Some Tips For Flying to the San Francisco Bay Area

by Bruce Estes

I am often asked for tips in flying to the Bay Area. I fly to San Carlos generally once a month for business, learned to fly in Palo Alto, and based my Cardinal at San Carlos for 11 years. I am NOT a CFI.

First, flying to the Bay Area under the SFO Class B airspace is not difficult IF you do some planning. Second, you don’t have to use your radio until you get to your destination, but you will save time if you use flight following.

If you go GPS direct from LHM to SQL, your course takes you through Sacramento International’s (SMF) Class C airspace. I generally request flight following immediately after leaving the Lincoln traffic pattern. Dial up 127.4, call NorCal Approach, tell them who you are, where you are, and what you want. They will give you a transponder code. Once they radar identify you by using your N number, you are automatically cleared into Sacramento’s Class C airspace. You are on your way. You will get about four or five radio handoffs between LHM and SQL. If you go direct to San Carlos, you will pass thru Hayward’s (HWD) Class D airspace. If using flight following, NorCal will keep you above Hayward’s airspace and below the SFO Class B airspace. Sacramento International and Hayward are the only two airport areas you will pass thru or above if you go direct. (Editor’s note: The radar controller working you becomes responsible for coordinating any penetration you may make of Class C or D airspace.)

If you don’t want flight following, you can navigate around SMF and HWD by navigating to VPCOY (a visual reporting point- Coyote Hills). This waypoint is on the charts. Your path from Coyote Hills, towards SQL takes you a little north of the Dumbarton Bridge Toll Plaza. Get SQL’s ATIS and call SQL tower when you are at the shoreline, just north of the Toll Plaza. SQL’s tower will tell you to call them again when you are at the Cement Plant (VPWFR on your chart) if they are using Rwy 30, which is the usual runway in use. This sets you up for a right base entry to Rwy 30. If they are using Rwy 12, the tower will direct you to the KNBR radio antenna for a left base into Rwy12. Again, KNBR is on your chart.

Another popular airport to fly to is Half Moon Bay (HAF). On a clear day, HAF is BEAUTIFUL from the air. I used to take passengers for their first flight from SQL, over the top of HAF, on up the coast past Daly City, showing the passengers the Golden Gate Bridge from the air, and returned by the same route to SQL. My passengers were ALWAYS impressed. You can even land at HAF for breakfast or lunch at the airport restaurant, or park at the south end of the airport by the gate, and take a short walk to Princeton where there are several restaurants and shops. When you call SQL from the East Bay shoreline, tell SQL that you want a VFR transition thru their airspace on your way to HAF. The SQL tower will accommodate you in a friendly way.

So, flying to the San Francisco Peninsula (SQL or PAO) or on to HAF is not difficult IF you study your chart and do some pre-flight planning. The SFO Class B airspace is clearly marked on the chart, and step downs are easy to negotiate. If you get distracted and forget to descend, NorCal Approach will tell you to descend. I never even ask for a Class B clearance. It is not necessary for the above flight. So, don’t be afraid of this flight. I hear a lot of rookies on the radio and NorCal will work with you, IF you listen for your call sign and do what they ask. Generally, there is nothing to do except fly your pre-planned course.

If you have questions, please call me at (650) 504-4464 or email Bruce.