Student Pilots: Beware of Sacramento Executive Airport

About three weeks ago, my wife Kathleen flew into Sacramento Executive Aiport (KSAC) as part of her solo cross-country flight. (That’s one of the final stages a student pilot goes through on the way to getting a Private Pilot Single Engine Land (PP-SEL) rating.)  Her flight went from Reid Hillview Airport (KRHV) in San Jose to Sacramento and then on to Los Banos (KLSN) before heading back home to San Jose.

She called me after each leg of the flight to let me know how things were progressing. And when she called from Los Banos she mentioned that the ground controller in Sacramento wasn’t particularly helpful. Even though he knew she was a student pilot and not terribly familiar with the airport, he never really offered any taxi help. (Contrast that with our recent landing in Stockton where the controller asked us if we were familiar with the airport AND offered progressive taxi instructions even before we finished turning from the runway onto the taxiway.) Instead of being helpful, he sarcastically made a comment intended to keep her from taxiing onto the active runway–something she wasn’t in danger of doing in the first place.

I should back up and mention that when she was in the transient parking area and preparing to taxi to the runway for her departure, there was another airplane behind her. Being less than familiar with the runway and taxiway layout (see the airport diagram), she offered to let the aircraft behind her go ahead so the should follow them out (they were locals). But the ground controller wasn’t interested in facilitating that.

In the grand scheme of things, this would be no big deal. You encounter “less than helpful” people now and then in aviation. She flew on from Sacrament to Los Banos, stopped there for a bit, and continued on back to San Jose. About an hour after landing, she was back home and we were headed out to dinner to celebrate a successful solo cross-country flight.  Well, after seeing the fancy “Congratulations” balloon, cupcakes, and card that were waiting on the kitchen table–then we headed out to Mama Mia’s.

Fast forward a few weeks… to last night.  She received an email from her instructor saying that he’d been contacted by the Sacramento FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) who had received some negative feedback about her visit there a few weeks ago. Puzzled about what that could be, she talked to her instructor and the Sacramento FSDO supervisor today to discuss things. (I also spoke with the FSDO today.)

To make a long story short, here’s what happened. Sitting in the right seat of the airplane taxiing behind her at Sacramento was a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), one of the anointed pilots that the FAA has deemed worthy of judging whether or not a student pilot is ready to receive their new rating. After taxiing behind her, he became concerned that she might not have received all training she needed to operate at a tower controlled airport. So he took it upon himself to file a complaint, though we’re told he originally classified it as an “incident” (which has special meaning in the FAA lexicon) with the local officials: the Sacramento FSDO.

Now here’s where it gets really good. What apparently alarmed him is that when she had to taxi across a runway on her way to the active departure runway, she slowed down to look both ways (much like we’re taught to do when crossing the street as children). Why might she do such a thing? Well, let’s see. She was in an airplane accident not to long ago. So safety is nothing to take lightly. (Would you?!) And it’s not unheard of for ground controllers to occasionally, you know, make a mistake. They are human after all. So why not proceed with a bit of caution? Besides, most instructors rightfully teach their students to make one last look before entering a runway, active or otherwise.

So in return for her caution, she had the pleasure of staying up half the night last night worried about what she could have possibly done so wrong that the FAA wanted to talk to her. And then she got to listen to an FAA representative make her feel like a bad pilot and suggest that she had an attitude problem with the ground controller on the radio. The best part of all is that she’s not even the subject of the investigation!

All this hassle, concern, and drama because she was being cautious at an airport she’d only been to once before. You’d think with the FAA’s focus on preventing runway incursions, they’d appreciate seeing pilots taking a few extra seconds before charing across a runway.

So, student pilots out there: beware of Sacramento Executive Airport. There’s clearly at least one less than helpful controller with an attitude, and if you’re really unlucky, you might also encounter an examiner who enjoys telling his friends at the local FSDO when a visiting pilot is behaving in a way that’re more cautious than he’s used to seeing.

Oh, we do plan to make a Freedom of Information Act Request to get a copy of the audio tapes (all controller radio communication is recorded in case it’s needed in a later investigation). Given that all this “helpful” activity is funded by our tax money in the first place, it’d be good to have a copy. Maybe we’ll even put it online. Believe it or not, they can’t allow her to hear the tapes–even though she’s on them–while there’s an investigation in progress.

Yay for government “process” protecting us all.

About Jeremy Zawodny

I'm a software engineer and pilot. I work at craigslist by day, hacking on various bits of back-end software and data systems. As a pilot, I fly Glastar N97BM and high performance gliders in the northern California and Nevada area. I'm also the original author of "High Performance MySQL" published by O'Reilly Media. I still speak at conferences and user groups on occasion.
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45 Responses to Student Pilots: Beware of Sacramento Executive Airport

  1. BCS says:

    In light of all that, this little gizmo might be a good idea: http://www.aircraftspruce.com/catalog/pspages/patchcord.php

  2. Doug Kaye says:

    Having been involved in two incidents myself, here’s a suggestion: Call the FSDO immediately to ask that those tapes be saved, and make note of the call. Don’t wait for a formal FoIA request. Unless there’s a reported problem, they don’t keep the tapes all that long. It could be too late already. You should also call the KSAC tower and make the request directly to them. There’s no guarantee that the message will get to them from the FSDO quickly if ever. There’s a lot of bureaucracy between FSDOs and ATC.

  3. Jay says:

    Who is the subject of the investigation? Her flight instructor? I’m confused what the DPE’s complaint said; yielding when crossing an active runway is legitimate.

    It’s been my experience that the FAA is staffed with a bunch of jerks.

  4. Nelson Minar says:

    What a bad experience for Kathleen, sorry about that. I’m about to take my student solo XC myself, maybe I should visit KSAC! Or, um, maybe not. I feel lucky to be training out of KSQL, our tower has always been helpful and patient.

  5. JMZawodny says:

    Just one more reason why I’m not interested in becoming a pilot – until we take the people completely out of the system and let the vehicles and ATC system interact directly.

  6. Jay: you’re correct. They were concerned that her instructor hadn’t told her the type of things she’d need to know to operate at a controlled airport. Of course all her training has been at controlled airports!

  7. Darryl Ramm says:

    What a pain in the ass.

    As this pans out and if this is really all it was about then it would be great to make public the name of the DPE if you have that. Sounds like somebody to totally avoid.

    Most controllers and pilots will go out of their way to help out student pilots and understand they are going to want to take things slowly or be more cautious than local/experienced pilots. But the apparent complaint of slowing down to look before crossing a runway would be asinine (unless for example asked to expedite). And if the ground controller was really not helpful or did something like not carefully reply to a request, consider filing a complaint with the FSDO as well.

    I notice your plane has a Garmin GPS, depending on the model it has airport diagrams/Safe Taxi. Pity the displays is a bit too small/hard to see in many situations.

    Darryl

  8. Chris Z says:

    What a miserable experience. I would have slowed (probably stopped) and looked both ways, too. I agree with above…request that the tapes are saved and don’t rely on FOIA.

    I like flying off Alaska gravel bars…no ground controllers.

  9. Optional says:

    The controllers at MRY are not the friendliest either. They rattle instructions very fast and if you do not pick them up the first time they love to give attitude…

    • Jim Schumacher says:

      I had a run in with a MRY tower controller a few years back. He had me hold short of an active runway, and had appeared to have forgotten about me for five minutes or so. I called the tower and asked if that was the case, and it sounded as if he was ready to call OKC. Then, AFTER he cleared me to taxi across the active, he accused me of being redundant, when I read back his transmission !! I wanted to file a complaint, but figured I was wasting my time with the San Jose FSDO and the FAA red tape. Left a bad taste about MRY, and seldom stop there anymore. It is sad the FAA does so little to promote good will and respect.

  10. Tom Joy says:

    This is terrible. There are indeed some simply unprofessional people out there. Interestingly, it’s the ones who are not as competent as they think who have the attitude.

    I am sure you have already told Kathleen this, but she shouldn’t let people like these affect her confidence at all. She was doing everything right, as far as I can tell.

  11. Ed says:

    Post the name of the DPE – pilot community is a small close-knit group. We can make sure this DPE never works again by spreading the word on his name. NO CFI’s will call him for checkrides.

  12. Isaac says:

    Came across this randomly. I’ve much experience at SAC and the FSDO there. Generally the tower is extremely nice and helpful (at least they have been to me over the 8 years I’ve been flying there). I’m sorry to hear your experience was unpleasant and unprofessional.

    As far as the DPEs, there are a couple good ones at that FSDO (maybe they’ve retired by now), a couple bad ones, and a few in between. Out of the FSDO’s I’ve worked with (Oakland, Fresno, Sacramento, Reno, Denver) they have been the most unpleasant! Definitely get the tapes!

  13. stan demski says:

    Sorry to hear your bad experience at ksac. I have been flying out of there for over a year and a half and passed my private there. I have been up in the tower and met the boss and his underlings and have always had professional controller service. Yes i agree that one of them has a bit of an attitude but he has high standards for the pilots and the controllers. Slowing for runway crossings is prudent and should not be the focus of the inquiry. I would memorize the airport diagram before coming to ksac and know that only 20 and 30 are ever used for vfr. If your not sure ask for progressive taxi they have to give it to you.

  14. John says:

    I asked for progressive taxi from KSAC ground once and he got all huffy and said “Cherokee, if you are still confused, just follow the Cessna out”.

  15. Matt says:

    I have flown into KSAC multiple times (VFR/IFR) and I’ve never had any problems with the controllers. I also know some FAA flight examiners there, all of whom are very professional people. Maybe your wife is not telling you the whole story..

  16. portamex says:

    I’m a air traffic controller and if you should be upset with anybody it should be the instructor that clearly turned your wife loose to early. I’ve dealt with a lot of student pilots and some are good and others very dangerous yet still out doing their solo flight at the behest of the instructor. I worked at tower in SoCal. and we had to call a flight school because the instructor kept sending over language challenged inexperienced student pilots trying to fly in there. It was dangerous because of the traffic volume yet he put the responsibility of trying to guide these clearly lost unskilled pilots in for a landing on the shoulders of air traffic control. It’s enough to drive a controller crazy, yet it happens everyday! I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to remind a pilot to turn on their transponder, keep them from cutting off another aircraft, keep them from landing on the wrong runway, or taxiing on to an active runway I would be rich! To you it’s a hobby to us controllers it’s a serious business and should be treated as such. I’ve lost my temper lots of times with pilots because they are hell bent on either killing themselves or taking out other aircraft with them. Just recently an Egyptian airline at JFK tried to taxi on the active runway with a departing jet full of passengers, the controller stepped in and saved the situation by cancelling the takeoff of the departing aircraft. It made the news but nobody mentioned the heroics of ATC, but let them catch somebody snoozing its national headlines! I could hear the anger in the controller’s voice after the incident and I don’t blame him one bit! Maybe the guy at Exec saved your wife’s life at least next time she will learn the airport layout before she goes to anther busy airport. Get your money back from that flight school because the instructor is to blame not ATC.

    • calmisbetter says:

      maybe portamex needs to realize that those things are his job, and student pilots are student pilots. (Plus he/she should learn how to spell TOO!)

      (I think he is feeling a little underappreciated)

      She was a little nervous and asked for a little help and SAC controllers were demeaning. (i’ve heard it happen many times) I have told controllers that they are not helping anyone by being demeaning and as a matter of fact they are exacerbating the situation when a less experienced pilot get flustered.

      Controllers are in an air conditioned room…be calm. That is your job, not being impatient.

    • Joe blow says:

      Hell yeah! Thanks…..you pilots should read this post….I’m a controller too and a lot of student pilots are horrible on the radios as well and make our job very stressful.

  17. cherokee says:

    maybe calmisbetter should spend 8 hours in a busy control tower. spending your day trying to keep planes seperated in a small area that are doing 150mph and pilots showing up not properly breifed for the airport they are flying to then throw in a student pilot who is obviously unprepared and very nervous and you have a recipe for disaster.and of course its the fault of the controller in the air conditioned room.if there is a safety issue or a skill set that is lacking it needs to be brought to somebodys attention.

  18. Joe blow says:

    Don’t delete people’s comments…..u know your wife should of viewed the airport diagram instead of you blaming the controller

  19. the real jay says:

    why wasnt she familiar with the airfield? thats just dumb and dangerous. Sac exec is busy and controllers cant deal with that. the whole story about crossing the runway… are u serious? its not a road its a RUNWAY. controllers control and youre suppose to do what you are told and not slowly cross an active runway. theres no crosswalks. fail on her and her instructor for being unprepared and not expediting ACROSS AN ACTIVE RUNWAY. just saying.

  20. Venus Savage says:

    I just came across this blog by accident.

    Your comments about the FAA “anointing” DPEs smacks of anti-authority. A risk factor when it comes to the safe conduct of flight, by the way. You’re a pilot, I’d think you’d be aware of that.

    The DPEs and FAA employees serving KSAC are first rate.

    Your wife should have briefed the airport diagram before moving her aircraft. It’s really easy to do, especially if she was sitting in transient parking. She should have been thinking to herself, “I’m at the base of the tower, taxiing to 30. That means I’ll take Bravo, cross runway 20, continue on Echo to the run up area adjacent to 30.” Or, “I’m taxiing to runway 20. I’m going to take Bravo, make a left on Mike, cross 16 and cross 12, then the run up area will be straight ahead of me, off Delta.”

    Or, in the case of landing at an unfamiliar airport, “I’m landing 20. The first taxiway I might make is Alpha. The second is Juliet. The third is Kilo. All are right turns, and I’ll either taxi on Mike or Hotel to parking, with a left on Alpha.” Or, “I’m landing on 30. The first taxiway I might make is Whiskey. The second is Runway 20. The third is Mike. The fourth is Hotel.” They’ll all be left turns…” It’s not a particularly complex airport.

    I think you severely over-reacted about this. I’ll bet that, if she wandered onto an active runway, you’d be blogging about how her instructor didn’t give her the proper training.

    Hopefully she’s progressed past this incident. But harboring such feelings, and making blanket statements based only on a single interaction, is not helpful in the least.

    Perhaps it’s time to delete this blog? Ever been back to KSAC since? Perhaps had a good experience you’d like to share? Or are you all about the negative?

    Anyway, thanks in advance for deleting my post.

    • bigwinds says:

      and what a power trip your on! anti authority? the government works for us!…I think your the negative one here. The best way to educate people?…tell them what they need to know in a kind and courteous manner…and smother with encouraging words. Our controllers are awesome here and of course everyone can have a bad day.

  21. aviator says:

    Was this DPE Bill W. Nelson ??

    • iflyinPA says:

      I know of Bill Nelson, DPE in north PA, extremely unprofessional and likes to demean students consitently with record checkride failures under his belt.

      • Richard Kellerman says:

        I just had a disastrous checkride experience with Bill Nelson. By no means a miscarriage of justice – there were holes in my knowledge, but the interpersonal stuff was weird and disturbing. Be interested in learning more about him.

  22. FlyInPeace says:

    Wow, there are so many errors by people claiming to have answers.

    KSAC is a contract tower; it is inaccurate to call say that it is staffed by FAA employees.

    I have been based at KSAC for 6 years. There have been a few controllers who have expressed impatience and anger on the radio on rare occasions. I see no reason to to be angry with a student who is safely on the ground. If any pilot stops before entering a runway, that should fine. It sounds to me like the places the student stopped are also identified as “hotspots” (having increased risk of collision/incursion).

    Starting around July 2010, not long after this blog was written, we had to hold short of 12-30 on taxiway M until being cleared to crossed. Now taxi instructions to 20 usually include a clearance to cross 16 and 12.

    It is ridiculous to suggest that a pilot should memorize the airport diagram. Even if this were possible, the environment in real life from the cockpit of a small plane on the ground barely resembles the diagram.

    Until recently, many taxiways KSAC were poorly marked (there is still room for improvement).
    They certainly were poorly marked at the time this blog was written.

    A good pilot should exercise caution on a first visit to an airport. There was no reason not to have the pilot who was unfamiliar taxi behind a local. Anyone who claims to be “familiar” with a field his first time there is a dangerous and arrogant liar. Look up the definition of “familiar”.

    Sometimes a controller asks a pilot whether s/he is familiar with the airport. I have gone to airports for the first time and when I call up ground control for a taxi clearance, I add that I am unfamiliar with the airport. It is much better to be safe than sorry.

    The statement “only 20 and 30 are ever used for vfr” is false and has been false throughout the history of KSAC. Landing runway 2 when approaching from the south is quite common under VFR with light or calm winds. When the wind is calm and there is no conflicting traffic, the controller often offers straight-in runway 2, especially to traffic on a published approach to runway 2.
    Recently, I requested to land straight in runway 2. The controller replied, “Wind two-one-zero at six. Runway 2, cleared to land.”
    Two days ago, 12 was the primary runway throughout most of the day time. How exactly is a pilot to know that there is no need to know how to taxi to/from 16-34?

    My opinion is that the controller should have accommodated the guest pilot much better. (I suspect that I know which controller she encountered. He has not worked at KSAC for the past couple of years.)

    It would be nice to see a follow-up report on the outcome from the pseudo-incident.

  23. Texas CFI says:

    >>>>Your wife should have briefed the airport diagram before moving her aircraft.<<<
    Of course! How about Part 91 — "Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight."
    We're a nation of victims. Blame the controller because the pilot didn't comply with Part 91.

  24. Tg says:

    I’ve been through ksac several times and there has been a controller who obviously can’t handle more than one aircraft on the field at one time. His communication is poor and becomes flustered when pilots are not able to comply with the less than stellar directions. The controllers are there to assist the pilots. Pilots are not there to make the controllers life easy.

  25. stan demski says:

    Mr Fly in Peace. I stand by my statement that only 20 and 30 are ever used for vfr landings and take offs. The only time I ever landed on 2 or 12 or 16 or 34 was when I was either on an instrument approach to 2 or I requested the other runways. I have been flying weekly out of KSAC since 2008 and have always been instructed to make left or right traffic for 20 or left traffic for 30. This is after hundreds of landings and take offs there. So my statement is not false since the history of KSAC; its experience and observation my friend.

    • Venus Savage says:

      Wrong. This may be your experience, but it is not a fact.

      • Venus Savage says:

        BTW: Landed VFR 02 last night. 12/20/13. And I have nearly 8,000 landings at KSAC in the last 5 years.

      • Stan Demski (real name) says:

        BFD The tower closes at 9 so if you were arriving prior the tower probably cleared you for that due to calm winds and your approaching heading. If the tower was closed you could land anywhere you want, downwind, crosswind or whatever suits your fancy. Still there should be no confusion as to which way to taxi off that runway and and make it back to whatever runway your going to depart. its a simple well marked layout especially in daylight you genius.

  26. corefile says:

    Sooo… I happen to be a student pilot our of KRHV flying to KSAC this coming weekend on my student solo. I’ve poored over the airport diagram, and plan to discuss it in some detail with my instructor, but would love possibly call one you SAC based pilots with ground ops clarification if I have any

  27. JK says:

    I flew into KSAC last year and the controller was a jerk because I needed vectors to the field due to the smog haze. He complained that Norcal should have provided this to me when Norcal did not. For some reason the controller is a major grouch there!

  28. The landlord says:

    Thanks for the heads up ill will avoid it! I was told to ask for progressive taxi if I go but will just avoided it, and take my business elsewhere. Sac. Is full of leaches snitches and bitches, I hear this too often and It’s hard to do business there, somebody either got there hand out, gun out, or attorney out for your money. The public servants think you serve them and if you question or suggest them to do there job attitude is the least you have to worry about they will send there goons after you as there all related because nepotism runs ramped that’s why they don’t worry about losing there job.

  29. Malcolm says:

    Listen The FAA and local controller are just a big part of the curruption of the Government.

  30. Malcolm says:

    I am so sorry to hear “AZZHOLES from the FAA FSDO, you have to understand they are trying to do away with General Aviation in General; also, you are dealing with a Currupt agency. The FAA for the most part wants General to be gone, and too bad it sure make Jobs for these Bone Heads. Never trust the FAA “Never”

  31. google says:

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  32. Robert says:

    I’ve flown out of sac for 20 years the controllers are about the most helpful ice seen in several thousand hours of flying. They are not FAA employees. Eat there is much more to the story than your wife lets on. I can just imagine a student pilot who failed to brief the airport diagram causing all kinds of issues.

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