London airport transits

On Friday 15th May, the government announced that recreational general aviation, where it complies with social distancing (i.e. solo flights or flights with members of your household only), was now allowed.

Up until this point, my aircraft (G-AVWT) had sat idle, apart from a single ‘Engine Health’ flight, to protect the engine from corrosion (in accordance with CAA guidance).

Once I read the announcement, I decided I would (weather permitting) go flying today (Monday 18th), and started thinking about what ‘mission’ to do. Before COVID-19, I would normally look to go to a destination I’d either not been to before, or that had a decent cafe etc – obviously that isn’t an option at the moment.

One idea that occurred, is that now would be an excellent time if I wanted to get any transits of controlled airspace over the busier London airports, given the almost total shutdown of commercial aviation (freight flights are still operating, and the occasional passenger flight, but that’s it) – taking this to its logical conclusion, I decided my plan would be to try and get transits of as many London airports as I could in one flight.

With that in mind, I planned a route – it wasn’t really practical to include London City, and I couldn’t accept a transit directly overhead anyway (as it wouldn’t be compliant with the glide clear rule, requiring me to always be able to glide clear of built-up areas in the event of an engine failure), so I decided the airfields I’d aim for were, in order: Stansted, Southend, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, with a route as follows:

Gatwick and Heathrow in particular would, if I got the transits, be new to me (I’ve transited the others at least once before). The waypoint marked between Gatwick and Heathrow is actually my parents house, so as an added bonus if I pulled it off I’d get to route overhead them!

As good airmanship, I also put together backup plans for each, so I knew what I was doing if I were refused the transit – these were as follows:

  • Stansted – route around the zone to the South, remaining below 2000′, and avoiding the TMZ (or if for any reason I had to enter it, descending below 1500′ first). Once round, route through the gap between Stansted and City, out towards Southend.
  • Southend – route to the West of the Southend zone
  • Gatwick – route round the zone to the West, then head Northbound
  • Heathrow – this one is the most complicated, the first choice would be to get a transit across Farnborough’s airspace, but failing that it would involve routing out to Alton, and then Northbound from there
  • Luton – route to the East of the zone through ‘Mig Alley’ between the Luton and Stansted zones

If I’d actually had to take all of these backup plans, the route would have ended up something like this:

Next up, while reviewing NOTAMs (NOtice To AirMen) ahead of the flight, I came across this:

This seemed a reasonable suggestion, however it turns out finding the addresses to actually be able to send flightplans to the relevant agencies is nigh on impossible – they’re not listed in the AIP anywhere. After querying with a few knowledgeable folks, I was advised that all the agencies I cared about wouldn’t actually process a flightplan sent to them in this way anyway, thus even if I could have found the addresses, it would be an entire waste of time (the suspicion being whoever raised the NOTAM was well-intentioned, but perhaps not knowledgeable about what would actually happen). As such, I didn’t file a flightplan in the end.

So, after sorting out a few bits of work in the morning, I headed to the airport, and got G-AVWT ready for flight. I departed from Cambridge, and once I was approaching Royston, changed to Essex Radar (the controlling authority for Stansted) – the first thing I heard was light aircraft that were clearly inside the zone, so this was a good sign. After a standard bit of back and forth on the radio, I was cleared to cross the Stansted zone “not above 2400 feet”, and routing via the 22 threshold – so that’s 1/5 then 🙂

As I approached the airport, the first thing I noticed was the sheer number of parked up jet aircraft (mostly Ryanair and Easyjet), a pattern that was to be repeated later:

After crossing out the zone, I switched to Southend, who happily cleared me on my requested routing via their overhead – so 2/5 now:

Leaving Southend, I continued South. I decided to route slightly further South than originally planned, just so I wasn’t tight on the corner of the Gatwick zone. A quick call to Gatwick, and my transit was approved (3/5), with “no clearance limit”, a sign that the airport was effectively idle at the moment (normally with an airport such as this you will get cleared to e.g. the Southern airfield boundary, and then be given a further clearance to cross over the runway / approach / climbout later). Passing Gatwick I saw a number of British Airways aircraft, along with Easyjet and TUI ones:

As I was approaching the Northern edge of the Gatwick zone, the controller asked what my planned routing was next – I explained and he then helpfully coordinated the transit with the Heathrow Radar controller (this was much appreciated as it was always going to be the busiest part of the flight, as it’s a relatively short distance between the Northern edge of the Gatwick zone and the Southern edge of Heathrow, so I was anticipating a lot of radio work, as well as wanting to try and route via my parents).

The Heathrow controller cleared me directly through the zone on a Northbound routing (4/5) – this is very much not normal for Heathrow (there is a defined ‘inner area’ that you normally will not get cleared through without prior arrangement – hence my expected routing via Weybridge, Ascot and Burnham), but as there was only a single arrival and departure in the entire time I was passing, I presume the controller didn’t mind routing me through.

The views on this leg were incredible – I suspect short of becoming a commercial pilot, I will never be able to fly that close to Heathrow again, and the views out my right hand side of London were also something to behold:

These views are also incidentally the source of my biggest self debrief point – it was questionable at some stages as to whether I was compliant with glide clear requirements during this leg – as I hadn’t planned on getting this transit, I hadn’t thought about it beforehand, and once I realised in the air, I decided it was safest to continue on than try and turn back or what have you. I should add this is absolutely not the controller’s fault, they are not responsible for assessing these restrictions – I should have refused the clearance and requested one to the West of the airport instead if available.

Approaching the Northern edge of the Heathrow zone, the controller again helpfully passed my details to Luton. On leaving the zone, I had to make a fairly prompt turn to avoid flying through the Elstree airfield ATZ (Aerodrome Traffic Zone), but with this completed Luton cleared me into the zone (5/5 yey!), routing towards Hyde. As I entered, they then asked if I could give them my best speed to the 26 threshold, as there was an aircraft establishing on a 12nm final – this done (a decent 130 knots indicated), I crossed over, and was then shortly given own navigation back to Cambridge:

Arriving back at Cambridge, it was a nice simple downwind join to land, and complete an epic flight – one that I suspect (and hope!) I will not have an opportunity to do again.