Washington, DC — National Airport

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If you're visiting the District, the unique close-in location of Washington National Airport is impossible to beat. It's a very busy airport with some unusual procedures, and the fuel and parking fees aren't exactly cheap. But don't let that scare you off.

General aviation pilots tend to shy away from flying into major metropolitan airports, either because of traffic density or because of worries about ruinous landing and parking fees. Yet many big metro airports are surprisingly GA friendly and at the top of my list is Washington National.

National is one of a handful of busy big-city airports that traces its modern history back to the heydey of propeller airliners during the 1950s. Unlike many airports, it never got moved to the suburbs and as such, it's located very close to the downtown area it serves.

National is actually situated in Virginia, across the Potomac from the District of Columbia, so when you're looking for charts and plates, look in the Virginia section of your NOS or Jeppesen Airway Manual. When planning your flight into DCA, be mindful of the various prohibited areas around the city, especially P-56, over the Capitol and White House.

Some agonize over whether to fly into DCA IFR or VFR. My view is that if weather permits, go VFR. Washington is a very scenic city from the air and when you're VFR, chances are good that ATC's vectors will take you near some interesting sights. Caution: ATC will keep you high—perhaps 2000 feet—then give you the old slam dunk at the last minute. Be ready for it. Most light aircraft are assigned runway 33. If you make the turnoff at Mike taxiway, it's a left turn and around the airline terminal (South Finger) to Signature (the sole general aviation FBO).

If you have to go IFR, remember that DCA is a high-density traffic airport, meaning that IFR slot reservations are required. It's usually not difficult to get one; however, don't expect to get the slot time you want on short notice. We recommend phoning the reservation office's automated voice-response line (1-800-875-9694) at least 24 hours ahead of your trip, but you can make reservations up to 96 hours ahead.

Want to make reservations by modem? Call 1-800-875-9762. If you need a genuine human to talk to, the airport reservations office is 1-703-904-4452. If the automated line or modem won't answer—it happens—give 'em a call.

Let's say you sneak into DCA VFR and the weather goes down during the day. Will you be stuck on the ground without a reservation? Probably not. The TRACON is very good about allowing aircraft into the system without reservations; just don't abuse it. Ask the guys at the Signature counter to connect you by phone to ATC. They know the ropes.

Fees at National are reasonable but not cheap. For a single-engine airplane, the landing fee is $8, parking is $23 a day (Anything over 30 minutes is considered a day.) A medium twin landing fee is $10.31, plus $40 a day for parking. Currently—mid-August 1995—100LL is $2.57 a gallon. For more on current fees, contact Signature at 703-419-8440. Signature's FAX is 703-419-5486.

Transportation into downtown Washington couldn't be easier. You can grab a cab right from Signature for about $12 to $18, depending on destination. Or, my choice is to the take a short shuttle bus ride (free) up the Metro stop in front of the main terminal. For $5, you can ride all over town on a clean, air-conditioned subway system. Can't beat it. The shuttle comes by right in front of Signature about every five minutes.

What's to see in D.C.? Plenty. The Air and Space Museum tops the must-see attraction list, plus all of the Smithsonian's other exhibitions. Not to mention the monuments, the White House and Capitol and on and on. For dinner or lunch, grab the Metro down to Georgetown and shop the eateries there. Not always cheap, but always a great variety and usually tasty.

If DCA's traffic and fees absolutely put you off, try College Park, Maryland. There's a Metro stop not too far from the airport; a long walk or a short cab ride. Dulles is a possiblity, too, but it's a long ride from downtown Washington.