How to DCA
Please note that not all of what you read here will apply to Infinite Flight. Thanks!
Introduction to the Airport
Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan National Airport) is a highly sensitive subject in aviation. Mostly because of its proximity to the nation’s capital, but also because of the high rise parts of Arlington and Rosslyn right on short final for runways 15 and partially 19. I’ll be explaining for you today how to correctly fly to and from DCA, as well about the restrictions that all pilots and student pilots in the area (including myself) must know and be tested about (SFRA, 1200, etc.).
The Airport Itself
There are three runways at DCA, 15/33, 19/01, and 04/22.
(charts via fltplan.com)
Currently, 04/22 is the largest source of debate, multiple FAA propositions are suggestion to extend the 22 threshold by 600 feet, others suggesting to demolish the runway completely. It is used a few times a year for departures from the 04 end, and neither end is used for arrivals.
15/33 is the shorter of the two main active runways. It is 5204 feet long and services short haul aircraft.
19/01 is the main runway at DCA. It serves most of the traffic at the airport and is the longest runway there, at 7169 feet. It can handle anything from a Cessna Citation V to a Boeing 787-9.
The airport has four terminals, Terminal A, Terminal B, Terminal B/C, and Terminal C. There is a major construction project ongoing for a Terminal D made for commuterjets.
Understanding Size Restrictions
DCA is very complex with size restrictions. It doesn’t allow small GA aircraft, however helicopters commonly fly in and out of the airport along the Potomac River. Aircraft that regularly fly to DCA include:
- CRJ-100, 200, 700, 900
- 737-700, 800
- 757-200, 300
Any aircraft that are not larger than a private jet and smaller than a 757-300 require FAA clearance well in advance to fly to DCA, or must be in an emergency situation where fuel isn’t enough to divert to BWI, IAD, RIC, or ORF. Aircraft that have been the exception and the reason are:
- United DC-10 - Emergency landing during severe weather in the DC area due to minimal fuel, BWI and IAD were closed due to the weather, insufficient fuel to reach ORF or RIC.
- Delta 767-300 - Used during extremely high demand from ATL-DCA during the 2009 Presidential Inauguration
- Boeing 787-8 - Used to test the maximum capabilities of the 787-8 by landing on the river visual 19
- Vietnam Airlines 787-9 - Used for the Vietnamese President to meet with the US president as well as show off Vietnam Airline’s first 787-9 in DC
I would recommend sticking to the current set restrictions of the E170 through 757-300, to avoid confusion.
Route Distance Limit
There is a limit of 1250 nautical miles from DC for any aircraft to fly to. Congress must approve of any flights that break this limit before they can be flown. Current exceptions to this limit include Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, San Juan, Seattle, and Portland. Since there is no IF congress, I suppose you could send me a pm if you want at least some approval or disapproval, hehe.
The DC SFRA is an indefinite TFR that spans 30 miles in all directions around the DCA VOR. It is from surface to 17,999 feet and applies to all aircraft, without exception.
These are the rules of the DC SFRA:
- Squawking 1200 is illegal within the DC SFRA
- VFR flight in the DC SFRA must be filed as an IFR flight plan with one of the DC SFRA Gates included in it, for example, an outbound filing for VFR from Manassas to the west would be KHEF FLUKY. Outbound and inbound VFR flights are filed separately. You must remain on your IFR squawk assigned by ATC at all times in the SFRA. You will squawk 1200 upon leaving the SFRA, but must obtain an ATC squawk and clearance into the SFRA before reentering.
- All aircraft flying into the SFRA must have FAA clearance before entering, clearance is usually given during the filing of a flight plan into the SFRA from another airport. This goes for both commercial and general aviation flights
More on the DC SFRA can be found here:
There are two prohibited airspaces right next to DCA, P-56A and P-56B
(charts via Skyvector)
P-56A is the airspace surrounding the National Mall (containing the Lincoln Memorial, White House (Home of the President), Washington Monument, and Capitol Building). It is heavily protected due to the importance of the buildings and people in the area. This is one of the few places where use of deadly force is required if aircraft entering the zone from surface to 17,999 feet do not comply with instructions from ATC or fighter jets that go to the aircraft entering the airspace.
P-56B is the Naval Observatory, home to the Vice President. Like the White House, one of the most important people in the country live here, making it highly protected. Aircraft flying through the small airspace (1 mile in diameter) generally will receive a violation and not be escorted by jets.
Currently all international airports are banned from flying to Reagan due to the 1250 nm limit, but also because the airport does not have the US Customs capabilities. The exceptions to this rule are San Juan, Puerto Rico, Toronto, Ottowa, Montreal, Canada, and Bermuda.
Landing on Runway 01
Runway 01 at DCA is the easiest arrival, it is a straight-in visual or ILS approach that starts at the end of the ILS cone. Late night arrivals usually cut over the SAMMO fix due to low levels of traffic and to get the passengers in earlier.
(charts via fltplan.com)
Landing on Runway 33
This arrival is a bit more difficult, mostly to avoid aircraft at ADW, but also to maintain better flow.
Aircraft start the approach by going down the Runway 01 ILS cone, and then they turn from BADDN to CROFT, then on short final for Runway 33. The only aircraft to land on Runway 33 are the E170, E175, and very rarely the CRJ-200. It is very rare that you see an aircraft fly straight in the whole way from the beginning of the cone.
Landing on Runway 19
This is what makes DCA famous, the visual Runway 19 approach! But that is just one of three (or four) possible arrivals at DCA. Most aircraft you see land fly the approach entirely visually, but some pilots who are new on the job follow the RNP and sometimes even one of the two LDA approahes. Let’s start with the visual approach.
With the 19 visual, aircraft pass the fix FERGI and start hand flying the aircraft along the river, avoiding the cliffs on either side of it at the start, and eventually flying low over the hilly Roosevelt Island, while avoiding the restricted airspaces and downtown Rosslyn. Then, there is a sharp turn onto a very short final for the runway.
The RNAV RNP 19 is the second most used approach, and requires visual flying during the last parts of the approach. It is the same as the visual, except uses specific fixes at each of the turns of the river.
An LDA (Localizer-type Directional Aid) Approach is an ILS approach to an airport with at least a three degree offset from a straight-in approach. These specific LDA approaches require the use of a visual final approach in order to correctly line up with Runway 19.
The 19 LDA-Y approach is a straight approach along the edge of the 15 GPS cone that is at a 38 degree offset from the direction of Runway 19. It ends at JEVGA, where the pilot then takes manual control of the aircraft to make an immediate left turn and follow the river like in the visual and RNAV RNP approaches.
The 19 LDA-Z approach takes the aircraft on a more eastern facing approach onto short final at ZAXEB where the pilot takes control, a longer amount of time on the LDA than the Y. It is at a 41 degree offset from the direction of Runway 19.
(charts via fltplan.com)
Landing on Runway 15
Aircraft only land on 15 a few times a year, do not make a regular thing out of it!
Runway 15 is definitely one of the most dangerous straight-in approaches in the world. It has aircraft flying right over the city of Rosslyn, almost between buildings at times. It is an RNAV approach that is much the opposite of the 19 RNAV, as there is no following the river.
(charts via fltplan.com)
Departing Runway 01
Aircraft departing Runway 1 either fly visually to ADAXE then on the RNAV ADAXE BEBLE COVTO then on to either FERGI or ALEEX, or, if they are flying northeast, they sometimes, but extremely rarely, make an immediate right turn over the Anacostia River. You can see the majority of the 01 departures in this data map by National Airport:
Departing Runway 33
The 33 departure is definitely way more difficult than the 01 departure. It required aircraft to make a sharp right turn right after takeoff, and then a sharper left turn to ADAXE afterwards. Routing is the same after that. The aircraft that depart from 33 are American Airlines E175s and Delta E170/175s. You can also see how aircraft depart from 33 in the diagram above.
Only small private jets depart from 04, and they climb extremely steeply after departure, and make a turn to the northeast after 515 feet and follow the Anacostia River or turn heading 072 on the BOOK3, DOCTR4, and SOOKI4 departures, or make an immediate and extremely sharp turn to the north to follow the Potomac to ADAXE and thence BEBLE COVTO, etc.
The departure from 19 is a generally straight out departure. Departures to the northeast and southeast fly direct FIMBI after takeoff, while departures to the north, northwest, west, southwest, and south fly direct CAPVC then on to GAITE after departure. The CAPVC to GAITE turn puts the aircraft right near my house, so that’s fun!
The aircraft that depart from runway 15 are only American Airlines, and are the E175 and A319. The departure has aircraft fly runway heading until at or above 515 feet, where they then turn direct CAPVC or FIMBI and then on their departures.
As of now, no pattern work is allowed at DCA. This may change in the future if demand for flying to DCA stops, and the law for only Part 91 and 135 companies to land there is lifted. Airliners are not allowed to do patterns. General aviation aircraft must obtain FAA approval which takes time and requests are usually denied if they want to fly to DCA.
Go Around Procedure
Go arounds at DCA aren’t very common, but you do see them sometimes.
For a go around while landing on 19/15, the aircraft must make an immediate climb and turn to the west to avoid the airport and departing aircraft. Then they will receive ATC instructions on what to do next.
For a go around on 01, aircraft do the same with a a turn to the west, though they usually make a turn downwind instead of waiting for ATC instructions.
Going around on 33 is more difficult since it requires more of an immediate and steep climb because the aircraft is facing the tower and airport terminals when making the westbound turn. Thence they follow the same procedure as the 01 go around.
Exiting the Runway and Taxiing
When landing south, aircraft use 19 about 95-98% of the time. Despite this, I have included a chart of exits for both 19 and 15. You can see that aircraft exit on 04/22, which is used more than half of the time, the exit just before the runway the rest of the time. For 33, aircraft go all the way down the runway before exiting, due to the short length of the runway.
When landing north, aircraft use 19 the most and 33 sometimes, again, 33 is only used for E170s, E175s, and the occasional CRJ-200 for landings. For 19, aircraft exit on the exits just before 15/33, as well as the exit before those two. 33 has aircraft exit on the last two taxiways before the threshold.
For taxiing for takeoff, aircraft use the taxiway closest to 19/01 (Taxiway Juliet). When taxiing to 19, they go down Juliet, then on to November, then on to Kilo. At this point, they cross 15/33 and continue straight, off of the taxiway line, through the Hold Bay, and hold short at the very edge of the hold bay. For taxiing to 01, it depends on the terminal they are taxiing from. For taxis from Terminals B, BC, and C, they take Juliet all the way down, and go off the taxiway on to the Hold Bay. For taxis from Terminal A, aircraft either go on Kilo, then Alpha, Charlie, then on to Juliet and the Hold Bay, or they go from Kilo to Bravo, Papa, Charlie, Juliet, on to the Hold bay. For 33, they take Juliet onto Foxtrot or Golf then Hotel then Foxtrot. For 15, they take Juliet to November, then all the way down the Hold Bay.
Taxiing to parking takes aircraft onto the respective taxiway direction. When 19 and 15 are in use, they take Juliet parking by turning onto one of the taxiways that connect Kilo and Juliet, or they take Kilo down to Terminal A. Aircraft take Juliet to November when getting to the Commuter Apron. Basically when 19 and 15 are in use, aircraft take Juliet if they need to taxi north, or they take Kilo if they need to taxi south. The opposite is true when 01 and 33 are in use, Juliet is south and Kilo is north.
Use this airport chart for taxiing, or find a PDF version on Airnav or Flightaware!
(charts via fltplan.com)
The STARs used at DCA are:
The SIDs used at DCA are:
I hope that the pilots and all ATC, whether TS or IFATC, take these into account when flying to and/or from DCA, and when flying to DCA. Thank you!
All charts that I used here were from fltplan.com, though you can find many other free PDF charts at Airnav, FlightAware, and other places! I used this website because it was the only one I could find with free PNG charts. I usually use Navigraph, but sharing charts from a subscription (Navigraph is $75/year) is prohibited.