My tale of JFK
The plane was my Piper Cherokee 180. I filed IFR flight plans in and out. Weather was severe clear. They were landing 22L and 13L. Coming in over DPK, they set me up for 22L. While I would have expected a visual approach due to the nice weather, the ATIS (very robotic sounding) indicated the VOR-DME 22L was in use, and that’s what I got. They vectored me onto final about 6 miles out. The approach is not directly aligned with the runway, so you stay on the approach course until the end, then a little jog left and you’re on the ground. Arrived in the early afternoon, before things were really busy. Pretty straight forward but comms move along pretty quick, so be ready for that. A 747 was arriving on 13L at the time, which was visually awesome, with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. I exited 22L at H, talked to gnd, and held short of 22R. Then left on A and followed that around to the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) for parking and fuel, which is run by the Port Authority. The GAT is on the NW corner of the field, near 13R. Parking for up to 8 hrs was $25, with a normal take-off fee of $25, plus a $100 surcharge because I left between 3 and 10PM. Pricey, but saved rental car expenses, and got into the air just as fast as if I had gone to FRG, and a few miles closer to my destination. Port Authority provides free transport to/from the main terminal area, but I gave the driver a tip for their trouble.
For departure, I discussed the VFR/IFR options with FSS, and filed an IFR flight plan, with “Will change to VFR flight following if easier for traffic flow” in the remarks section. When I called for the clearance, delivery said it would be no faster either way, so I stuck with the IFR. When I called ground ready for taxi, I was number 40 for 13R, not too surprising since I was leaving during the early evening rush. I was told that normally they would depart flights headed in my direction (NW bound) from 13L, but there were too many planes on the ground to taxi all the way around the airport, so they had me use 13R, right next to the GAT. Many flight crews of the airliners taxiing by waved to us. A Lufthansa 747, and the Delta 737 we followed to the runway, stand out in particular. The wait was about an hour when our turn came, and they had me join the line. Until then, they kept track of my sequence, but had me wait at the GAT exit. Once you join the line, be sure to keep some distance behind the jets to avoid jet blast problems. On departure, the jets were given right turns, and I was given a left turn to keep me from gumming up the works. Then over to departure, a few vectors, direct SAX, and I was on my way along my filed route.
ATC was great and treated me with the same respect everyone else got. They do a phenomenal job there. They were moving a lot of airplanes and made it look easy; true professionals. Just be sure you are ready for quick and busy comm’s, and know the phraseology to keep it concise. As preparation, I spent time listening to the various frequencies on LiveATC and studying the airport diagram, in order to get the feel of the place. I knew what my taxi route was likely going to be even before I landed. I knew that A turns into Q, and that the GAT was at QD, and I practiced some JFK approaches, and taxiing on the ground on a computer based simulator. Ironically, I had NOT practiced the VOR-DME 22L, but had done one to a different airport a few days before. Long story short, the homework paid-off, especially the ground taxiing practice.
Not sure I would have done it as a VFR only pilot, unless I was doing it at very off hours, which appear to be between midnight and 8AM. And if the weather were really crummy, I might also think twice about it, even now, due to the fact that it could be even busier. One thing that occurred to me after the fact is that, unlike most other airports you’ll go to, I was likely the only amateur in the JFK system at the time…every one else was being paid to be there, so I would recommend that you be honest with yourself, and feel that your own skills are at a professional level before doing something like this, even if you’re flying a Cherokee.