Talking with Oakland Tower

Copyright © 2004 David S. Penney, CFII

Introduction

The Bay Area is one of the busiest pieces of airspace in the U. S., and Oakland is one of the busiest airports in the Bay Area. Oakland is unique among airports for its “Siamese twin” layout, with North and South Fields, each with its own control tower. Even experienced pilots are confused by Oakland’s way of doing things. Beginning pilots can get hopelessly baffled because things happen at Oakland that are never mentioned in their textbooks. On the bright side, once you’ve mastered radio at Oakland, you can handle radio anywhere in the U. S.

At a “normal” tower-controlled airport, Ground Control is concerned only with directing traffic around the ramps and taxiways; the Tower Controller handles traffic on the runways and within 5 miles of the airport; and you only deal with Air Traffic Control (ATC) if you want radar flight following or are flying under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).

Unlike VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flights, IFR flights need permission, called a “clearance,” to do anything. They must take off at a specific time, fly specific headings and altitudes, squawk a specific code on their transponder, and talk to ATC on a specific frequency. In order to get this clearance, they must ask for it in advance, and state their intended destination. At busy airports, this granting of clearances is done by a third person in the tower, called Clearance Delivery.

Because it is located in Class C airspace, all flights into and out of Oakland airport are “quasi-IFR” (my term, not the FAA’s). That is, they require ATC handling, and all departures (VFR and IFR) require a clearance.

If you are departing from the South Field, like the airliners do, or if you are flying IFR, you get your clearance from Clearance Delivery. But if you are flying VFR from the North Field, you get your clearance from Ground Control instead. This is unique to Oakland, and stems from the fact that Oakland has two towers. Oakland is busy enough (thanks to the airliners at the South Field) to need Class C airspace, but the North tower is not so busy that it needs a separate person just to hand out VFR clearances. At other Class C airports, such as San Jose, you would call Clearance Delivery, even for a VFR departure.

Arriving at Oakland Airport is like flying into any other Class C airport. You contact Approach Control (the local ATC) 10 to 20 miles out, they assign you a transponder code, get you set up in the flow of traffic, and then hand you off to the Tower as you get closer to the airport.

Whether coming or going, once you’ve gotten into the system, everybody down the line knows about you and is expecting you. Clearance Delivery, the Ground Controller, and the Tower Controller sit right next to each other, and pass scraps of paper with your information to each other. And the Control Tower and Approach Control hand you off to each other via computer linkups, or by telephone. This means that you need only tell your “story” (who you are, where you are, and what you want) to the first person in the chain, and they’ll tell the rest. In this way at least, flying out of Oakland is simpler than flying out of other airports.

Discussion

So let’s get down to details. First things first: The Automatic Terminal Information System (ATIS). Next, I’ll describe the typical procedures for departing and arriving at Oakland. I’ll follow this with a discussion about staying in the traffic pattern (“closed traffic”), and a couple of tricks unique to Oakland. At the end is an appendix with a guide to the phonetic alphabet as used in aviation, a few useful frequencies, and a short version of the “script.”

ATIS

Whether you are arriving or departing, the first thing you need to do is to get the facts about the airport. You need to know the airport’s local weather, including the winds and altimeter setting, and any “Notices to Airmen” (NOTAMs), such as runway closures, equipment malfunctions, or special conditions. At almost every airport busy enough to rate a control tower, this information is obtained by listening to the Automatic Terminal Information Service, or ATIS. The ATIS may be recorded by a controller, or by a robot-like voice synthesizer. Oakland uses “Mechanical Mike,” and the ATIS broadcast is the same for both the North and South Fields.

You can listen to the Oakland ATIS anytime by calling (510) 635-5850.

ATIS recordings always follow a specific sequence:

Identifier: A letter from the alphabet, so the Controller knows how current your information is. Each time the ATIS is updated this letter is changed.

Time: When the ATIS was recorded, in Zulu (Greenwich Mean) time.

Wind: Given as a three-digit direction and two-digit speed. Direction is magnetic, like the runway numbers, and speed is in knots.

Visibility: In statute miles. If it’s over ten miles, they say it’s ten miles.

Clouds: Height above ground level and coverage (clear, few, scattered, broken, or overcast) of each layer measurable from the ground.

Temperature and Dewpoint, in degrees Celsius.

Altimeter: The altimeter setting, in inches of mercury.

Instrument approaches (and runways) in use.

Flow control (if applicable) – this one only concerns airliners.

NOTAMs (NOtices To AirMen): Any special information that pilots of either gender should know about the airport.

Identifier: Repeated as a standard way of terminating the broadcast.

A typical ATIS recording at Oakland goes like this:

“Oakland International Airport information Foxtrot. Two one four three Zulu. Wind two five zero at one six. Visibility one zero. Few clouds at niner hundred; two five thousand scattered. Temperature one three, dewpoint one two. Altimeter two niner eight seven. ILS and visual approaches runways two niner and two seven right in use. Flow control in effect for aircraft landing Los Angeles; contact clearance delivery five minutes prior to push. Notices to airmen: Men and equipment working north of the departure end of runway two niner. One hundred fifty foot crane one mile northeast of the approach end of runway two seven right. Caution: Bird activity in the vicinity of the airport. Advise on initial contact you have information Foxtrot.”

From this information-packed recording, you can gather a few salient points:

The identifier is “F”. The wind is 20 degrees left of runway 27, but 80 degrees left of runway 33 (330-250=80), and at 16 knots, that may be too much crosswind. Visibility is good, but the temperature-dewpoint spread is very narrow, and the “few clouds” at 900 feet could solidify into a low ceiling soon. The altimeter should be set to 29.87.

The usual approaches and runways are being used (29 for the airliners, 27R and 27L for the rest of us). If you’re on an airliner going to L.A., you’re being delayed –don’t push back from the gate until clearance delivery tells you to. Watch out for work crews near runway 29. Watch out for a crane near runway 27R. Watch out for birds flying around the airport.

Once you’ve gotten the ATIS, you are ready to enter the system…

Departure

You may want to listen to the ATIS on the clubhouse telephone before you preflight. It is easier to listen to and understand over the phone than it will be in the plane with the engine running and lots of other things to pay attention to, and it probably won’t change very much by the time you’re ready to go.

After you’ve started your engine and completed your checklist, listen to ATIS (133.77) again to see if anything’s changed, then call ground control (121.9) for your class C clearance and your taxi instructions. Since your request will be a lengthy broadcast, you should first get their attention with just your call sign:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, over.”

If ground control is busy, they’ll ask you to wait:

GROUND: “Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, Oakland ground, stand by.”

When they’re ready to listen to you, they’ll say so:

GROUND: “Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, go ahead.”

Now it’s time for you to tell them your story. Remember, it’s WHO you are, WHERE you are, and WHAT you want, and keep it brief as possible:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, seven three niner uniform lima, Cessna one seven two slant uniform, old tees with Foxtrot, VFR, Mount Diablo.”

You’ve just told ground control that WHO you are is a C172/U with tail number N739UL, which means a low-flying, slow-flying airplane with a mode C transponder (capable of automatically reporting your altitude) but no DME (Distance Measuring Equipment). All our planes are /U (“slant Uniform”) except for 4312R, which has DME, so it’s /A (“slant Alpha”). We don’t bother to say the “November” at the beginning of our tail number, because all U. S. registered aircraft have tail numbers starting with N, so it’s implied.

You’ve told them that WHERE you are is on the ramp near the “old tee hangers.” You’re ready to go, and you’ve got the latest ATIS.

Finally, you’ve told them that WHAT you want is to depart the airport and fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) to the Mount Diablo practice area.

At this point, ground control will usually issue you both taxi instructions and a clearance:

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi runway three three. Remain VFR below class bravo airspace, squawk code zero one one six.”

There are a few things to note here. First of all, ground assigned you a runway. You didn’t have to ask for it. If you’re happy with the assignment, you can just take it. But if you don’t want it (remember that crosswind you heard about in ATIS?), feel free to ask for a different runway, such as 27R.

You should also “read back” your clearance, so that both you and the ground controller agree on what was said. A quick note about transponder codes: A local training flight will usually get a code starting with “01” and a cross-country flight will usually get a code starting with “42.”

Finally, note that the ground controller has started calling you by the last three digits of your tail number, so you should call yourself the same way.

So, if you accept runway 33, you would say:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, runway three three, VFR below class bravo, squawk zero one one six.”

If you would rather use runway 27R, say so:

PILOT: ” Niner uniform lima, VFR below class bravo, squawk zero one one six. Request runway two seven right.”

Ground control will amend your taxi instructions:

GROUND: “Niner uniform lima, taxi runway two seven right via taxiway delta, report holding short at runway one five.”

To which you respond:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, runway two seven right via delta, hold short at one five.”

You must ALWAYS read back a “hold short” instruction, and it’s a very good idea to report anytime you are about to enter or cross a runway. The FAA has gotten very serious about runway incursions, and you could lose your license by accidentally taxiing onto a runway without permission!

Once you reach runway 15, you stop well back of the hold-short line, and call ground control:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna niner uniform lima holding short runway one five.”

When ground has permission from the tower controller to let you cross the runway, you’ll hear,

GROUND: “Niner uniform lima, cross runway one five.”

To which you reply,

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, crossing one five.”

Since we normally use runway 33 (it’s about a mile less taxiing), let’s resume our scenario from there. You’ve finished your runup and are ready to go. You switch to the tower (118.3) and tell them you’re ready to go. Remember, since you’ve told ground control (acting as clearance delivery) what you want to do, the tower already knows this and you don’t have to repeat it. Also note that you must again use your full call sign, since this is the first call to a new controller:

PILOT: “Oakland tower, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, ready on three three.”

The tower controller has three options. You can be cleared for takeoff, told to taxi into position and hold, or to hold short. For this scenario, let’s assume all three. Remember to read back any instruction having to do with entering (or holding short of) a runway:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, hold short, landing traffic.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, hold short.”

The plane lands, and the tower tells you to position and hold:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi into position and hold.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, position and hold, runway three three.”

You double-check for more landing traffic and see nobody coming, so you taxi out onto the runway, set your transponder to “altitude,” mixture to “rich,” flaps as required, line up with the runway centerline and check the DG against the compass. Then you stop and wait. Personally, I hate this part. I get a prickly feeling on the back of my neck, wondering if some idiot is about to land on top of me! Finally, the tower clears you for takeoff. You may also get a last-minute instruction or two about traffic to avoid or a heading to fly to better fit the flow of things:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared for takeoff, traffic’s a Cherokee on a right downwind for runway two seven right, fly heading zero five zero after takeoff.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared for takeoff, zero five zero heading, looking for traffic.”

You take off, climb to a few hundred feet, scanning for that Piper, and turn to heading 050 degrees as you continue your climb out. Shortly after takeoff, the tower will see you on their radar and they’ll want to confirm that your transponder is reporting your altitude accurately. Tell them your altitude to the nearest hundred feet:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar contact. Say altitude.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, three hundred feet.”

About five miles from the airport, the tower will hand you off to the local radar controller, known as NorCal Approach Control. You will be given a frequency to call them on, something like this:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, contact NorCal on one two zero point niner. Good day.”

PILOT: “One two zero point niner for niner uniform lima. Good day.”

You switch to 120.9 (or whatever frequency you were given) and call:

PILOT: “NorCal Approach, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima with you.”

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar contact. Resume own navigation below class bravo airspace.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, own nav below bravo.”

The approach controller may point out traffic to you, but remember, they’re not obligated to do so. You are ultimately responsible for seeing and avoiding other traffic, and they might be too busy to call traffic for you. If they do call traffic, they’ll typically tell you as much as they can about it, such as where it is in relation to your course (ten o’clock, two o’clock, etc.), its distance from you, its direction (southbound, northwestbound, etc.) altitude and type if available:

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, traffic ten o’clock, two miles, southbound, indicating two thousand five hundred.”

Start looking for the traffic. If you see it right away, say so, but even if you don’t, you should quickly acknowledge the call by saying you’re looking for it:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, looking…”

Scan the area where the traffic was called, as well as either side and above and below the reported altitude. It helps to use your DG to visualize the situation. If you’re heading is 050, southbound traffic at ten o’clock is coming towards you from left to right. Traffic at your altitude will appear to be near the horizon. Traffic below you will be below the horizon, etc.

If you see it, say,

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, traffic in sight.”

If you don’t see it, then say,

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, negative contact.”

The controller may give you a vector to avoid the traffic:

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, turn right, heading zero niner zero, vector around traffic.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, right to zero niner zero.”

Once the traffic is past you, the controller may tell you so:

NORCAL: “Niner uniform lima, traffic no longer a factor.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger.”

After you’re about ten or fifteen miles from the airport, the approach controller will terminate your radar services:

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar service terminated. Squawk VFR, frequency change approved.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger.”

You should then set your transponder to code 1200. You may change your radio frequency, or just leave it alone to listen to what’s going on.

Arrival

When you’re ready to return to Oakland, you should plan how you will do so. You will want to be near a recognized landmark, at an appropriate altitude, and knowing the correct frequency for NorCal Approach in your area. Generally, I use 120.9 coming from Richmond (San Pablo Bay practice area) and 135.4 coming from Livermore (Mt. Diablo practice area). When I try using 127.0, I’m usually told to switch to one of the other two frequencies.

First, get the ATIS. Make a mental note of the winds and how they’ll affect your landing. Make sure the visibility and ceiling are good enough. Set your altimeter. Make a note of any unusual conditions in the NOTAMs, and note the identifier letter. Then call NorCal Approach Control and tell them the WHO, WHERE, WHAT story:

PILOT: “NorCal Approach, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, over.”

NorCal may be busy, so you may have to circle around a bit before they will talk to you. Just be patient and keep looking for traffic.

NORCAL: “Aircraft calling NorCal, say again your call sign.”

PILOT: “Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, over.”

NORCAL: “Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, say request.”

PILOT: ” Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, Cessna one seven two slant uniform, over Dublin at three thousand, landing Oakland, with Hotel.”

Unlike my first call to ground on departure, I’ve put the “with ATIS” phrase at the end of the broadcast. This is so I don’t have to say something like, “… Dublin at three thousand, with Oakland information Hotel, landing Oakland.” It’s just easier to say “… landing Oakland, with Hotel.”

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, squawk code zero one two four and ident.”

PILOT: “Zero one two four and ident, niner uniform lima.”

You set code 0124 on your transponder and, because you were told to, you press the “ident” button. This makes your blip on the radar screen “blossom” for a second, making it easier to see you. Do not ident unless told to do so.

There are three basic approaches to Oakland, depending on where you are coming from.

From the south, expect a left base to runways 27 (right or left, depending on traffic) and to report over the San Leandro Marina.

From the north or west, you will be directed to pass over the Mormon Temple at 2500 feet for right traffic for 27R.

From the east (around Sunol), you can expect a straight-in for 27R:

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar contact, one two miles east of Oakland airport. Make straight-in for runway two seven right, pass abeam the Hayward Airport at or above two thousand feet.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, straight in two seven right, at or above two thousand feet abeam Hayward.”

As you get closer to the airport, you will be handed off to the tower. As with your departure, the tower has already been given your “story.”

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, contact Oakland tower, one one eight point three.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, One one eight point three.”

You switch frequencies and check in:

PILOT: “Oakland tower, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima with you.”

The tower will tell you how you’ll fit in to the flow of traffic:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, make straight-in, runway two seven right, number three, follow a Grumman on a three mile final.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger. Looking for traffic.”

Eventually, you’ll be cleared to land. Sometimes you’re cleared to land on first contact. Always read back a clearance to land.

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared to land.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared to land.”

Sometimes the tower controller gets busy and forgets to clear you to land. A subtle hint is in order:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, short final…”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared to land.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared to land.”

Every landing may be thought of as a go-around that didn’t happen. If you must make a go-around, first fly the airplane. Once you’ve got things under control (full power, positive rate of climb, etc.), tell the tower:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, going around.”

TOWER: “Roger, niner uniform lima. Make right traffic, runway two seven right. Follow a Cessna midfield downwind.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger. Traffic in sight.”

Eventually, you land, turn off the runway, cross the hold-short line, stop and contact ground:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, off runway two seven right at golf, taxi to Kaiser.”

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi to Kaiser.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger. ”

After you’ve fueled up, you’re ready to return to the old tees. Since you are just moving the airplane from one spot on the ramp to another, it’s called a “reposition.”

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, at Kaiser, reposition to the old tees.”

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi to the old tees, report holding short at runway one five.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, will hold short at runway one five.”

When you get near the runway 15 hold short lines, stop and report:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna niner uniform lima, holding short, runway one five.”

GROUND: “Niner uniform lima, cross runway one five.”

PILOT: “Cessna niner uniform lima, crossing runway one five.”

Of course, if you’re told to hold short instead, you remain stopped and read back the hold short instruction instead.

In low visibility or heavy traffic situations, the tower controller may tell you to report clear once you have crossed the runway:

GROUND: “Niner uniform lima, cross runway one five, report clear.”

PILOT: “Cessna niner uniform lima, crossing runway one five…”

You taxi across the runway, then call again:

PILOT: “Cessna niner uniform lima, clear of runway one five.”

GROUND: “Niner uniform lima, roger.”

You taxi into parking and shut down. Whew!

Closed Traffic

Remaining in the traffic pattern at Oakland is pretty much like doing it at any other busy, tower-controlled, multiple-runway airport. That is, you don’t need to deal with getting clearances or talking to approach control, just ground and tower. Like any airport, Oakland has its quirks:

The usual runway for touch-and-goes is runway 27L. Traffic pattern altitude is only 600 feet. You must keep your pattern well clear (north) of runway 29, where the airliners play. Since the tower can’t see you when you’re near the approach end on downwind, they may ask you to report the big gray United Airlines maintenance hanger each time you pass over it.

Since there is no parallel taxiway for 27L, to do a full-stop landing and taxi back, you must taxi the “long way around” to get back to the beginning. If traffic is light enough, such as weekday nights, you may be allowed to just stop, hang a 180 degree turn, and taxi back to the start of the runway (called a “back taxi”).

Some airports, such as Livermore and Hayward, want you to squawk VFR in the traffic pattern. Oakland wants you to squawk “standby” instead.

When starting up, you still need to listen to ATIS, but your call to ground is much simpler:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, over.”

GROUND: “Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, go ahead.”

PILOT: “Oakland ground, seven three niner uniform lima, Cessna one seven two slant uniform, old tees with Juliet, for closed traffic.”

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi runway three three. ”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, runway three three.”

When you’re ready for takeoff, contact the tower:

PILOT: “Oakland tower, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, ready on three three.”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared for takeoff, after takeoff, turn left and enter left downwind for runway two seven left. Remain well north of runway two niner. Report United each time.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared for takeoff, left traffic two seven left, north of two niner, report United.”

You take off from runway 33 and make a modified left downwind departure to enter a crosswind leg for runway 27L. Level out at 27L’s pattern altitude of 600 feet, and keep your pattern close to the airport, for noise abatement. Fly your downwind leg well north of runway 29. As you pass over the United maintenance hanger, call the tower:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, United.”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared for the option. Follow traffic on left base.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared for the option, following traffic on base.”

Listen carefully to the tower’s clearance. There are three possibilities, cleared for landing, cleared for touch and go, and cleared for the option.

Cleared for landing means you’re expected to do a full-stop landing and exit the runway (unless you need to do a go-around, that is). If the tower clears you to land and you want to do a touch and go, just request it:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, request touch and go.”

The tower may want you to land anyway, perhaps to thin out the pattern a bit, but you’ll often be given the touch and go.

Cleared for touch and go means you are expected to “keep it moving,” and to not stop on the runway at all. This clearance is often given when there’s landing traffic for 27L after you and the tower wants you out of the way.

Cleared for the option means it’s your choice. You may do a full-stop landing, a stop and go, a touch and go, or a low pass. Stop and goes are not recommended unless the landing was very short and there’s plenty of runway left for takeoff and climbout before reaching noise-sensitive areas.

If you want to practice an emergency or power-off landing, ask for a “short approach.” Ask well ahead of time, so the tower controller can adjust for it. As soon as you can after turning downwind, call the tower:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, request short approach.”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, short approach approved, cleared for the option.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared for the option.”

When you’re done for the day, you do a full-stop landing. Remember that the tower “owns” the taxiways between 27L and 27R, so you do not switch to ground control until you’ve crossed 27R going to the ramp. You will typically be instructed to hold short of 27R, then cleared to cross it and contact ground on the other side.

You can save some taxi time by making your last landing of the day on 27R instead of 27L. Just request it well ahead of time, so you can be sequenced into the other runway’s flow:

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, request full-stop, runway two seven right.”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, switch to runway two seven right, cleared to land.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared to land, two seven right.”

OAK Tricks

Landing on runway 33

You might want to land on runway 33 instead of 27R, since our tiedowns are very close to the departure end of 33. If you ask nicely, the tower will usually let you do this.

There are two approaches to landing on 33. You might make a normal right traffic pattern for 33. You may be asked to keep you pattern north of runway 27R, which means a short approach to runway 33.

Much more common is to do a low pass over runway 27R, followed by a full-stop landing on 33. The low pass becomes in effect a modified right base leg to runway 33. This second method is preferred by the tower, since it fits in better with runway 27 traffic.

You should give the tower plenty of advance notice, so they can plan for you. It’s also nice to say “if able,” which is radio talk for “pretty please.”

If approaching the airport, ask for it on initial contact with the tower:

PILOT: “Oakland tower, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima with you. Request full stop, runway three three, if able”

If the tower allows it, you will get a clearance something like:

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared low pass runway two seven right, cleared to land runway three three.”

You may also get “cleared for the option two seven right, cleared to land runway three three,” in which case you would do the same thing.

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared to land, three three.”

Taking off from runway 15

If wind and traffic allow, you might get a takeoff from runway 15. If taking off from 33 saves a mile of taxiing, taking off from 15 saves two miles. Since this takeoff direction “flies in the face of” the normal flow of traffic, it is usually allowed only when traffic is very light and the tower controller is feeling generous.

To ask for runway 15 (or any other specific runway), just add it to your initial call to ground:

PILOT: “Oakland ground, seven three niner uniform lima, Cessna one seven two slant uniform, old tees with Foxtrot, VFR to San Carlos. Request runway one five, if able.”

The worst they can do is say no:

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, unable runway one five. Taxi runway three three.”

And they just might say yes:

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi runway one five.”

Flying to San Carlos

If you left it up to NorCal Approach, the way to fly from Oakland to San Carlos would probably be via Sausalito, The Farralones, and Half Moon Bay. Fortunately, there’s another way.

When you ask for VFR to San Carlos, you will be directed to fly over the approach end of runway 29 and to contact the South Tower (127.2). The South Tower will handle you until you are well clear of the runway 29 final approach, then let you switch frequencies.

You should head towards the middle (“midspan”) of the San Mateo Bridge to stay well clear of the SFO class B airspace. Depending on how much time you have, you may listen to San Carlos ATIS, or just call the San Carlos tower and admit that you are “Negative ATIS.”

Returning from San Carlos, you should ask for a frequency change at the shoreline of the bay, so you will have time to get the Oakland ATIS before calling the South Tower. (Again, it helps to have listened to it by phone first.)

You call the South Tower from midspan of the San Mateo Bridge, just as if they were NorCal Approach. You’ll be given a squawk code and directed to proceed over the San Leandro Marina for a left base entry for 27L or 27R.

If you won’t need to refuel (less than 1.0 flown since full tanks), you might ask for runway 33 instead. You’ll often be given a straight-in for 33, right across the south field and both runways 27. If traffic is too heavy for this, you might still get the “low pass 27, full stop 33” clearance described above.

Flying to Hayward

A good place to practice landings is the Hayward airport (HWD). When you ask for VFR to Hayward, you will be directed to fly toward Lake Chabot. Stay as low as you think is safe – I usually choose about 1400 feet or so. The Tower will hand you off directly to Hayward Tower instead of NorCal.

You should head towards the left (north) end of the hill that marks Lake Chabot, staying north of the runway 27R final approach course. One of two things will happen: Either the tower will give you the “all clear” to cross the runway 27 finals and go sirect to HWD, or you will have to fly all the way to Lake Chabot in order to pass underneath the runway 27 finals. Traffic for runways 27 at OAK are usually told by NorCal to stay above 2000 until past HWD, so you can slip under them at a reasonable altitude.

Either way, you’ll be handed off to Hayward Tower with no time to get HWD ATIS, but HWD Tower can give you the numbers. They’ll also have you squawk VFR while you’re in the HWD pattern. You can expect a right 45 entry to the HWD right traffic pattern. If there’s room to do so, HWD Tower will give you right traffic to the left runway (28L) and left closed traffic after that. If the 28L pattern is full, you might be given right closed traffic on 28R (the smaller runway) instead.

When you’re about ready to return to Oakland, you should give the Hayward Tower a few minutes advance notice. When the Tower clears me for the option, I aknowlege, then request a departure to Oakland after my next time around the pattern. This gives them enough time to call Oakland Tower on the phone and set up a handoff. Oakland Tower will give Hayward Tower a transponder code for you to squawk.

The Hayward Tower will give you the transponder code to set and tell you to make a right crosswind departure towards Lake Chabot. Aim for the right (south) end of the hill and stay well below 2000 feet. You will be handed off to Oakland Tower soon after you leave Hayward, and Oakland will try to give you the straight-in to 27R. Be sure you’re talking to Oakland Tower before entering the surface portion of OAK’s class C airspace (see your Terminal Area Chart).

 

There are lots of other tricks you’ll see used at Oakland. The FedEx Caravans may land downwind on runway 9R or make right crosswind departures off runway 27L, to save taxi time to the South Field. The banner towplanes have their own special set of procedures around runway 33.

Conclusion

With its busy location and unique layout, Oakland International is a challenging airport to fly from. Student pilots must master more advanced procedures in their first few hours than many private pilots will ever see. The advantage of this “baptism of fire” is that student pilots from Oakland can handle ATC just about anywhere in the USA.

APPENDIX

Phonetic Alphabet

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

9 = “Niner.”

All broadcasts include WHO you are, WHERE you are, and WHAT you want.

Oakland ATIS 133.775, Ground 121.9, North Tower 118.3, South Tower 127.2, NorCal Approach Control 120.9, 127.0, 135.4, and a few others as well!

ATIS – (510) 635-5850

ID; Zulu time; Wind; Visibility; Clouds; Temperatures; Altimeter; Procedures; NOTAMs; ID.

Departure

(start engine, get ATIS)

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, over.”

GROUND: “Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, go ahead.”

PILOT: “Seven three niner uniform lima, Cessna one seven two slant uniform, old tees with Foxtrot, VFR, Mount Diablo.”

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi runway three three. Remain VFR below class bravo airspace, squawk code zero one one six.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, runway three three, VFR below class bravo, squawk zero one one six.”

(ready to go, switch to Tower)

PILOT: “Oakland tower, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, ready on three three.”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared for takeoff.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared for takeoff.”

(take off, start climbing)

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar contact. Say altitude.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, three hundred feet.”

(five miles out)

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, contact NorCal on one two zero point niner. Good day.”

PILOT: “One two zero point niner for niner uniform lima. Good day.”

(switch to NorCal)

PILOT: “NorCal Approach, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima with you.”

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar contact. Resume own navigation below class bravo airspace.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, own nav below bravo.”

(traffic call)

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, traffic ten o’clock, two miles, southbound, indicating two thousand five hundred.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, looking…”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, traffic in sight.”

(ten or fifteen miles out)

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar service terminated. Squawk VFR, frequency change approved.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger.”

(squawk 1200).

Arrival

(get ATIS, tune NorCal)

PILOT: “NorCal Approach, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, over.”

NORCAL: ” Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, say request.”

PILOT: ” Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, Cessna one seven two slant uniform, over Dublin at three thousand, landing Oakland, with Hotel.”

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, squawk code zero one two four and ident.”

PILOT: “Zero one two four and ident, niner uniform lima.”

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, radar contact, one two miles east of Oakland airport. Make straight-in, runway two seven right, pass abeam the Hayward Airport at or above two thousand feet.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, straight in two seven right, at or above two thousand feet abeam Hayward.”

(five miles out)

NORCAL: “Cessna niner uniform lima, contact Oakland tower, one one eight point three.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, One one eight point three.”

(switch to Tower)

PILOT: “Oakland tower, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima with you.”

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, make straight-in, runway two seven right.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, straight-in two seven right. ”

(…)

TOWER: “Cessna niner uniform lima, cleared to land.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, cleared to land.”

(off the runway, switch to Ground)

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, off runway two seven right at golf, taxi to Kaiser.”

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi to Kaiser.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, roger. ”

(after fueling)

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna seven three niner uniform lima, at Kaiser, reposition old tees.”

GROUND: “Cessna niner uniform lima, taxi old tees, report holding short at runway one five.”

PILOT: “Niner uniform lima, will hold short at runway one five.”

(at runway 15)

PILOT: “Oakland ground, Cessna niner uniform lima, holding short, runway one five.”

GROUND: “Niner uniform lima, cross runway one five.”

PILOT: “Cessna niner uniform lima, crossing runway one five.”

(taxi to parking and shut down).

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