The high volume of manned and unmanned fixed wing and helicopter aircraft operations at NAS Patuxent River, and within the confines of Pax River’s restricted airspace (R-4007), means communication with St. Mary’s County Regional Airport management and pilots is crucial.
On Aug. 10, three representatives from Pax River’s Air Operations division attended an Open Forum with the regional airport’s pilot community to share information and answer questions about Pax River’s Class Delta airspace, which includes a five-mile radius up to 2,500-feet and associated restricted areas.
“They’re very close to our airport and are near our Class Delta,” explained Air Traffic Controller 1st Class and Ensign (sel) Brandon Wood, who participated in the forum. “We do a lot of special operations here that you don’t see at other military airports and we briefed them on our course rules for pilots, what our aircraft do when they come in, what they need to watch out for, what issues we see sometimes, and how things may be able to be done better.”
Wood explained that St. Mary’s is an uncontrolled airport with no tower, meaning a pilot can climb into his own plane, or even rent a plane, and depart however and whenever they wish.
“They’re allowed to do that, but they need to know how to avoid our incoming traffic,” Wood said. “They’re close to our approach corridor for Runway 14, so any instrument approach coming in to 14 has to look out for St. Mary’s [traffic] and they have to look out for and avoid him. We tell them at what altitudes our traffic comes in so they’ll have an expectation of where to climb and where to go around.”
In fact, the only time a pilot out of St Mary’s airport will talk to a controller on the ground is if they’re departing IFR (Instrument Flight Reading) and file a flight plan, which Pax River controllers can view, and they have to call Pax River for clearance.
“They’ll call us for clearance and we’ll tell them when they can depart and what heading and altitude they can take; we control that situation,” Wood noted. “But I’d say 90% of the pilots at St. Mary’s fly VFR (Visual Flight Rules), which means they’re not talking to anyone until they’re in the air, and usually they don’t talk to anyone at all. That’s what makes these open forum exchanges so important.”
One participant in the crowd was the pilot of Trooper 7, the Maryland State Police Air Command helicopter.
“He does law enforcement or medevac stuff and transits our Class Delta a lot coming out of St. Mary’s,” Wood said. “He’s talking to our controllers all the time and this forum gave him a chance to ask questions about how better to coordinate, or if there’s anything he can do differently. Another pilot asked about [his desired] departure going northeast and we talked about that 14 corridor and recommended he depart more to the northwest instead of going straight across our corridor. That would give him more time to climb and see what’s going on, then cut across.”
Some pilots noted that Pax aircraft fly closer to them, or at lower altitudes, than they expected.
“We have to explain that we have a lot of instrument departures and arrivals and some of our ‘downwinds’ (the segment when the aircraft is flying parallel to the runway but in the opposite direction of landing) also go over their airport,” Wood added. “We always try to make sure they’re aware of what’s going on in our pattern so they’ll understand why our aircraft are doing what they’re doing.”
Another inquiry came from a pilot who enjoys flying through some of Pax River’s restricted airspace for sightseeing purposes.
“We advised them the best time to schedule that is on weekends and to make sure they call Pax River controllers on the approach frequency before they go anywhere,” Wood said. “The controllers can say the areas are not active and transit is approved, or they can deny it if the areas are active.”
Pax River’s airspace is busiest between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays, and sometimes its restricted area goes active due to a UAV or some other test project.
“When that happens, we always ‘NOTAM’ it (post a “notice to airmen”) saying Restricted Area 4007 is scheduled exclusive during certain times,” Wood said. “Pilots can pull that up and see they must remain clear of that area during those times. There is no approval of transit and they shouldn’t even be clipping a corner of that airspace. Just stay out of it.”
There have been a few rare incidents over the years when a VFR pilot was crossing the 14 corridor at the same time a Pax River IFR pilot was coming in on approach and controllers had to “deconflict” the situation, but nothing Wood would describe as “a real hazard that would’ve caused a collision or mishap.”
And the reason for that, Wood believes, is because Air Operations participates in these meetings and builds positive relationships with the pilot community.
“We want to make sure both sides are operating safely,” he said. “We make sure they understand our airspace and our restricted areas, and that they’re not encroaching upon anything we’re trying to do. And, of course, ATC is all about customer service and getting feedback on how we can help them even more.”