Airport Codes: SBP

Landing at San Luis Obispo.

For my first Airport Codes meme entry, I thought I’d cover one that’s relatively fresh in my mind: San Luis Obispo (SBP).

SBP was a fuel and lunch stop on a flight from Wickenburg, AZ (E25) to Boeing Field (BFI) in Seattle, WA in May 2008. I was flying with Louis, a CFI who wanted to build time in an R44. Or maybe I should say Louis was flying with me, since he was acting as PIC.

Our arrangement was for Louis to fly and me to handle radio communications. We’d come in from the east, passing over Grapevine and climbing up trough the wide valley west of there. About 30 miles out, we broke away from the road and made a beeline to the airport.

Chart to SBP

I tuned in the radio, listened to the ATIS recording, and waited until we were closer to make my call. The female controller was issuing instructions to other aircraft. The airport wasn’t very busy for a late Saturday morning, but the radio was full of sound. The controller was chatty, which is extremely unusual for a controller of either gender. Either she liked to give instructions or she assumed the pilots were dumb enough to need as much information as she could provide. When I made the call about seven miles out, I made myself a target for her communications.

Oddly enough, I happen to have video for this flight. I had the POV.1 camera on the nose of the helicopter and although I didn’t realize it, it had been turned on since just past Grapevine. So you can see and hear the landing — including the chatty controller — for yourself.

In reviewing this video, I really think the controller had a bit too much to say. When a controller talks too much, he or she makes it difficult for pilots to make contact with the tower. Imagine, for a moment, that you were inbound to SBP and needed to establish communication with this Class Delta tower. There aren’t too many opportunities to talk during the 6 or so minutes from the time I first called in to the time we landed. This makes it tough, especially for new pilots who may already struggle with communications.

Anyway, we landed in the No Parking zone as instructed, cooled down, and shut down. Then we went up to the terminal area where there was a restaurant. After being completely ignored for about 10 minutes, we finally got an apologetic waiter. Lunch was good.

While we sat there, four airliners came or went. Let’s see if I can remember…American, US Air, United, and Delta? All of them were turboprops except United, which came in with a small jet.

After lunch, we went down to the ramp. Our choices for fuel were full serve, right where we were parked (A on the diagram below), or self-serve, on the other side of the airport (B on the diagram below). Self serve was 50¢/gallon cheaper. I made the wrong decision: I decided to air taxi to the other side of the airport and fill up at self serve.

Taxi Diagram for SBP

In a perfect world, this would not have been a bad decision. In a perfect world, we would have started up, got immediate clearance to cross the runway, landed in front of the pump, shut down, fueled, started back up, and got immediate clearance to depart to the northwest.

But there was no perfect world at SBP that day. As we prepared to reposition, a flight of three or four Howards called in on approach. The controller, now a man, was having trouble keeping track of them, probably because they called in individually and they were all Howards. (Eventually, he just told half of them to stay clear of Class Delta.) With the other traffic part of the equation, the controller was overwhelmed. He wouldn’t clear us to cross the runway. So we sat there, spinning and sweating, waiting for the clearance. When we finally got it, I scooted us across. I was hot and cranky. I fueled up quickly and we climbed back aboard. I started up and we waited again. I called the tower three times and was ignored on the first two. On the third, the controller said, “Helicopter Zero-Mike-Lima, I hear you. Stand by.” Nasty.

By the time we left, I’d burned enough fuel to eat up any savings in fuel price. Lesson learned at SBP.

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9 thoughts on “Airport Codes: SBP

  1. Yeah, some of our controllers can be a little chatty. However, please keep in mind that, on that day, ATC had no warning that a bunch of similar Howards were going to have a little fly-in. Also, by the time you were done fueling was probably about the time that one of the Howard pilots radioed ATC that one of the other pilots had collapsed and needed them to roll the ambulance.

    That was unusual enough such that the guy who maintains the LiveATC feed of SBP emailed me about all of the commotion. A bunch of Howards all coming in at once, some helicopter having issues, and then some dude’s about to croak on the apron. What next, a meteor hitting the field?

    Try SBP on a slower day.

  2. Hey, Joe, thanks for the added insight. I think I took off from fuel before all the Howards landed. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if someone passed out. I don’t think I ever sat sweating so much for so long in my life. It was brutally hot and humid that day — even for someone who lives in Arizona! I think our problem was flying on a weekend. If we’d done it on a weekday, things probably would have been calmer. I’d fly in there again — no reason to avoid it — but now I know more about what to expect.

    The only “issue” I had was I wanted to take off away from the airport and incoming traffic and I could see no reason why the controller made me wait so damn long. I really think he was sticking it to me for my previous request to fly across the runway for fuel. Some airports just don’t like helicopters.

  3. I don’t understanding why you are complaining about the female controller providing extra instruction, which you call chatty, to get you to where you wanted to go. You mentioned on your initial call that you were unfamiliar and even said to the pilot that using the “unfamiliar” phraseology was the magic word. Personally I am always relieved when a controller takes the time to be chatty during a progressive taxi at an unfamiliar field.

  4. Hey Mike, chill out. I don’t think my comments qualified as a complaint. No need to defend.

    There’s chatty and then there’s CHATTY. She went beyond informative. Did you watch the video? No one else — including us — could get a word in when she was talking. I know that if she was chatting up someone else while I was trying to make an initial radio call on my way in to an unfamiliar airport, I’d probably be pretty pissed off.

    While I agree that too much information is often better than not enough, most of the controllers I’ve dealt with — and there have been many throughout the ten years I’ve been flying — have provided the basics, giving me ample opportunity to ask for details if I needed them. And believe me, if I need info, I will ask for it. We all should.

    I need to write a blog post about my thoughts on radio communication, I guess.

    And Mike, if you don’t provide a real e-mail address with your next comment, it won’t appear online. I have zero tolerance for people too cowardly to identify themselves when commenting on my blog.

  5. I fly out of SBP… Yeah, it’s busy sometimes, then other times you are in the pattern alone and only interrupted by the commuter flights coming in. Can’t predict it though.

    As for helicopters – it seems that more often than not, there’s one in the pattern or sitting on the field somewhere. Between the heli school, CHP and military. So I wouldn’t say that they don’t like helicopters; usually you have right traffic all to yourself.

  6. Just read your post. I fly in and out of SBP weekly and find the tower personnel both friendly and professional. You advised the tower that you were unfamiliar with the airport. Not a chatty controller – just one giving you the information you needed to land safely at an airport with which you were not familiar. I wish some of the other towered airports I frequent were as accommodating. Want a terse tower, try Reid-Hillview in San Jose.

    • Crag: Did you watch the video? She WAS helpful, but she simply talked too much. It was difficult for anyone else to get a word in.

      When I say “unfamiliar,” I’m not saying that I haven’t even looked at a map or airport diagram. I had both right in front of me. To me, “unfamiliar” means I don’t know the local landmarks and airport landing procedures or that I simply have never been there before. It’s a flag to cut me a little slack if I don’t do things the way local pilots and provide a bit more guidance if I need it.

      I guess there’s different levels of unfamiliar. I’d never been there before, so I was unfamiliar. But I DID follow procedures in FARs to gather all the information I could about the airport before landing there.

      And frankly, I don’t think “chatty” is a derogatory label that requires defense. I’m accustomed to landing at very busy training fields such as Deer Valley and Prescott in Arizona where there might be 10 different pilots communicating with the tower in the course a single minute. That might quality for what you refer to as “terse” — rapid-fire radio calls you really need to pay attention to to catch. There’s no time to be chatty. That’s why I commented on this controller’s chattiness — it was completely foreign to me. The other end of the spectrum.

  7. Very interesting obviously a nervous student pilot. SBP has one of the friendliest,helpful and most professional towers in California.

What do you think?