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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 and Airplane Service Station. They can take many forms. They may provide fuel, hangers, aircraft rental, flight instruction and more. Or less. 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. It varies. Greatly. If interested, there’s a quick history of the term 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.

Getting to and from the FBO

If you’re a relatively new pilot, an unfamiliar airport, (perhaps especially an unstaffed or lightly staffed field), may seem intimidating.

  • Before you leave, you should already have a taxi chart on your flight board.
  • 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 Ross 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.
  • Look for signage and pavement markings, but understand that at some airports, these may be in poor repair or even non-existent.
  • Don’t get confused about runways vs. taxiways. That nice clean blacktop area might be a freshly paved taxiway whereas the light gray semi-cracked concrete might be the 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 them on the radio, but they may have one if you need it. 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 palce 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.
  • When Leaving…
    • Don’t forget to pay for your gas!
    • 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.

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 ‘net access, pilot rest lounges ranging from simple chairs to crew rooms with bunk beds. In call 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, 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 first.
    • Preheat – While not really maintenance, line service may be able to offer you pre-heat. Especially if all you need is power to your existing block heater, they might be able to park you next to an extension cord and hook that up.
  • Gate Codes
    • 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. If they’re not there when you get back, you could get locked out of being able to get back to your aircraft.
    • It’s still wise before leaving airport area to have any phone number for the place, which may forward to “the guy” after hours. 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.
  • 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.
    • Google Earth is great for actually doing a dry run approach and departure. Besides getting familiar with sight pictures, you can pre-plan emergency options.
  • 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 is to buy some gas. 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 fuel based on your mission and weight and balance needs first, but unless pricing is egregious, why not launch with full tanks anyway?

Dealing with Personnel

When your 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.
  • Lineperson to marshall you.
      • As you pull in, look for a lineperson with – or without – some flashlights or batons in hand to guide you. If they’re just getting out to the ramp, 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.
        • Once you shut down, they may approach the plane. It’s a common safety practice to shut down, make sure mags are off and 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.
        • 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.
  • Busy staffed ramp, but limited help; you’re 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. 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.

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, the courtesy is to put some gas in it. You just avoided a rental, a cab or a ride share fee as well as waiting for any of that.

It’s somewhat bad form to take one of these all day or longer without explicitly asking about that. They’re mostly good 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. Treat it with respect and this tradition can maybe continue.

Random Notes

  • Most FBOs, (or a lot anyway), are old school. You’ll find great people and a lot of courtesy. But like anything else, this isn’t always true. Some may have surprise fees for things or high prices. Check reviews.
  • FBO addresses may be odd or challenging. 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; like terminal parking at a regional airport instead of the g/a ramp which is accessed via completely different roads miles to the other side of a field. Make sure you have the correct street address if someone is meeting you or if you’re calling a cab.

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