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…