You can’t just fly around the airspace!

A fellow pilot had a recent experience that he shared with me and I asked if he would write it up so others can learn from it. So here it is in his words about a Bay Tour in the SF area of California.


Bay Tour route

My father-in-law, an instrument rated pilot, was visiting from the East Coast. I had just received my pilot’s license a few months earlier, and was eager to show him my new skills. With that in mind, on a perfect VMC day, we took off from Palo Alto Airport (KPAO) intending to do a Bay Tour.

A Bay Tour is a common thing around here, and it’s what it sounds like. You fly around the San Francisco Bay, taking in the scenery. The only obstacle is the huge Class B from KSFO. The typical Bay Tour includes a Class B transition, but it need not, and this is what we planned to do. Starting around Half Moon Bay (KHAF), we planned to skirt under and around the Class B, getting VFR flight following from Norcal Approach for extra safety.

As I went Northbound towards KHAF, I called into Norcal saying, “Norcal Approach, N123 10 miles South of Half Moon Bay three thousand four hundred for Bay Tour Northbound”. They were very busy but, eventually, they replied: “N123 radar contact 3 miles southeast of the Half Moon Bay airport cleared to enter the Class B maintain three thousand five hundred and South and West of the Bayshore Freeway”. If you are looking at my route on the chart, we were at point 1.

Whelp. I had never entered the Class B before, and like I said, I wasn’t intending to. But I figured, what harm could it do? Plus, the controller seemed very “generous” by offering, and it would have felt “rude” to say no. I read back and started climbing to my assigned altitude.

Half a minute later, the controller said, “N123 contact Norcal 135.1 have a good one”. I called in to the new controller, and they gave me an altimeter setting. We were probably around point 2 on the chart by that time.

Now let’s talk about the Bayshore Freeway. It snakes through the San Francisco Peninsula and is the main arterial connecting Silicon Valley to the hipsters in San Francisco. I was not sure where exactly it ended — I now know that it is considered to end somewhere in the middle of the city, as you can see in the chart. In its official designation, as US Highway 101, it continues through the City and over the Golden Gate bridge, and up North into California’s wine country. But by rights, my clearance probably ended at the dotted red line in the chart, before the Golden Gate bridge. Clearly, my controller was expecting me to do something as I went North. I figured he would tell me when the time came.

That time came and went. I was somewhere over the ocean between Point Bonita and the Golden Gate bridge, at point 4 on the map, and had heard no more from the friendly controllers. What’s to do? Well, I figured I had told them already I was doing a Bay Tour, and that this meant — well — that I would tour the Bay. Plus the frequency was really busy with “serious” commercial traffic, and so why would they want to hear from me? I turned right and flew over the Bay.

Around Oakland, at point 5 on the map, the radio crackled to life: “N123 you heading to Oakland now?” And with a very mild tone of admonition, “You can’t just fly around in the airspace, so, turn left heading 360”.


In what followed, the controller directed me out of the Class B, advised me of traffic, and handed me off to Oakland Tower to continue my trip. I was very contrite, and he was very nice. But the point was made. I had busted my clearance on my first Class B, crossing important departure procedures for San Francisco Airport (e.g. QUIET SEVEN) that I had just a few weeks ago flown as a passenger on a commercial flight! Had I been the TCAS warning for an outbound aircraft, nobody would be happy at all. And of course, though the possibility is relatively small, had this led to an accident, it would have been very, very bad.

In my later discussion with other pilots, I learned that pilots going North over the coastline often ask for a “Bay Tour” while passing over KHAF because local mythology is that they are more likely to get a Class B transition that way. Perhaps that’s why the controller didn’t bother with me and waited for me to ask. Or maybe he forgot. I found out that, on a real Bay Tour, people get clearance to descend for sight-seeing around Lake Merced, point 3 on the map, and that the sight-seeing portion of the flight is separate from the Class B transition.

Clearly there were many mistakes here, and from this I learned some important lessons:

  1. To fly in Class B, pick a “procedure” and follow it. Everyone else in there is following procedures that ensure separation and allow different controllers to work different parts of the system. So should you. Clearly, there were locally known (if unwritten) “procedures” for a Bay Tour, and had I studied them and chosen one, I would have known when I did not have enough information to proceed, and reminded the controllers.
  1. If you are not prepared to do this, stay out of Class B. I wasn’t prepared, and didn’t know I needed to be. Now, reading this, you know.
  1. If you are accustomed to VFR flight, then know that flying in Class B is different. Your clearance is paramount. How do you know what it is? It begins when your controller says “cleared” and ends when they let go of the mic button. Anything else — any wishes, hopes, fantasies, empty chit-chat on frequency — is not part of your clearance and does not count. In my case, it did not count that I had asked for a Bay Tour; that was not my clearance.
  1. Reject any clearance you are not prepared for. You are the PIC, and it’s not “rude”.
  1. When in doubt, ASK. Even if the frequency is busy with “important” traffic, you too are in the airspace, and a collision with you is just as “important” as anything else. So speak up!
  1. If you don’t know what to do, STOP. Had I orbited near the Golden Gate bridge near point 4, waited for a quiet moment, and called in to ask, the problem could have been averted.
  1. It’s possible I had the Bravery to enter the Bravo because my father-in-law, with his experience, was with me. But he was happy to have someone else “drive” for a change, and sight-seeing and enjoying himself. And anyway, he was not familiar with local customs and airspace. His experienced pilot mojo was not going to transfer to me by osmosis just because he was sitting in the plane. So, unless you have previously agreed that someone’s ROLE is a CFI, or a safety pilot, or a more experienced “guide”, their QUALIFICATIONS are completely immaterial. I was on my own on this flight.
  1. Finally, COOPERATE. The controllers – at least the ones in Northern California — are here to help, and are truly not out to catch pilots with FAA violations. If you realize you made a mistake, admit it and fix the problem right away. It’s safer, and you’ll learn.

I certainly hope I did!