Dec 27


I’ve recently purchased a PilotAware Classic unit:

This is a system based around a Raspberry Pi which acts as a low cost portable traffic awareness device. It uses a software defined radio (actually a unit designed to receive DVB-T) to receive transponder (mode C/S and ADS-B) signals, along with it’s own 869 aiqk745.5Mhz transceiver for P3I signals. It integrates with various navigational software (in my case SkyDemon), and has an audio output for alerts.

There are a few different types of contacts that PilotAware can detect – specifically:

  • ADS-B: These are aircraft that are sending ADS-B out (also known as Mode S Extended Squitter) – essentially a GPS position that is transmitted specifying exactly where the aircraft is.
  • P3I: These are aircraft that are also equipped with PilotAware and are transmitting their GPS position using the P3I protocol.
  • Mode C: This is a standard transponder mode where the aircraft’s altitude is transmitted (technically the flight level based upon the standard 1013.25 pressure setting is transmitted, but this is then converted by ATC etc in to an altitude using the relevant QNH).
  • Mode S: This is a newer transponder mode, that operates in addition to mode A/C where the aircraft’s callsign (e.g. GAVWT) is transmitted, allowing identification of individual aircraft.

My aircraft has mode C and S out, but not ADS-B out at present, though it is in principal capable of it thus I hope to have this enabled soon.

For ADS-B/P3I aircraft, PilotAware can supply the exact position to SkyDemon, and it can thus be plotted on the moving map, with an indication of the altitude difference – for example in the screenshot below, the aircraft with callsign TCX79JU is 9500 feet above, and to the South West (you can set filters in SkyDemon to hide contacts that are sufficiently vertically / laterally separated, though obviously you want a reasonable buffer to account for reporting discrepancies):

In addition, depending on the configured thresholds you will get audio alerts indicating the range and altitude difference of any close contacts, in a format very similar to that you get from a traffic service from ATC.

For Mode C/S aircraft, PilotAware can make a very rough judgement based on the received signal strength as to how close the other aircraft is, and thus try to provide a three stage indication (a green ring (and “Traffic Notice” audio alert) initially, then a yellow “Traffic Alert” ring, and finally a red “Traffic Danger” indication). This can require a bit of tuning to avoid false alarms, and thus the default PilotAware configuration currently has this disabled. As an example:

After some initial teething problems (in particular I’d enabled the Mode C/S detection, but occasionally PilotAware would pick up my own mode C and report a red danger contact, particularly as I begun climbs or descents – this was fixed by setting a filter option in PilotAware), I now use the system on all flights – the unit sits on the coming, powered by an Anker USB power pack (which typically lasts around 3-4 hours on a full charge), with the ADS-B antenna mounted on the windowsill (picture to come).

I’ve found it useful several times, in particular even when getting a traffic service from ATC, if the traffic they are calling is also showing up it can be much more helpful in visually locating it. I’ve also had a couple of occassions where it has allowed me to locate conflicting traffic that I hadn’t otherwise yet seen – in particular on one occasion I was flying Eastbound at ~3000′ back to Cambridge, approaching Little Staughton airfield. I was starting to think about getting the Cambridge ATIS, and as I glanced down to get the paper ready to write the ATIS onto, I happened to notice a green traffic ring for an N-reg mode C/S contact at the same level showing on my iPad. Coincident with this I had a traffic notice, and then shortly afterwards a traffic danger audio alert from the PilotAware.

Scanning around I spotted a strobe, and then a burgundy coloured single engine aircraft at my 10:00 converging quickly. I descended ~400′ and passed safely underneath. Without the cue from PilotAware, I think I would have at best had to take quite severe avoiding action and probably file an airprox, at worst… There was no indication the other aircraft had seen me as there was no course / altitude changes at all.

The unit is quite low cost (~£160), and very easy to set up with nice clear documentation. The GPS receiver it uses is better than those built in to most tablets / phones (when using PilotAware its position is used by your navigation software), and can be placed with a better view of the sky than a typical tablet location. While it is not a panacea to the problem of lookout (it is uncertified software running on an uncertified device, and thus there is no guarantee it will see all transponding aircraft, let alone those which aren’t transponding – it is thus a secondary awareness aid only), as long as it is not used as an excuse to allow the visual scan to degrade, it is an excellent aid to reducing the chances of a mid-air collision (which is one of the biggest threats to a private pilot operating in uncontrolled airspace).

For more information on the PilotAware or to order one see

Jan 15

Open letter to Theresa May

Dear Theresa May,

I am writing in response to the recent calls from the Prime Minister and yourself regarding increasing the powers of the police and security services.

I can understand the aim of these calls, and indeed at face value stating that you are determined that “there should be no safe spaces for terrorists to communicate” sounds like a laudable goal. The problem however is that the only way to achieve the goal would also end up seriously undermining the security and privacy of everyday citizens, and have a significant impact on Britain’s ability to trade both internally and internationally. This is I believe the point that my MP, Julian Huppert, was trying to get across to you on Wednesday.

To explain this, let us assume that at some stage in the future laws are passed banning any form of encryption that cannot be decrypted by the police or security services (with appropriate authorisation as you have said), and consider what the implications would be on both terrorists and ordinary everyday citizens.

Firstly let’s look at the terrorists – we assume they have no problem with breaking the law, and so continue to use the now banned forms of encryption, thus there is no impact on them. One counter argument here would be that they could be identified and arrested simply for breaking this law, however due to simple techniques called steganography it is very easy to transmit messages that are not in any way identifiable as messages, thus you cannot detect the law is being broken.

If we look at the everyday citizens however, the impact is much greater. Today any website that has a URL that begins https:// rather than simply http:// (this includes any site which takes credit card payments, online banking sites, popular sites such as Facebook, ‘official’ sites such as GOV.UK, and even sites like the Conservative party website) is using encryption, which the security services cannot in general decrypt (as far as is publically known anyway). Encryption on most of these sites is used to protect sensitive data from criminals who could otherwise intercept it, and indeed for card payments it is a requirement that such data is encrypted in the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI:DSS).

If we were to ban encryption altogether, then we would find no companies able to take credit card payments online, and online banking would cease to be available (as without encryption this sort of data is too vulnerable) – I cannot imagine the impact this would have on the economy. Additionally, we would find criminals have significantly more opportunities to perform identity theft and the like.

Clearly banning all encryption is not a practical option – perhaps we could allow encryption, but in a form the security services can readily break – while this sounds sensible, unfortunately due to the computing power available today if it is made readily breakable by the security services it is almost certainly readily breakable by criminals as well, so this is not a feasible option either.

The third option is key escrow, where all keys used for encryption have to be handed over to a government body. We already have a form of this today, in that current law requires handing over a key with a suitable warrant, however there is currently no requirement that keys should remain available in the future (indeed most secure sites use a technique called perfect forward secrecy which ensures even with the ‘long term’ key, you cannot decrypt a past communication).

While this third option sounds good in theory, there are a number of practical issues, the first and foremost being that since the terrorists will not care about breaking the law, they will simply refuse to hand over their keys, thus defeating the point of the change. Some other consequences here are:

  • It is likely that a PCI:DSS auditor would not deem handing over keys used to encrypt credit card data, even to a government body, as secure, and thus we still would be unable to use credit cards online, with the consequent effects on the economy
  • Should a criminal manage to break into the key store and access all the keys that were held in it, everybody would be in serious danger of financial / identity theft as suddenly all previous encryption is rendered useless, i.e. we are back to the no encryption scenario. Because of the volume of data available, this key store would be a very attractive target for criminals, thus this scenario is not as unlikely as it sounds.

Finally here, I would like to take a step back from the technology aspect – there is an encryption technique which (if carried out correctly) can be proved to have perfect secrecy, and it does not require any technology other than a pen and paper, and perhaps a pair of dice for generating random numbers. The technique is simple enough to be carried out by a child, and has been known about since 1882 – it is called a One Time Pad. For an example of how simple it is to do, I refer you to a video produced by Adrian Kennard, which is available at

Yours sincerely,

Alex Brett

Aug 15

Transits across Stansted

A brief post to relate a good experience I had last weekend – myself and another pilot from the aero club decided to fly out to Stapleford and back. The straight line route to get there goes straight through London Stansted’s airspace, so our planned routes had appropriate ‘dog legs’ around it, as there is no guarantee of getting permission to transit.

There isn’t any harm in asking however, so while en route on each flight (there and back) we called up Essex Radar (the ATC service which controls that airspace) and asked for a zone transit. Surprisingly, we got one in both cases. The first time we were cleared at not above 2000 feet, and once visual with Stansted were instructed to route to the left of the runway 22 threshold. The other pilot was flying this leg, so this allowed me to snap a number of photos of Stansted and some departing traffic:

1891500_10152707076697009_4012893762434924923_o 10560551_10152707076897009_5504861127923971892_o11265_10152707077222009_2455416933155839173_n 10506902_10152707078062009_730685257791741811_o 1782543_10152707078587009_3401509521297626528_o 906358_10152707078787009_6918249233324922072_o


On the return, we were told we might have to orbit somewhere for a couple of inbounds to get in, but we were still given the transit, this time at not above 1500 feet, with an initial instruction to route towards Stansted itself. As we got closer, we were instructed to make one orbit, and upon completion were asked if we were visual with an inbound 737 – these are quite hard to miss:


After confirming, we were then instructed to route behind it and resume our own navigation to Cambridge, which we promptly did. Although a fairly short trip, it’s not often you get to see a major international airport from above (as even when flying in and out as a passenger in a commercial aircraft, you don’t normally have the forwards / backwards view, just a limited side one), so it was certainly a memorable one!

Jul 17

Project Propeller

A slightly delayed post here as I’ve been very busy with work over the past few weeks, however at the end of June I was fortunate enough to be able to take part in Project Propeller. This is an annual reunion for 150+ WW2 aircrew, which they are flown in to by current volunteer private pilots, such as myself.

I’d volunteered some time ago, and at the end of April I had a call from Graham Cowie (who was organising the rostering of pilots) asking me if I could take a veteran from Cranfield to the event, which this year was being held at Gloucestershire Staverton airport.

I booked an aircraft (G-MEGS) for the day with the aero club, and hoped for great weather. As the event drew nearer there was some organisation to be done around landing slots and the like (with over 100 aircraft arriving in a few hours spreading them out is quite important!), and sorting out arrangements at Cranfield for picking up and dropping off my veteran (Frank) etc.

I woke up on the day to absolutely perfect weather, and so headed to the airfield, aiming to leave as early as safely possible in order to arrive at Cranfield as they opened, and then make the slot at Gloucester. In the end I wasn’t able to get away until a little later than would have been ideal, however not disastrously so.

The flight to Cranfield was uneventful, with a pretty nice landing. I found Frank in the cafe, and after a quick phone call to Gloucester to get a revised landing slot as I wasn’t going to be able to make my original one, we headed out to the aircraft.

After helping Frank in, I gave him a short safety briefing, and then we fired up and taxied out, departing fairly promptly.

The route from Cranfield to Gloucester was slightly difficult as there were a number of things to try and avoid (gliding competitions and the like), however I’d spent a reasonable amount of time in advance planning it out etc so it was easy enough to actually fly.

Frank had been a navigator, so I gave him the chart to follow on the way. As I mentioned the weather was perfect, so we had really good visibility, and lots of interesting things to look at along the way. I got a traffic service from Brize Radar, who called out a few things to me, but nothing of any concern.

During the flight Frank was telling me about some of his recent experiences with some aerobatic gliding and the like – I was somewhat surprised to hear about these, and hope that when I’m that age I’m still able to do activities like that!

Due to the volume of arrivals, Gloucester had implemented some special procedures, which involved reporting at a point a reasonable distance away (there were four points, we had the Northleach VRP as we were coming from the East), and holding there until told to head to the overhead. They’d also given us some instructions about abbreviated RT calls to try and reduce congestion on the radio.

I had to do one orbit at Northleach (which was eyes on stalks time as I knew there were at least two others in the area), and then was told to head in. While routing in I was asked to do another orbit as the tower had got a little busy, which I did, and then continued in to do my standard overhead join.

As I completed my deadside turn and joined the crosswind leg, I was aware I was fairly close to another aircraft – to avoid any conflict the tower asked me to turn downwind when I was at a point a little earlier than I would have done and fly a tight circuit. I complied, but was fully aware I was quite likely to have to go around as I probably wasn’t going to be able to set myself up properly. As expected I ended up very high on final, and once it became apparent I was going to have a very long landing I decided on a nice early go around.

The next circuit was normal, and the landing fairly smooth. I kept the speed up on the runway to avoid holding up anybody else – one good thing is being an airfield with full ATC they can make use of ‘Land After’ clearances to make things a bit more efficient.

I followed some marshallers to park, after which a photographer appeared to grab a photo of the two of us and the aircraft:


Then it was into a car to be driven to the Jet Age Museum on the airfield, where the event was being held. A few bits of administration to sort out, and then we were into the marquee. A buffet lunch was then served, though Frank and I made the mistake of thinking we’d wait until the initial queue died down, which it never really did!

After lunch we had a flyby by a Spitfire and Hurricane from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight:


There was then a talk by the guest speaker

Obviously throughout the day there was a lot of informal chats going on, and I bumped into a few other pilots I’ve met at fly ins and the like before.

As we went to leave, there was a nice surprise that Thwaites brewery had decided to give every veteran and pilot a special edition bottle of Lancaster Bomber – it was a challenge to resist the temptation to drink it given it was such a nice day, however I wouldn’t have then been able to fly back which would have gone a little wrong!

To speed up our departure, I walked back to the aircraft while Frank waited for a car, so I could get the pre flight checks etc done ready for him. Seeing the line of aircraft was quite impressive:


Departure was a little slow due to the sheer volume of aircraft wanting to leave (I think at one stage the airport may have had a movement rate higher than Heathrow!), but once up it was basically a case of reverse the route from earlier. As a demonstration of quite how many aircraft there were, here is an overhead shot someone took during the day – as you can see Gloucester closed a runway and used that for parking otherwise they’d have rapidly run out of space:


Arrival at Cranfield was once again uneventful, though we were closely followed by another Project Propeller aircraft, so once parked up we had a chance for a brief chat, though I had to leave fairly promptly however to make it back to Cambridge.

All in all it was a really good day, and something I’ll certainly be volunteering to help out with again next year. Obviously these events will only continue for so long as the number of possible attendees is reducing, and it seems something like this is the least I can do to show my appreciation for the sacrifices they made for us all.

I’d like to express thanks to the Project Propeller organisers, Gloucester airport and the Jet Age Museum for hosting the event, Cranfield for waiving landing fees, and Cambridge Aero Club for being generally helpful and flexible etc.

There’s lots of additional photos of the event available here.

A couple of notes for next time:

  • Expect everything to take a bit more time, so as not to have to revise slots on the day etc
  • Bring a stool to make it a bit easier for the veteran to get in and out the aircraft

GPS tracks for the various legs:

 Cbg - CfdCfd - Glr Glr - CfdCfd - Cbg

Jan 23

Flying Update

I’ve not posted for a while, as January has turned out to be a rather hectic month for me work wise. I have managed however to find a couple of chances to go flying thus far that are worth documenting…

11th January

I went up for a local bimble, with greggj, a student pilot and fellow forumite on the Flyer forums – this was all a little last minute, and a little random (given Greg is based in London so had a reasonable drive!), but it’s always nice to have company when flying, so all good.

It was a fairly ‘normal’ flight in terms of route etc:


During the flight Greg took some really quite nice photos, which I’ve included here (with his permission):

IMG_5951 IMG_5945 IMG_5959 IMG_5967 IMG_5968 IMG_5973 IMG_5975 IMG_5977 IMG_5978 IMG_5980 IMG_5985 IMG_5987 IMG_5991IMG_5998

The landing proved to be quite interesting – I was asked by ATC if I could accept the grass, I think as I was quite close to the one ahead and they probably thought it wouldn’t be able to vacate the runway in time. I accepted, and so lined up on the grass. The wind at this stage was quite blustery (from memory it was somewhere around 12 gusting 21 knots), so I had to try and keep the speed up on final in order to avoid a sudden drop in the wind from causing unexpected sink etc. This led to me having quite a bit of excess energy once I reached the runway, so I ended up floating quite a long time, and landing very long (albeit nice and smoothly) – had this been a touch and go I’d have had to go around as I wouldn’t have had enough runway left to get back up to flying speed had I landed, but I made the judgement that it was OK as I was landing only, and indeed there was still a good amount of runway remaining after I’d come to a stop, without requiring excessive braking etc.

All in all, quite a nice pleasant flight, with the little challenge at the end to make things interesting 🙂

19th January

Another local flight, this time taking up a colleague from Citrix, who actually has previously obtained a PPL at Cambridge, but then didn’t have sufficient time to keep it up, as such this was his first time in a light aircraft in about 7 years.

From what I could see and the airport weather information was reporting, I didn’t think this one was going to happen, however after chatting with a couple of instructors who’d just been up they reported that actually the cloudbase was at a reasonable height, and there were plenty of holes in it as well to get higher if needed, so I decided to give it a go.

The preflight checks etc were uneventful, other than discovering my GoPro camera had run out of battery (I think it had switched its WiFi stuff on and just drained it sitting in the bag), which was a shame.

The cloud ended up with a base around 2000′, so initially I tried to get above it, however I decided that there weren’t enough gaps for me to be entirely comfortable, and the views were going to be a bit rubbish, so I went back down and sat underneath them (hence the beginning of the vertical part of the log below looking quite amusing!).


The rest of the flight was spent at around 1800 – 1900′. There were a number of other aircraft about, including a couple of microlights, one of which appeared straight ahead as we were returning to Cambridge, so a slight deviation to the right required, along with a close eye on it as it was a little all over the place in terms of altitude etc.

My passenger grabbed a few photos, including a reasonable one of me during final approach, taken while we were about 200′ above the ground:

2014-01-19  2014-01-19_2


I was very slightly off being completely straight when landing, so there was a very slight bump when the mainwheels touched, but I was pretty happy with it, and my passenger thought it was a good one, which is always nice to hear!

I’m hoping at some point in the next month or so to take advantage of an offer the club is doing, and pair up with another pilot and spend a day doing lots of flying around – I’ll make sure to get lots of photos if that happens and have the Go Pro up and running to get some nice video!

Dec 29

Trip to Gloucestershire Airport

On Saturday a last minute post appeared on the Flyer forums from the person who runs Gloucestershire Staverton airport (Darren), stating that if anybody flew in the next day (which was forecast to be excellent weather wise), he’d do a discounted landing fee and was happy to do tower tours.

As such, I gave the aero club a ring first thing to see if they happened to have an aircraft available, which they did (this surprised me given the forecast etc, but I suppose in this Christmas – New Year period most people are wanting to relax at home), so I finished off the planning (I’d done some of it the previous evening on the off chance), and headed in.

Fortunately the aircraft I was to use (G-HERC) had been in the hangar overnight, so unlike the others there was no need to deice it etc (given the work my car required I had been expecting to have to do it). After getting it fuelled up (it should have been enough anyway, but you can never have too much fuel, so given it was just me and there were no W&B issues it was worth getting it filled up), I was fairly promptly away, and set course for my first turning point. I’d decided to route via the Daventry VOR, and then Banbury, as the straight line track would take me over / through various ATZs, whereas this route avoided them all, and only added a couple of minutes to the journey.

On route I spoke to Cranfield (as my track took me through the very end of their instrument approach), and then once in range got a traffic service from Brize Radar. After getting in touch with Gloucester (this is the airport’s callsign), it was clear there were a number of other aircraft arriving from various directions, but the controllers did a good job of keeping everybody informed of where all the traffic was and who was going to get where first. Indeed I became visual with the one joining ahead of me fairly early, and could follow him in to the overhead.

Gloucester has a number of runways, and the one in use today was the most into wind (22), but not the biggest (27) – this meant it was somewhat tricky to get myself in the right place as I kept subconciously trying to position for the ‘main’ runway and not the one I should have been. I ended up on quite a tight downwind leg, and at first when I turned base I thought I was probably going to end up too high and have to go around, however in the end it worked out quite nicely and was a pretty good landing. I was then given some nice clear directions and parking was with a marshaller, which was handy.

After enquiring at the desk inside I was told to sort the landing fee when I booked out to leave, so I headed to the restaurant (The Aviator), and found the other Flyer people. One ‘Aviator Burger’ later, it was decided to go and take up Darren’s offer of tower tours, so we headed back to the main building. There was a bit of ‘excitement’ while waiting to speak to the person on the desk (to ask them to call the tower), as the airport crash alarm went off. I know that most places have these, but I’ve never been around when one has gone off before – from a combination of watching out the window and listening to the radio traffic (there was a receiver behind the desk) it appears that an aircraft waiting to depart had experienced a small oil leak, onto a hot part of the engine which had produced a bit of smoke into the cockpit – nothing too serious in the end as they shut down and evacuated, and after the fire & rescue service had determined there was no ongoing fire they were towed back to the apron.

We then headed up to the VCR (visual control room) in the tower – the view was impressive, as was the kit they had. The controllers were all very friendly and explained how things worked etc. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay too long as I needed to depart to get back to Cambridge, but still a very interesting visit (I’ll have to see if I can do a similar visit at Cambridge at some point).

After paying the discounted landing fee and booking out, it was then out to the aircraft, a short taxi to the holding point, and away I went. I had to delay making my turn for a little while for noise abatement reasons (basically to avoid overflying the more sensitive areas), but then turned, initially parallel to, but abeam, my planned track, until I was safely clear of Gloucester’s ATZ at which point I regained the planned one.

The return journey was uneventful – some pretty nice sights to see, but sadly without any passengers to take photos I’ve nothing to post on here (I don’t want to take photos myself while flying, as it would take my attention away from look out etc). On arrival back at Cambridge I did a crosswind join for 23, and landed – I had the start of a balloon on landing, but not enough to warrant a go around, but definitely not as good a landing as at Gloucester.

After parking up, all that was left was the expensive bit (paying for a total of 2 hours 25 minutes of flying) – I think given how much it came to I’m going to have to give it a week or two before I go up again 🙁

All in all a very nice day out – days like today are definitely not to be missed, especially in the Winter when they don’t come around very often!

Tracks from the two flights below:

29-12-2013 out 29-12-2013 in

Dec 22

Night circuits

I’ve now completed both of my dual night circuit lessons – all that’s left to do for the night rating is five solo takeoffs and full stop landings (as they are full stop landings and not touch and go’s, they’ll take a little longer, and thus be spread across two more lesson slots).

After lots of cancellations due to weather, the first lesson was in very nice and calm conditions, with the surface wind calm, and the wind at circuit height nice and steady. This was great as it meant I could be concentrating on the new bits of looking for PAPIs and judging height etc, rather than using all my concentration simply keeping the aircraft level, as can happen on very blustery days!

We started off with a couple of normal circuits, making use of the runway approach lighting and PAPIs etc. As I seemed to have these basically sorted, we then proceeded to gradually reduce the lighting available (simulating landing at less equipped airfields). First we asked ATC to turn the PAPIs off, which just meant having to judge height visually, and did a couple of circuits like this.

Next time round we asked them to turn off the approach lights, and we turned off our landing light as well. The approach lights (also called ‘lead in’ lights) didn’t make a big difference (in fact if anything it was easier as they weren’t quite so dazzling), but without a landing light it becomes a lot harder to judge when to flare for the actual touchdown, so we did quite a few circuits like this, until landing to end the lesson.


The second session was all about emergencies, including:

  • Runway lighting failure (the correct action being to go around – apparently they used to have a codeword the instructor would give which in response ATC would turn off the runway lights, but that’s no longer done after one instructor (who no longer works for the club!) actually continued and landed without the lights!)
  • Various external lighting failures (the correct action being to land as soon as practical, and if appropriate inform ATC so they can warn other traffic etc)
  • Radio failure – in this situation you need to first attract the attention of the tower (by doing a normal circuit then go around, and flashing your navigation lights etc), then look for light signals from them indicating if you are cleared to land or not. This was practised getting both a solid green (cleared to land), and solid red (go around) from them – the lights are not entirely obvious, but having now seen them I should be OK should I need them ‘for real’.
  • Internal lighting failure – at this point a torch is required to see the critical instruments (airspeed and altimeter). The practise for this one became ‘interesting’ as I was asked to orbit for some instrument traffic, so had to do a couple of orbits in this way (in a real situation I’d probably have declared a PAN to get priority). While I ended up going around off the approach as I touched down a bit fast and so bounced a little etc, the approach itself was OK.
  • Total electrical failure – this is essentially a combination of the previous 3 issues – the only difference being that to attract ATC’s attention you no longer have any lighting available, so instead have to use engine noise as you pass the tower.

The conditions during the second lesson were significantly worse than the first – there was a fairly strong wind (albeit straight down the runway), with a lot of bumpy air, which while hard work was also good practise as it showed I could do it even when it isn’t perfectly calm (though I doubt I’d want to go solo in those conditions!)

Dec 14

Great Saturday Morning


Dec 03

G1000 Conversion

One of the club’s aircraft (G-MEGS) has a G1000 glass cockpit – this means that instead of the ‘analogue’ instruments that most aircraft have, which look a bit like this:

Analogue instruments

It has two big LCD screens on which the information is shown (together with a few standby instruments in case they fail), like this:



While I’ve flown G-MEGS a few times during training, so it’s not entirely new to me, as I didn’t do my skills test in it, officially I need to get differences training and a signature in my logbook from an instructor, before I can fly it solo. I decided to get this done because more often than not G-MEGS is the only aircraft available for solo hire (as most students prefer to fly on one of the traditional aircraft as they’re more used to it).

I’d been given some information to read up beforehand, covering how to work the system (to the level I’ll need anyway). When it came to the first lesson slot I had booked the weather wasn’t good enough to fly, so instead we did a ground lesson where we both sat in the aircraft with the engine idling and went through all the functionality we could on the ground. This did result in one amusing moment whereby the driver of a fuel truck started trying to get our attention and pointing madly at the tiedowns (which we had deliberately left on), thinking we were about to try and move off with them still attached!

The first actual flight was planned to go into the local area, and look at some of the key differences such as the instrument scan if flying solely by instruments (while I should only ever do this if something has gone wrong and I’ve accidentally ended up in cloud, that’s obviously not the time to be thinking about it for the first time!), use of the navigation features (both traditional radio navigation using VOR / ADF and also the GPS). I was a bit all over the place on this flight – I think due to concentrating on the ‘TVs’ too much, rather than focusing on the actual flying (a good lesson in the importance of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate!). We did a couple of circuits, which I was really unhappy with (while both safe, the first was well off the centreline, and the second one I flared quite high on).

On the second flight I focused much more on the core visual flying, and it was much better, which built my confidence back up. This flight was covering some of the emergency situations (such as a failure of one or both of the two LCD screens, and how to identify failure of some of the instruments etc), together with some circuits for practise. After this the instructor was happy to sign me off.

I decided to do a number of solo circuits before offering to take up any passengers, just to make sure I was happy. I ballooned slightly on my first approach, and while I could have rescued it, I decided I hadn’t done a go around in a little while so it would be good practise. Due to instrument traffic backtracking on the main runway I had to do one of the touch and goes on the grass, again something I’d not done in a while, so good practise (the touchdown on this one ended up very nice which was good). After a couple more circuits I decided I was happy enough and so called it a day.




Nov 09

Visit ATC day at Swanwick

NATS (National Air Traffic Services), who essentially run the UK airspace, along with the towers at the big commercial airports, and several other ATC providers organise “Visit ATC days” to let pilots see things ‘from the other side’ as it were.

I signed up to one at the NATS centre at Swanwick – this is where the vast majority of the airspace is controlled from, both the upper sectors (known as Area Control), and the lower areas around the airports (known as Terminal Control). When you land at somewhere like Heathrow/Gatwick/Luton/Stansted, you’re only actually handed off to people at the airport at about 6 – 8 miles from touchdown to get the final landing clearance, everything else is handled from Swanwick.

Unfortunately for security reasons they have a no photography policy, so I don’t have any photos to go along with the below.

The day started with a couple of talks, outlining what the day would involve etc, in a room known as the ‘Viewing Gallery’. The name became self explanatory when at the end of the talks they raised the blinds at the back of the room and we were looking out into the area control (AC) part of the ops room (the name for the areas where ‘live’ controlling is going on).

Next up was a presentation about infringements, together with some radar replays (and RT recordings) of some previous incidents – what was enlightening was how much disruption even just ‘clipping’ the edge of controlled airspace by say a quater of a mile – because of the separation standards they have to maintain from unknown traffic (because they don’t know its intentions etc), they end up having to peel aircraft off of approaches, causing disruption and extra costs etc.

We were then split into groups and taken into various parts of the ops room (we had to sign some paperwork beforehand agreeing to various rules etc!). My group started off in area control, focusing mainly on the London Information desk which is squeezed into a corner of the room. The controllers here provide a flight information service across most of the UK (as you get further North towards Scotland then Scottish Information from Prestwick takes over) – this basically just means they will take down details, activate flight plans, and give information on known active danger areas and parachuting / gliding sites etc. I’ve spoken to London Information before via RT, so it’s nice to see what it looks like from the other side. They weren’t too busy (it wasn’t a particularly good day, and thus not much VFR flying was going on), so as well as the person showing us round the actual controller was able to talk to us a bit. While we there an amusing incident occurred where he had a call from an airfield asking him to relay to a pilot he was talking to who’d just departed that the pilot had left his moneybag behind!

The next visit was to the distress & diversion (D&D) service – this is a service run by the military that provides assitance to civil and military aircraft should you have an emergency or get lost etc. They have some impressive radio equipment that can triangulate the location of a radio transmission very quickly, onto a map that the operators can then zoom into down to ordinance survey level of detail. Coupled with the radar access they have, this basically lets them locate almost any aircraft anywhere in the UK.

After this it was time for lunch, which we had in their canteen – I had a very nice fish and chips, which with a can of diet coke was only £3.65, so very good value (I assume it’s subsidised).

First up after lunch was a presentation from one of the controllers who provides Farnborough LARS (Lower Airspace Rader Services). He explained the difficulties they have at Farnborough, and the services they can provide to help GA pilots avoid infringing any London airspace. There were a few interesting bits of information – I hadn’t realised quite how much commercial traffic they have, and the difficulties they have due to the surrounding airfields etc.

It was then time for the final ops room visit, in my case to terminal control. This is where aircraft are handled immediately after takeoff, and prior to landing, being put onto final approaches etc. Unlike area control (which is very modern with everything computerised), in terminal control they still use (printed) paper strips – apparently this is because the controllers prefer it, and with a computerised system they’d probably end up with RSI the amount of clicking they’d have to do. They do obviously have very modern radar consoles though!

What was impressive (not surprising when you think about it, but still) is that despite the number of aircraft being controlled, everyone was very calm and happy – there was no apparent stress etc. If you’ve ever seen the film ‘Pushing Tin’, it’s very much the opposite of that!

The final thing was a quick video of a situation where a GA pilot with a transit and the controller had a misunderstanding, leading to the pilot overflying the threshold at Luton or Stansted (can’t remember which), as a Ryanair aircraft was landing – while nothing happened, had the Ryanair had to go around it would have climbed straight into the path of the light aircraft. The pilot had thought they were cleared to cross behind a departing aircraft, not the landing one). This was shown mainly to gauge our reactions as to what we would have thought we were cleared for based on the RT exchange. The NATS conclusion is it was a genuine misunderstanding, and they aren’t blaming the pilot, but using it as a training scenario in the future for the controllers to make sure they’re more clear.

All in all a very good day – something I would recommend to any pilot or student pilot to do…

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