Flying the Sky Harbor Transition

 By Andrew Vogeney 

There’s no doubt flying in or near Class Bravo airspace can be intimidating for someone new to an area or not used to flying in complex airspace. The Phoenix Class Bravo is often simpler than it looks, but it does require familiarization – and I would recommend taking a safety pilot along if you’re just getting used to it! Having an app like ForeFlight with a GPS position REALLY helps, especially in those tight areas.

One part of the Bravo that’s way easier than it looks is the East/West Route transition over Sky Harbor Airport. Note: Don’t confuse this one with the Biltmore Transition. You’ll be dating yourself, and it no longer exists! Not only is it a more efficient way to transition from north to south (or vice versa) it also provides for a nice little tour with a good view of the city for friends and family.

First time? Here’s how it’s done. Fly it at home with me before you get in the plane!

Let’s say you fly out of Deer Valley (DVT) or Scottsdale (SDL), with the middle of the two sitting just north of Sky Harbor (PHX). Look at the TAC Chart (I mean, zoom in) and you’ll see a magenta box to the north of PHX that says EAST/WEST ROUTE. Near that is a magenta arrow running north/ south by Squaw Peak. Before departing DVT or SDL let ground know you are southbound, and from my experience, they will quickly give you a frequency change knowing you’ll need to get on with approach. If they’re busy and don’t offer a frequency change, don’t be afraid to ask. After tuning in tower, make sure to have Phoenix Approach 120.7 dialed in standby to reduce your workload in the air. If you’re a GPS person, plug in VPSQP, head toward the easily recognizable mountain, or realistically the middle of Sky Harbor, and you are established.

flying the sky harbor transition

So, what’s with this East/West business when the transition is to the south? It all has to do with the flow at Sky Harbor and which way they’re putting planes into and out of the air. If you’ve got a sharp eye, look for the big iron to see which direction they’re going. Checking the PHX ATIS or monitoring PHX tower are also good options, but your workload has been busy and you’re halfway there already, so my recommendation is to simply switch to Approach as soon as you’re handed off. “Phoenix Approach, (callsign), (location), request transition to (destination, or just southbound).” A recent call for me sounded like this: “Phoenix Approach, Skylane 182VC off Deer Valley, request southbound transition to Casa Grande.”

Do things always go as planned? No, but most often yes. First, be prepared for “Remain outside Bravo Airspace.” Workload prohibiting, they retain the right to keep you out – so have an exit plan ready (like remaining under or outside Bravo airspace to get where you need to go – remember, it can be tight). Most often the response will be a friendly: “(callsign), Phoenix Approach, Squawk (code), Phoenix Altimeter (setting), cleared into bravo airspace via the (east or west) transition, climb maintain (somewhere between 4,000-6,000).” Bingo!

You’re now in Bravo airspace. It will only be for a few minutes, but remember you need to be on top of your game now. Closely watch your altitude and follow any other instructions given. What happens next? Easy! Turn east or west, as assigned, and aim for the numbers on that side of the runways – just like those magenta arrows show. You’ll be headed for the side of the runway where the big guys are touching down and starting their takeoff roll – just a few thousand feet under you. There’s a huge safety margin there – assuming you fly toward the correct end of the runway! Then just proceed straight south, and you’ll be back out of the bravo in no time. Note that you’ll be given a handoff to the next approach controller at some point around the time you cross the runways. Be prepared to switch to 123.7. Depending on your request/destination you’ll be offered flight following or cleared to resume own navigation (or maybe both) provided you’re under 5,000 feet. The arrows on the south side show the transition ending just south of South Mountain, but you’d be wise to clear up any intentions with the next controller should you want to maneuver somewhere quickly – like if you’re headed to Chandler for breakfast (and I recommend that trip over practice approaches at Casa Grande any day).

So, what if you’re coming from the south? As you might imagine it’s just as easy – simply switch everything around. There are several VFR reporting points near the southern start of the transition (Foothills Golf Course, Firebird Lake, Memorial, Stellar) so pick your favorite. Have 123.7 ready for the call to approach and be prepared to switch to 120.7 on the other side. Of course, you’ll be contending with the DVT/SDL/Everybody Else traffic once you pass over Sky Harbor, but that’s a different story. On the return trip northbound I’ve been assigned 6,000 and held there, at the controller’s request, until quite a bit north of where the 5,000 Class B shelf starts, so it was a bit of a dive into Deer Valley. You’re the pilot, so if you’re given a control instruction you can’t safely or comfortably handle, be up front with the approach controller (though I’ve never gotten to that point).

flying the sky harbor transition aerial

So how do we put this into practical use? The transition makes a nice addition to a southbound flight from DVT/Scottsdale/points north to Chandler for breakfast, Eloy for lunch and watching the skydivers (or going with them?), down to Tucson, practice approaches to Casa Grande, or any other southbound adventures. Flying right over Downtown Phoenix is quite nice, and so is flying right over Sky Harbor! Non-pilot friends (and pilots alike) might be impressed that you can do this. Northbound is just as convenient if you’re doing the reverse of those trips, or if you’re heading to points north. I’ve always found our approach controllers to be friendly – and forgiving – and I personally find taking the East/West transition (to the North/South – this is not confusing, just look for the arrows!) to be way less intimidating than skirting around the lower, more restrictive and congested airspace to the East and West of Sky Harbor.

Consider downloading the “Phoenix FLY” chart. This is for home study or old fashioned “figure it out” navigating in the aircraft only; it will not be geo-referenced like the charts you may be used to on your EFB. This chart is great for getting to know the Phoenix area. It has illustrations of runway layouts and control tower locations, reporting points, golf courses, mountains, airspace, common jet routes and even a brown representation of where to find the best smog in the valley (ok, maybe that means something else).

I’ve flown in the Phoenix metro airspace for over two years now, and I still don’t know it all without reference to my handy EFB, so don’t feel alone if you’re uncomfortable. We have a LOT of airspace around, and if you didn’t learn to fly here or spend a lot of time flying around the valley, I’d be surprised if you knew it all, too. Study your charts when you have down time, and don’t pass up the opportunity to fly with a buddy – in either seat! Many aspiring instrument pilots are looking for safety pilots and would be glad to bring you along, and sometimes you learn more from the right seat than the left.

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