but if you do, then hold it up for the line person to see as they approach. And be especially sure to switch off as it may not be as intuitively obvious an action as turning off and removing keys.
        • They may ask you how long your staying, (so they can decide if this will be the spot to leave the plane), or if you need fuel, etc. Just let them know what you need and they’ll advise you.
  • If it’s a busy and staffed ramp, but limited help; you may be just pointed to a spot or it’s obvious where to park.
    • Shut down, secure plane. Head inside and chances are there’s a desk with a sign-in sheet. (Or not.) There may or may not be a landing fee. If there’s a staffed desk, you can probably order fuel here or they can direct you to the line service folks. If there are any other fees, tie-down, etc., this is where you’ll hear about them if you haven’t already.
    • They’ll likely ask how long you’re staying, etc., and if it’s a long time, they may let you know they might move your plane to some out of the way longer term parking area. In which case, cowl plugs, pitot covers, etc. should all be applied as necessary.
  • Common Issues
    • In almost all cases, (unless there’s a special reason not to), leave the parking brake off. They may want to move the airplane and they’re going to assume you left the parking brake off.
    • Use chocks or tiedowns or both.
    • If it’s winter, and you have a choice, try to park facing into the sun.
    • At anytime, try to park into the wind and in any case, try to avoid having doors or whatever fling open if taken by the wind. This could easily damage door alignment.
    • If you’re leaving personal gear in the plane, (which you typically will as it’s most often perfectly safe to do so), consider the temperature. Any electronics, (like iPads), left in a plane out in the summer heat could quite likely be overheated and inoperable on your return. While you shouldn’t leave your headset on the dash anyway, (due to scratching windscreen), you also don’t need melted or burning hot ear cups on your return. Make sure to secure such products in shaded areas or find a way to bring them with you.

Courtesy Cars

There’s this really great and somewhat old-fashioned thing with general aviation called ‘courtesy cars.’ Some FBOs, (or just the person who’s working at the place), can offer you temporary use of a car. These range from “ok, this is nice,” to something from the early 1970s which has the most threadbare carpet you’ve ever seen and a steering wheel with enough play that it feels more like a boat than a car. If you use one of these, they’ll likely take a copy of your driver’s license first, but not always. It’s common courtesy to fill up with gas before you return. Or, minimally replace what you took. If you drive 5 miles to town and back and the tank was empty, then no, it’s maybe not fair to have to fill up the whole thing. The point is, if you’re given access to use of a courtesy car, the return of this courtesy is to put some gas in it. You just avoided a rental car fee, a cab or a ride share fee as well as waiting for any of these options to show up. So do the right thing and add some gas if you possible can.

It’s somewhat bad form to take one of these all day or longer – or on non-local trips – without explicitly asking about that. Courtesy cars work great if you have a quick meeting or lunch or errand in whatever place you happen to be.

The point is, it’s a free ride. It’s an interesting tradition sometimes available in general aviation. Treat it with respect and this kind of interesting small aviation community tradition can maybe continue. Supposedly, this had it’s genesis in the old days as a competitive service aspect among FBOs. But things have changed as liability insurance and other business costs have gone up, and with ride-sharing services, there’s also less of a need. Either way, it’s a service a new pilot might not be aware of as it has a bit of “old school” history.

Random Notes

  • FBOs in general
    • You will likely still find a lot of FBOs that are “old school.” In other words, the pictures on the wall aren’t the only nostalgic things; the walls themselves may resemble 1970s wood paneling. (Because they are.) And then there’s more fully modern facilities as well of course. You’ll find great people and a lot of courtesy. And often a lot of “free” courtesy services from coffee to courtesy cars and so on. But like anything else, this isn’t always true. Some may have surprise fees for things or high prices. Check reviews. Other FBOs are high end. They maybe cater mostly to the corporate or private customer private jet crowd. One or two big refuels on a large private jet might cost more than your whole airplane. Topping off your tanks on your small but mighty plane doesn’t cover their weekly coffee budget. These places may have very fancy offices and services. And high ramp or fuel fees. Again, know before you go. Look online. Or just call. They should still be nice to you of course. For all they know, the weekend single engine pilot is an executive to whom the whole flight department reports at the Fortune 500 corp down the block. Or could be tomorrow’s high end customer. Still, if you roll into Super Jet Center with your t-shirt and flip-flops, while everyone around you is in uniform, chances are you’re going to pay more for whatever you end up doing there vs. maybe the FBO just down the ramp. (Your clue is probably how many light jets or heavy iron is on the ramp.)
  • Finding the FBO
    • FBO physical street addresses may be odd or challenging as compared to a typical home or business. This is because they may be part of a cluster of buildings inside of an airport ring road or just on a rural route, or something else that’s not as typical as a street in town. And might not be that well marked. They likely have a street address of course, but it’s possible the layout is not like in town. So if you have a friend meeting you, if they’re using their GPS to get to the airport they could easily end up in the wrong place. For example, if they just put in the airport into the GPS, they could end up at terminal parking at a regional airport instead of the general aviation ramp which is accessed via completely different roads, and miles to the other side of the airfield. (And there may be multiple g/a ramps at the field; some with an actual FBO building, others where there’s just a gate with a card key, or something else entirely.) Make sure you have the correct street address if someone is meeting you or if you’re calling a cab. If you just put in “Anytown Regional Airport” chances are you’ll end up at the main parking area or whatever it is that passes for their main terminal. The FBO itself might be something more like 123 Tower Road or Airport Ave. or whatever. Sometimes, it might be something like 123 County Highway 3 or whatever. And those addresses may get plugged into GPS’s in varying ways. (Is it “Highway” or “Route” or “Rte?”) Just have that sorted out beforehand if you need the actual street address for some reason, and make sure you have the actual address for the destination in particular, not just the airport in general.

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