Rich Acuff's Palo Alto Airport page



So you want to fly into, out of, and around Palo Alto Airport? Here is some information that should make life easier for you. Click on most of the pictures for a bigger version. Note: some of these pictures are big; if your browser is set to scale them down to your window size, you will lose some important detail.

Disclaimer: As you'd expect, this information is given as one pilot helping another for general orientation only, and in no way is intended to replace use of official charts and publications like the A/FD.

Rich Acuff has been flying out of Palo Alto Airport since 1992 and providing flight instruction there since 1998, teaching both privately and out of West Valley Flying Club. If you find this page useful, please let me know!.

Santa Clara County (which manages KPAO) gave most of the taxiways new names in October, 2007. I've updated this page with the new names. They have published a new airport brochure as well that has good summary information. You can get it online as a PDF or pick up a printed copy at the airport terminal or an FBO.

Contents

Overview
Airport Layout
Taxi Conventions
  When Arriving
  Getting to Runway 31
  Getting to Runway 13
Departures
  Departing Runway 31
  Departing Runway 13
  IFR Departure
Pattern Landmarks
Staying in the Pattern
The Traffic Pattern and Moffett
Arrivals
  IFR Arrivals
Other Details
Contact Info

Overview

KPAO (ka-pow, like on Batman...) sits beside San Francisco Bay, north of the city of Palo Alto (see photo above). It boasts one 2,400' runway (plus a little overrun), and a heck of a lot of traffic. Most of the time winds favor runway 31, but runway 13 gets its share of use in the winter. The tower runs from 7am to 9pm mostly. And believe me, those controllers work for a living. Despite having only one fairly short runway, KPAO is base for many Silicon Valley pilots, home to various maintenance shops, a convenient gateway to Bay Area visitors, and the place that many, many new pilots spread their wings for the first time.

The cities near the airport are noise sensitive, so there are noise abatement procedures. They're described in detail with the departure and arrival procedures, but basically we need to be at or above 1,500' when south of highway 101 (the Bayshore Freeway), and make a 10º right turn after takeoff from runway 31.

By the way, keep in mind that many people in the Bay Area get confused about directions. "North" often means "towards San Francisco" and "South" means "towards San Jose", since many of the major roads are oriented that way, but San Francisco is really more west than north. I call this "logical" north. On this page, I'm using magnetic north (as opposed to True north or Logical north) as my reference for directions. Keep that in mind as you think about directions.

Airport Layout

Like many things about KPAO, the layout of the ramp is a bit unusual. There are 4 tiny little taxiways giving access to the runway. They are Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Echo. There are rummers another exit could be built and Delta is reserved for that.

There are 2 main parking areas. Rows Hotel through Mike slant off from the taxiway next to the runway (officially Zulu, but you're likely to hear it called "the Parallel" for a while.) Southeast of that, taxiway Golf (also known as "the Loop") encircles rows November through Uniform to form a teardrop shape. What few hangars we have are off the loop to the south side. Way in the southeast corner are most of the businesses and flying clubs (see the bottom of AirNav's Palo Alto Airport page for a detailed list.) The little terminal building/airport office sits to the north of the loop. The "spot" for helicopters is next to the terminal building and rarely an issue for fixed wing birds. Transient parking is mostly the last row, between Uniform and Golf, with parking for large planes next to Golf west of the Terminal building. The self-serve fuel island is at the north corner of the hangars.

Click on the picture above for lots of details (be sure to view it at full size).

Taxi Conventions

When Arriving

For the arriving pilot, when you clear the runway, please go onto the taxiway far enough that another plane can clear the runway behind you. This non-standard procedure is very helpful since we only have three exits and very little space between the runway and the taxiway.

After contacting Ground Control (125.0 Mhz) on the Parallel, you can follow the green line onto Kilo row and around Golf to transient parking or the terminal, or use the ramp picture above to see how you can get to your parking spot. Ground Control is happy to help with progressive instructions if you need them.

Getting to Runway 31

Ground Control doesn't technically control most of the ramp (it's a non-movement area, in ATC-speak; only the Parallel and run-up areas are movement areas). However, Ground is typically willing to help out to keep things moving smoothly, so local pilots usually talk to them before starting taxi.

If you're starting on rows Hotel through Kilo you might get "taxi via Mike." Turn out of parking toward the Parallel, then right onto the Parallel, right onto Mike (last row before the runup area), and then hard left at the end of Mike (onto Golf) to hook around into into the runup area. That sounds complicated, but all you're doing is using Mike to go around to the back of the run-up area, which is set up for one-way flow-through. Take a look at the ramp picture above to see how it works.

On India through Kilo, you could get "taxi via the fuel island". Turn out of parking toward the fuel island and turn left onto Golf up to the runup area.

Rows Lima-Mike pretty much always turn toward Golf and then left into the runup area.

On Golf-Oscar, at the hangars, or in the club areas you'll get to the runup via Golf, but you have a choice of which way to go. Generally we go the shortest way, but if there is other traffic we try to keep the flow going counterclockwise to avoid a head-to-head standoff. Ground control might tell you "taxi via the terminal" meaning to go toward the north side (where the Terminal Building is). Alternatively, "taxi via the hangars" means use the south side (where the hangars are).

If you don't get specific instruction, just "taxi runway 31", you can choose, but's probably best to avoid the Parallel, and definitely don't taxi the wrong way into the runup area!

Getting to Runway 13

Many of the same conventions work when Runway 13 is in use. Since there is only one Parallel, planes trying to taxi from the ramp to the 13 run-up area can conflict with aircraft exiting the runway heading for the ramp. To avoid such head-to-head standoffs Ground will often instruct planes taxying out to "hold short of the Parallel". Be sure to read that back (hold short instructions are mandatory readbacks) and remember to stop and wait.

Coming from Hotel-Mike you pretty much just have to head for the Parallel (unless you're tucked behind the Tower on India; if so, you'll have to come down to the fuel island first, but don't worry, there is no transient parking on that little cul-de-sac!). Coming "via the Terminal" take Golf to and through the 31 runup, onto the Parallel and out to 13. From "via the hangars" take Kilo row from Golf to the Parallel.

Departures

Since KPAO is stuffed between KSFO, KSQL, KOAK, and KHWD on the northwest and KNUQ and KSJC on the southeast, most traffic comes and goes via the north (across the bay) or south (over Stanford University and the city of Palo Alto). In the tower cab, ATC has the Ground controller prepare for your departure by writing your tail number on a plastic tile. They put it into a stack (basically, there's a stack for each type of departure) so that when you call "ready for takeoff" the "Local controller" (the person we call "Tower" on the radio) already knows what you want. It helps save time on the busy Tower frequency, but you need to tell Ground your departure request when you call to taxi for takeoff.

Departing Runway 31

Winds typically favor runway 31, so I'll talk about it first. All departures off runway 31 are to turn right 10º as soon as possible after liftoff (runway heading is 308º, so 318º plus any wind correction if you want to be precise; I usually just head for where the power lines cross Cooley Landing). This is to keep down noise over the city of East Palo Alto, which lies left of upwind.

To head out to the north (across the bay), ask for and fly the Right Dumbarton Departure. It's easy; just fly upwind (after the 10º noise abatement turn) until you get the Dumbarton Bridge (the car one, not the railroad!), turn right and follow it across the bay, and then carry on (often through the Sunol pass and out of the Bay Area over the Livermore Valley). As you get to the toll plaza on the far side of the bridge, Leslie Salt will be to your right. Arrivals tend to get funneled over Leslie Salt by the airspace and terrain, so this departure is designed to keep you away from a head-to-head game of "spot the airplane". Be careful of the 2,500' shelf of Class B over the bridge, and Class C not too far away on either side as you cross Fremont. Study the San Francisco Terminal Area Chart carefully before threading this needle!

Going to the south, ask for and fly the Left Dumbarton Departure. Just like the right, but you turn left instead. Pretty easy, eh? The idea here is noise abatement. We're supposed to get to 1,500' before passing south of Highway 101 (the Bayshore Freeway) to keep the noise down over the residential areas of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. By extending the upwind to the bridge, even slow climbers can do this. But don't climb too much! You'll be under a 2,500' shelf of Class B until you pass the Stanford Stadium.

If you want to take a direct route through Moffett (KNUQ) to San Jose (KSJC) or Reid Hillview (KRHV), let Ground know where you're going on your initial call and request a left downwind to XXX departure (that's right, left, er, I mean, that's correct, LEFT) (the left downwind puts you over the numbers at KNUQ, effectively keeping you out of their way while setting you up to either cross over SJC or join their downwind). XXX is the airport you're going to. Ground will telephone KNUQ and get them to cough up a squawk code for you. KNUQ has the stuff to radar identify you and hand you off to KSJC tower or Norcal Approach (used to be Bay Approach and, briefly, Sierra Approach). They'll typically put you around 1,500' as you pass through KNUQ. But be sharp on your flying and radio procedures for this route. It can be busy!

If you're heading to or over San Carlos (KSQL), Hayward (KHWD), or Oakland (KOAK) (or, if you're rich enough to afford the fees, San Francisco (KSFO)!), use a standard straight out departure (which one of my students always wanted to call the "straight up departure"...if only we had been flying an F14! ) KSQL is right next door, so don't hesitate to ask for an early frequency change.

Some people prefer the "right 270º overhead" departure instead of the Left Dumbarton. Just make sure you're above 1,500' before crossing 101.

Sometimes, if there's very light traffic, you might be able to get a "right crosswind" departure (cutting a few seconds off your trip), but I've never heard anyone get a left crosswind (due to noise).

Departing Runway 13

When a "storm" is moving through, or sometimes just early on a winter morning, the wind will kick up to favor runway 13. The controllers hate this since they've gotta move two-way traffic on a one-lane road (the Parallel).

The northbound departure most used is the Leslie Salt departure. It's much like a normal Left Crosswind (and sometimes people ask for that instead), but you turn a few degrees more than for a standard crosswind so that you fly toward Leslie Salt across the Bay near the Dumbarton Bridge. That way, you should pass out from under the 1,500' shelf of the SJC Class C before you climb into it. If you are flying a strong climbing bird, keep it under 1,500' until you're sure you're clear.

For those concerned about their swimming skills in the event that the fan stops turning, the Left Downwind departure allows you to gain altitude before crossing the Bay, as well as for heading northwest to KSQL, KOAK, KHWD, etc.

Noise prevents a right crosswind departure, but the left overhead 270º works great. As usual, cross Highway 101 at or above 1,500'.

You can do a straight-out to transition KNUQ, but it comes up real fast, so be sure to get Ground to coordinate for you so KNUQ knows you're coming.

IFR Departure

If you're using runway 31 your clearance will typically contain "...turn right heading 060º within one mile of the runway, radar vectors SJC...rest of route...climb and maintain 3,000', expect...final altitude...5 minutes after departure..." Sometimes, if you're heading northwest from runway 31, you'll get "...fly runway heading...maintain 2,000'..." but that requires a hole in SFO's traffic, so it isn't a given. You might get the 060º clearance, only to have it amended about the time you're told to taxi into position because the TRACON controller just decided he has room for you.

For runway 13 the turn to 060º is to the left, but otherwise it's the same. Note that when Norcal Approach is on "the southeast plan" (where the air carrier airports are landing to the southeast), you can face a pretty stiff wait to get out of KPAO. Come to think of it, you can face a pretty stiff wait when they're on the (normal) northwest plan, too!

If you're departing IFR when the tower is closed, it can be difficult to pick up your clearance. The TRACON is understandably reluctant to shut down a big chunk of very busy airspace by giving out big departure windows. I can't offer you a guaranteed method, but here's what has worked for me:

Pattern Landmarks

Here are some of the local landmarks that you'll hear the controllers using. Click to get the big version of the picture so see these actual places. On upwind from 31: Heading downwind for 31:

Staying in the Pattern

When you want to do laps (or "bounce and goes" as my wife calls them (!)), just tell ground you want to Stay in the Pattern. When runway 31 is in use the pattern players are kept in right traffic (over the bay) almost all the time. Pattern altitude on that side is 800'. The 10º noise abatement turn after takeoff still applies. As a result, you typically have almost no crosswind leg at all (otherwise you'll end up most of the way across the bay on downwind!)

If runway 13 is in use, then expect left traffic (still on the bay side; still at 800').

The Tower typically clears pattern workers for "the Option". You can do a full-stop landing with taxi-back, a go around, or a touch-and-go (if the rules you're operating under permit it; WVFC doesn't allow touch-and-goes for solo students at KPAO or in airplanes with more than 200 horsepower). The Stop-and-Go option is not allowed at KPAO since the runway is so short. If you're flying a Husky or Scout, petition the airport manager for an exception.

If you taxi back, the convention at KPAO is, once you're established as a "pattern worker", taxi back to the "T-bar" on the Parallel taxiway without talking to Tower about it. This is different from most airports, so be careful not to carry that habit elsewhere! The Tower will typically say "taxi back each time; advise when terminating."

The Traffic Pattern and Moffett

If you take a close look at the Terminal Area Chart you'll note that Moffett's airspace (KNUQ) begins within about a mile of the KPAO's runway. Normally this isn't a problem because, by letter of agreement, KPAO Tower is allowed to use up to the Shoreline Amphitheater, which is a bit more than 2 miles, and the controllers are pretty good at keeping the pattern in that close. If things get really busy, you may hear "we have extensions to the hangars" from the tower. That means you can fly up to the large hangars at Moffett. There are a few other landmarks they might use; most are easy to pick out. Keep in mind that your main job is to avoid hitting anybody; let the controllers work out the airspace issues. Just don't use more than you need.

By the way, if they tell you the wind tunnel (near the Amphitheater) is in use, don't go near it unless you're looking for a real E-ticket ride... I believe it hasn't been fired up in years, though.

Arrivals

KPAO controllers routinely use both sides of the traffic pattern, with arrivals from the north side getting right traffic for runway 31 , and arrivals from the south getting left traffic. Reverse those if runway 13 is in use. It boils down to using the downwind that is on the same side of the airport as you are.

Keep in mind that the pattern altitude is 800' on the bay side and 1,000' on the Palo Alto side.

Most arrivals from the north report in over Leslie Salt, just east (some might think of it as southeast) of the Dumbarton bridge toll plaza. Expect to be asked to "make right traffic." The airport can be hard to find from here, but if you fly nearly to the railroad turnstile near the middle of the bay you'll be able to spot the airport and will be set up for a 45º entry to downwind. If runway 13 is in use, the left base entry (over the railroad, roughly) is typical.

From the south, the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) is a good reporting point, although the "Dish" (large round antenna behind Stanford), "Felt Lake", and Cañada College (that's "can-YA-da", not "can-a-duh") are also used. Expect to be asked to make left traffic to runway 31. Since we're supposed to stay above 1,500' until crossing the Bayshore Freeway, a standard 45º is a bit tough. If you head towards Cooley Landing, you can cross at 1,500', descend easily to the 1,000' pattern altitude as you turn into the downwind, and still miss the Left Dumbarton departures. Normally, I would never like to see someone descending into a traffic pattern (since the majority of midairs happen during climb or descent near an airport), but in this case there are no left crosswind departures, the left downwind is rarely used for departures, and the controllers are helping, so it's probably a reasonable exception. Remember that safety trumps noise abatement.

If you're coming from over Moffett, you might get lucky and get "straight-in" to runway 31. If things are busy, expect to be asked to "report overhead at 1,500' for pattern assignment." Once overhead you'll probably be asked to turn and descend into either left or right downwind. Keep a sharp eye out!

IFR Arrivals

If you're arriving IFR, the visual is often your best bet for a quick arrival. If you need an approach, the GPS Rwy 31 is a heck of a lot easier to get most of the time, but especially when the weather is low. The VOR/DME Rwy 31 goes right over San Jose International so you can wait a long time for a gap in their traffic. If the stratus is in and you aren't sporting an approach-approved GPS, a good trick is to shoot an approach to Hayward, get under the stratus, then cancel and depart downwind from HWD to Coyote Hills, then follow the Dumbarton across the Bay to PAO. Be very careful of this; the stratus is typically flat-bottomed, with good visibility below, but you'll want to make sure to stay in your comfort zone. Getting someone to give you a ride from Hayward is ever so much easier to arrange than a funeral.

When the Tower is Closed

After (or before) tower hours, be sure to use the pattern on the Bay (north) side of the airport, both because that's what the FARs require and it's good for noise. The 10º turn after liftoff from runway 31 still applies, as well as 1,500' over the Bayshore. Sound carries better when it's cool (like a night), and more people are at home, so please be considerate.

The Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) is, as you'd expect, the same as the Tower frequency, 118.60.

See the IFR Departure section for IFR information.

Other Details

Fuel is available from trucks from Chevron (122.85 Mhz) and Exxon (122.95 Mhz). Exxon runs the self-service fuel island. The fuel is not cheap.

The aiport sits next to a wildlife area, so there are plenty of critters to watch out for, like this hawk I spotted grabbing his lunch from the grass next to the runway while one of my students did his first solo flight. Remember that birds usually dive...

Lots of other technical details, plus fuel prices, buisiness on the field, links to other pages about the airport, and more can be found at AirNav's Palo Alto Airport page.

Contact Info

If you're interested in flying and I can help, please email me at Rich@Dr-Amy.com.

Last updated October 10, 2007.
© 2004 Richard Acuff for all text and photos; do not use without permission.