“RDU Airport? Where on earth is that?” This is something that a number of people ask, if they are not from the area of the airport. But the answer is really not complicated. Raleigh-Durham International Airport is a major airport that serves Raleigh, Durham, and the surrounding Research Triangle area of North Carolina. The Research Triangle, or just ‘The Triangle’ is an urban area within a triangle formed by Raleigh, Durham, and the town of Chapel Hill. Raleigh-Durham Airport is generally known as RDU airport, both in the local area and by those who use it for passenger and general aviation flights. So what is it like? Let’s take a brief look…
General Information On RDU Airport
RDU Airport, situated near the center of the North Carolina Research Triangle, is an active and busy airport, with three runways and a passenger service to six international destinations and numerous domestic airports. In August 2022, RDU had nearly 400 average daily departures.
RDU Airport first opened as a municipal airport in 1929, but it grew quickly, and it looks as though it will continue to do so, with increasing numbers of passengers year on year. In 2008, due to increasing use, the airport was modernized, and a second terminal was built. After a brief period of decline, things picked up, and in the first four months of 2010, 2.7 million passengers traveled through RDU. These sorts of numbers have continued up to the present day.
RDU Airport is clearly an important hub for passengers, and also for airline pilots. But of what interest is an airport like this to pilots, both private pilots and those who may fly commercially, but not for the airlines? As a private pilot and instructor myself, this was the question I asked myself when I first heard of RDU airport.
The answer is that RDU airport is a really useful airport for private pilots. For it has two terminals, and one of these is a dedicated General Aviation terminal. There are just a couple of airlines flying out of it, and it has great facilities for general aviation, including several well-respected flying schools and clubs. Read on for more details…
Bottom Line Up Front
Raleigh-Durham International Airport, or RDU Airport as it is known locally, is a large airport servicing the urban area near Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina. It is a busy airport with all the facilities of most international airports. However, its point of difference is that it has more in the way of general aviation provision than many large airports, including a dedicated General Aviation terminal, and several flying schools and flying clubs. So it is of particular interest to private pilots and prospective private pilots in that area of North Carolina. It is also a good place to fly into, as there is a fair amount of leisure activity in the immediate area of the airport.
Why Fly To RDU Airport?
You may have several reasons for wanting to fly into RDU airport. Of course, if you live in North Carolina, particularly if you live in the Raleigh-Durham area or the ‘Triangle’, this could well be your local airport. But even if you come from further afield, RDU Airport could be an excellent place to visit. There is a lot to do after you arrive, and an excellent cafe is on site even if you’re not planning on going into any of the neighboring towns. The airport is also fairly easy to fly into, being far from mountains and the coast, which are features that can make flying to another airport difficult for inexperienced pilots
However, there are a couple more reasons why RDU airport is a really good place for private pilots, perhaps more so than many large international airports. It has a dedicated General Aviation terminal, with only a very few commercial flights using it. So you don’t have to mix it with the ‘big boys’, ie the airline traffic, if you really don’t want to – and for some fairly inexperienced private pilots who aren’t used to large airports, this is a definite advantage. And, perhaps more importantly, it has a number of flying schools and flying clubs for private pilots and those wanting to learn to fly, perhaps even wanting to train to be airline pilots. So this could be the most important reason to put RDU Airport on your list of airports to check out. It is perhaps its main point of difference.
Basic RDU Airport Information for Pilots
The ICAO (international) code for the airport is KRDU. This is really easy to remember – RDU for the airport, with a ‘K’ in front of it!
RDU Airport has three runways:
- 5L/23R (10000′ x 160′)
5R/23L (7500′ x 150′)
14/32 (3570′ x 100′)
So you have a choice of landing directions, and all the runways are of a good length.
The airport stands at 435 feet, so you have no high ground to contend with.
RDU Airport is in Class C airspace. This could be a little daunting for private pilots who are used to uncontrolled airspace, but really all it means is that you need to contact Air Traffic Control on the radio before visiting, and follow their instructions. Trust me, it’s not hard!
Here are all the radio frequencies you are likely to need. You probably won’t need a lot of them!
- Approach 124.8 MHz
- ATIS 123.8 MHz
- Ground 121.7 MHz
- Operations 49.15 MHz
- Tower 119.3 MHz
- Unicom 122.95 MHz
There are two operations at RDU Airport providing handling…
This organization provides many of the handling services at RDU airport, including hangarage, a pilots’ lounge, reservations, and recommendations for places to visit.
Signature Flight Support
The well-known Signature offers similar services to Atlantic. They are known particularly for offering maintenance and fuel.
There is probably not much to choose between these two organizations. Both are well-known and reputable, and should be able to provide all the handling services any pilot may need.
The General Aviation Terminal at RDU Airport
RDU airport is one of relatively few international airports to have a dedicated terminal for General Aviation. This in itself makes it very attractive for private pilots.
The General Aviation terminal is large and modern, with a dramatic staircase and an outdoor balcony overlooking one of the runways and a number of General Aviation planes. For this reason it is popular with aircraft enthusiasts as well as pilots. This is where private pilots fly from, and it also houses a popular cafe.
Attractions After Arrival At RDU Airport
If you are visiting an airport for leisure, or even for business, you may well want to explore the local area. This is particularly the case if you are taking your family or friends with you. Just the actual flight may be enough for you, but it probably won’t be for them. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve flown somewhere new with passengers, and been asked after landing, “Well, what do we do now?” So here are some answers.
On the Airfield
There are a few places worth visiting that are actually on the airfield, before you start looking elsewhere
This aviation themed cafe is right on the general aviation terminal. It provides a great view of the runway, and is highly spoken of by many pilots in the area. You can get the usual selection of meals and snacks, before you start any further exploration.
Raleigh Observation Deck
After landing at RDUAirport, why not do some plane watching at the Raleigh Observation Deck? It may not interest you that much, but your passengers are sure to enjoy it. The observation deck is very close to RDU’s Air Traffic Control tower, and it gives visitors excellent views of the runway.
In The Local Area
There are a number of places worth visiting in the area, both aviation-related and for those who have other interests. Here are just a few of them that might be of interest to both pilots and their passengers
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences – or scientific interest
This is the largest natural history museum in the Southeast, and has a number of unusual scientific exhibits, including dinosaur and whale skeletons. If you are interested in natural history, it could be worth flying in for this alone.
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts – for those interested in theatre and music
With performances of Broadway shows and live musicians and other artists, this is well worth a visit if performing arts interests you or your passengers.
Triangle Rock Club for – fitness enthusiasts
This local attraction offers bouldering and indoor rock climbing, and also fitness and yoga classes. It is worth visiting, even if only for an afternoon.
There are many other attractions in the area. Since the airport is fairly close to both Raleigh and Durham, as well as the smaller town of Chapel Hill, there are also other museums, plus shops and restaurants, that you can visit. Having said that, none of these towns is all that close to RDU Airport. Basically the airport is approximately fourteen miles from downtown Raleigh, the same distance from Durham, and 18 miles from Chapel Hill. So you will need to hire a car, or take a taxi or public transport, none of which are difficult to do. It should be easy to arrange this at the airport.
Flight Training at RDU Airport
Unlike the majority of airports which often have only one flying school, there are several flying schools at RDU airport.
This is the main flying school at RDU airport. It was founded in 1999, so is well established. It is said by some pilots to be quite expensive, but students seem to really like it. Here are some testimonials.
“I have always wanted to fly. I had been in GA airplanes before, but I never really began understanding flight until I came to FlightGest. The CFIs were interested in me as an individual and my flying goals, rather than using me to gain hours for their career. The CFIs took standardized lessons and presented them in a tailored fashion as fast as I could absorb and ‘own’ the procedures and techniques. I never left a lesson wondering about the purpose of the experience, although sometimes I am sure they left wondering if I have grasped the concept. I obtained my Private, Instrument, and Commercial certificates upon FlightGest training.
“I decided I’d like to take flying lessons on a Thursday, and after a call to FlightGest I was sitting in the left seat of a Cessna 172 with a glass cockpit and a 150 foot wide runway in front of me the next day. Best decision I ever made.”
FlightGest offers training from the private pilot license, through instrument and commercial training, right up to instructor training. They have a number of different aircraft, so would suit most students. Students can also join their flying club, and join in social events, plus seminars and reduced aircraft rental rates after qualifying as a pilot. It sounds like a really good place to learn to fly and continue flying after getting a license. What’s not to like?
Raleigh Flying Club
While this flying club does not have its own instruction, they do allow independent instructors to use their planes if the student is a member of the club. Since the club seems to be popular, this could be a good idea, especially if you happen to know an instructor who you would like to learn from..
Raleigh-Durham Flight School
This flying school at RDU Airport specializes in training for future airline pilots, saying they will train you from ab-initio, ie no flying experience at all, right up to ATPL – Air Transport Pilots License. It should be possible to just do private pilot training with them, but they do seem to be better geared up for those who want to be commercial or airline pilots. Either way, they could be worth investigating.
Flying Clubs at RDU Airport
If you already have a pilot’s license, these flying clubs at RDU Airport may interest you.
Raleigh Flying Club
This flying club was founded so that ‘Triangle’ pilots had somewhere local to hire aircraft and fly from. According to their website they are actively looking for new members, and they sound friendly and welcoming. Although basically a flying club, they also offer many of the services of a flight school.
You may also read about Wings of Carolina Flying Club, but you should note that they are actually based at Raleigh Executive Jetport, not RDU. Nevertheless they might still be of interest.
Pilots, particularly private pilots, really seem to like RDU airport. Here are some of the comments made about it…
“I loved training at RDU with FlightGest for my Private Pilot License and Instrument Rating. My instructors worked with my full-time work schedule, flying early morning, late afternoon, and sometimes back to back days on weekends. I can’t recommend highly enough the experience that comes with learning to fly at a Class C airport. It gave me confidence even as a student pilot I would have taken years to develop if I had trained at a smaller airport. I became a student pilot in my late 40s, so I didn’t have years to waste!”
“After 10 years out of the cockpit, CURRENT AGAIN!”
Pilots particularly like the fact that RDU Airport has a dedicated General Aviation terminal, and here are some of the comments made about it by students and pilots…
“It’s where you learn to fly at RDU. It’s very cool to walk out on the tarmac right over to your plane and start your checklist to take taxi and take off.”
“Private planes are the way to fly!”
Frequently Asked Questions – RDU Airport Guide
Question: Is RDU Airport considered to be a major airport?
Answer: The FAA states that it is the 39th largest airport in the US by passenger volume. So it is quite large, but not so large that a relatively inexperienced private pilot might find it daunting.
Question: How many flight schools are there at RDU?
Answer: Basically there are three flying schools. FlightGest Academy is the main one, There is also Raleigh-Durham flight School, but they specialize in students who want to join the airlines. Raleigh Flying Club also provides instruction in some circumstances.
Question: What does the U stand for in RDU?
Answer: The answer to this is more complicated than it first appears! It is thought in many circles to stand for Raleigh-Durham United, reflecting increased partnership between the cities, something they are both keen to emphasize. At least this is what some people say. But it is also said that this is not the case at all, that the ‘U’ was simply added by the FAA when the airport was given its four letter code, KRDU. Despite extensive research, it is really not clear which of these answers is correct!
RDU Airport is a good place for all General Aviation pilots, particularly if they live in the ‘Triangle’ area. As well as having several flying school and flying clubs, the airport also has a dedicated General Aviation terminal, and there is a lot to do in the immediate vicinity of the airport. So it could be an excellent place for pilots to visit, and for prospective pilots to learn to fly. What’s not to like? If I lived closer, I’d definitely pay the airport a visit.
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Visit raleigh.com. https://www.visitraleigh.com/listing/general-aviation-terminal-at-rdu/57708/
FlightGest Academy. https://www.flightgestacademy.com/
Raleigh-Durham flight School. https://atpflightschool.com/locations/north-carolina/raleigh-durham-flight-school-rdu.html
Raleigh Flying Club. https://www.raleighflyingclub.org/about.php
Atlantic Gate4way. https://www.atlanticaviation.com/gateway