Learning to fly naturally involves your own flight school at your home airport. The plane starts and ends at the same spot each time. Maybe you have the number to call for fuel saved in your phone. My flight school has the plane fueled and ready on the ramp when I schedule the airplane.  Most training flights that take you to a new airport involve little more than a touch and go before heading back home, so what happens when you get your license and start flying to new places?  Where is the fixed base operator (FBO)? Where do I park? What are ramp fees? How do I get gas? How do I get around town now that I’m here? Whether you are a new, licensed pilot or prepping for your first venture to a new airport, consider this your guide to the FBO.

Finding The FBO
At smaller airports, the FBO is usually pretty easy to spot. It’s sometimes as easy as “in the building.” THE building. The only one. Fly to some larger airports, however, and you might find multiple flight centers and even clusters of buildings on different sides of the runway.  This means that knowing which taxiway to take – or which direction to turn off the runway – can be important. In your preflight planning, start by simply checking the airport diagram for your destination airport.  Sometimes it’s right on the chart. Electronics charts like Foreflight even have an “FBO” button that will superimpose the name of the FBO right on the airport diagram. If you still don’t know where it is, call ahead. Having a conversation with someone there can tell you not only which side of the field it’s on – and likely which taxiways will get you there – but also their services, fees and transportation availability. Depending on the size of the operation, knowing your ETA can help to make sure they are available to help you park, get your bags, fuel your bird, etc.  My local FBO really appreciates a heads up call to manage their workload.

The “FBO” button on Foreflight displays the name and location of the FBO.  In this case, its easy to see where the Athens flight Center is located.


The Line Guys

Once you’ve found your FBO, you will likely be marshaled in by someone from the line staff. I feel like every time I see them waving me in, I think “I should probably go back to the books and refresh my memory on the various signals.”  To start, look for both arms in the air, signaling “I’m your lineman. Follow me.” He will then point to the spot where you should park. Keep in mind you are still pilot in command, and although you are on the ground, you are still flying the airplane. Maneuver carefully to the spot, but consider that the best path might not be direct. Avoid other wingtips, of course, but also look out for chocks or other objects that could trip you up. Follow the commands to get the plane to rest in the parking spot and shut down the airplane. I like to show the key to the lineman to show that the mags are off. Consider the hand motions for “chocks in/chocks out.” These can be helpful when ensuring that your parking brake is off when your wheels are chocked. Leaving a brake set could lead to problems if your airplane is towed to a different location.  To coordinate with the lineman, you can make your open hands close into a fist, signaling that you have set your brake.  Likewise, opening your fisted hands again communicates that you have released the brake.

These are some of the most common signals you’ll see by the linemen.


Refueling

FBO’s sell fuel. It’s one of the reasons they are there. Unless your flight was short, you’ll probably find it necessary to gas up. Even if you can just take on a little, it’s considered a good courtesy to buy what fuel you can. It makes me think of the bathroom attendant at fancy places – you know, with the mints. I don’t really need a mint and I can get my own towel, but the right thing to do is take a mint and a towel and leave a buck or two. So it is with gas, but when you do get fuel, follow these two rules. First, it’s best to fill up right away. This helps in the event that weather or other circumstances hasten your departure, but it also prevents any water from condensing in the tanks while the airplane sits overnight. Second, always-always-always stick the tanks and verify that the fuel was added and the tank caps are secure. Human mistakes are possible anywhere – even at the best FBO’s, by even the best linemen.  “Trust but verify.”

While errors are uncommon, failing to add fuel, or even filling your AvGas tanks with Jet A is possible.

The Courtesy Car
Depending on the airport, you might be able to grab an Uber into town. If not, a courtesy car is pretty commonly available. They might not be fancy, but most are available to pilots free of charge if you bought gas for your airplane. If not, there may be a small fee to use it. There are, however, some expected courtesies in return. Bring it back with some gas in it – at least to the level where you started. Then make sure it’s back in a timely fashion.  An hour is usually the norm, but double check to see how long you can have it out.  Bring ‘er back in one piece, ya hear?

Spirit Aviation, the FBO at Thomson-McDuffie (KHQU), has a pretty sweet courtesy car – a courtesy truck!


Ramp Fees

Ramp fees are often charged if a certain amount of fuel isn’t purchased. The fee may be waived for single engine aircraft, and some will only charge if you stay overnight. In my experience, your best bet is to simply ask the attendant what you owe them for a ramp fee.  For a bathroom break and a Coke out of the machine, I’m often waived off for any fees, but it’s a courtesy to ask either way. By calling ahead and knowing what you might expect to pay in ramp fees, you can potentially plan your fuel stop around it. Priority one is making sure you have adequate fuel for a safe flight. Assuming you’ve planned to have enough fuel to be safe, you might decide to skip a fuel top-off at that sleepy airport midway through your journey (that doesn’t charge a ramp fee) and fill up at your destination, waiving their ramp fee.

FBO’s provide services and have a cost for making sure those services are available, so expect to either buy gas or potentially pay a ramp fee.

Go Fly Somewhere
Every airport is different. Many have great history and charm, and maybe a great restaurant on the field. Websites like Fun Places To Fly can give you a great hundred dollar hamburger, whether you actually find a hamburger or something else fun to do. Whatever your reason to fly to new places may you do so with confidence. What are some experiences you’ve had at various FBO’s?

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9 Comments

  1. Reid Columbia

    This is a great article. It seems like flight training often misses covering these real world scenarios. This is basic knowledge but very important. Situational awareness on the ground can preclude damage from errant chocks, making a wrong turn, or worse. I like where you mentioned flying the airplane until you are in the chocks.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Very true, Reid! I’m happy to see that the move from PTS to ACS covers a lot more of scenario based training, although I think aviation “street smarts” will always have to be learned the hard way.

      Reply
  2. John

    Another reason to fuel up right away is to give any water that may be in the new fuel time to settle before preflight. This insures that you can remove it at the sumps. I usually fuel up, then go to lunch, etc….

    As you said, it is important to refuel the courtesy car. The FBOs will quit providing them if they start costing a lot of money to maintain them.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Although some of the courtesy cars can be old clunkers, I remember being super surprised when I was first exposed to the concept. “You mean I can just take your car?!?” I hope to see the tradition continue as well.

      Reply
  3. John

    Your trust but verify comment is very important. I have two examples.

    I once took off without checking the caps. I smelled fuel right after takeoff. I saw fuel steaming off the left flap. I went around the pattern and landed right away. I found that the cap was off and dangling from the chain.

    My experience was a nuisance, but no harm done. My next example resulted in a fatal crash. There was a pilot who ordered fuel from the FBO for a plane he was purchasing. He went to do the paperwork for the purchase and didn’t watch the line crew. They fueled up the wrong plane. He returned and took off (apparently without doing a preflight). The engine quit from fuel starvation just a few minutes later. The next error was not landing on the highway right in front of him. Instead he turned and attempted to glide back to the airport. He did the classic stall spin crash as he panicked upon realizing he couldn’t make it. This could have been prevented with a thorough preflight.

    Reply
  4. John

    Your trust but verify comment is very important. I have two examples.

    I once took off without checking the caps. I smelled fuel right after takeoff. I saw fuel steaming off the left flap. I went around the pattern and landed right away. I found that the cap was off and dangling from the chain.

    My experience was a nuisance, but no harm done. My next example resulted in a fatal crash. There was a pilot who ordered fuel from the FBO for a plane he was purchasing. He went to do the paperwork for the purchase and didn’t watch the line crew. They fueled up the wrong plane. He returned and took off (apparently without doing a preflight). The engine quit from fuel starvation just a few minutes later. The next error was not landing on the highway right in front of him. Instead he turned and attempted to glide back to the airport. He did the classic stall spin crash as he panicked upon realizing he couldn’t make it. This could have been prevented with a thorough preflight.

    Reply
    • Clay

      Thanks for sharing those examples, John! It seems that if we’d just fly like we were trained to fly, we’d all be better for it!

      Reply
  5. Laura Nelson

    Great info! I hadn’t heard of FBOs asking pilots to fuel crew cars — is there for smaller FBOs other than Atlantic/Sig/Millionaire/etc. that don’t expect that?

    Reply
    • Clay

      Thanks Laura! Putting some gas back in has been the courtesy from my perspective, which has been more sleepy airports than bigger ones. I remember the airport in Clemson, SC, having it posted somewhere. That certainly doesn’t mean that’s the case everywhere, though! If it’s not posted, I’ll bet a simple “Can I put a little gas in it for ya?” Would go a long way as a courtesy to the FBO.

      Reply

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