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Is it me... or the UK ATC system?

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Is it me... or the UK ATC system?

Old 7th Apr 2011, 16:54
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Join Date: Sep 2009
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Is it me... or the UK ATC system?

I'm just wondering if any of you guys/gals who fly more frequently in the UK have any advice... Let's say IFR, piston engine aircraft, 10,000 feet, that type of operation.

Just to set the stage, I flew quite a bit of IFR in mainland Europe and the UK many moons ago (1990s) and nowadays I occasionally ferry airplanes, typically between the US and Europe.

No offense intended to the British (outside of their ATC I really love the place), but I have to say the UK ATC gives me more grief than anyone else between Pisco and Wroclaw. Here's how my latest trip went, but it's fairly representative of most of them:

1) Filed my IFR flightplan with EuroControl accepted route from Wick to Biggin Hill.

2) Flew about 80 miles of my planned route and then no part of it for the rest of the trip. (this is fairly similar in mainland Europe)

3) Every other controller asks me "what kind of service are you requesting?" How about the "I don't want to run into any other aircraft" service. I know we are all aware of limitations of ground based infrastructure and controlled airspace, but outside of those issues, these various service levels just seem pointless.

4) I got perhaps 8 to 12 different transponder codes between Wick and Biggin Hill. That's more codes than I got on the entire trip from Quebec City to Scotland!

5) At one point near NewCastle (don't land there after 8:00 pm) a controller tells me to squawk 7000 and go to the next frequency. Like an idiot I comply, only to be told by the next controller to maintain VFR clear of controlled airspace. Took a few minutes to sort out the idea that I was on an active IFR flight plan on an assigned route.

Just to set the stage some more: the weather was severe clear from Wick to about 60 miles north of London, at which point it went to solid IFR due to a weak stationary front over the English Channel.

6) I pick up the ATIS at Biggin Hill well in advance. Weather was ceiling 600 broken with reasonable visibility. The ATIS gave me runway in use but no approach information. The ATIS stated RY03 in use but the only approach that I could find was ILS21. It's not above me to screw up an approach plate or have overlooked something in the trip kit, but I planned for ILS21.

7) I requested vectors to ILS21 and the controller said he'd pass on the request. The next several controllers gave me headings to fly for traffic purposes, but still no confirmation as to the approach.

8) About 25 miles out or so a controller tells me "fly direct Lambourne". I said "I'm sorry I thought we were being radar vectored, can you give us the identifier for Lambourne". (I did try to get familiar with the area before the flight, but couldn't immediately place Lambourne).

His response: "NEGATIVE". And then he proceeds to rattle off nonstop instructions to a handful of other aircraft, no one able to get a word in edgewise.

Now I was getting a wee bit unhappy. It took me a moment to find Lambourne and punch it in the GPS.

9) This same controller now turns me over to Thames radar who finally confirms that I'll be vectored for ILS21. If he had given me anything else I would have been in trouble trying to change my approach setup at that late of a stage. By the way, the ILS gave me a 9 knot tailwind, but I'd rather take that than circling with a 600 ft ceiling any day.

10) The Thames radar controller (who was not busy) vectored me through the final approach course and then back. He cleared me for the approach on my second intercept FROM ABOVE THE GLIDESLOPE something like 4.5 miles out! He did almost immediately thereafter offer to take me back around and vector me for a proper intercept, but as I quickly got ground contact I just made a steep approach to about 500 feet and got stabilized for a reasonable landing.

Sorry to fuss and complain, and I'm not saying any of these issues by themselves would be a problem, but put it all together and I'd have to say the extra workload is a potential safety issue.

Finally, I understand the system's priority is airliners and they do a good job at that, but GA airplanes flying IFR are comparatively few and far between, so it's not that much of a system resource.

Sorry for venting, any suggestions for an easier cruise over the UK greatly appreciated!
wwelvaert is offline  
Old 7th Apr 2011, 17:24
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Before any I give any response, what route and level did you file? Airplane type?
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 18:16
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The airplane was a Seneca III, filed at F090 if I recall correctly. My filed (and initially cleared) route was via airways down to the vicinity of London and then a couple of navigation points, I don't have the exact details in front of me. After Aberdeen I was just given various points to navigate point-to-point.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 18:38
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Flew about 80 miles of my planned route and then no part of it for the rest of the trip.
Did you leave controlled airspace of your own volition? If you did......


Every other controller asks me "what kind of service are you requesting?"
If outside CAS this is EXACTLY what the controller MUST ask you.Have a look here.

Air Space Safety: ATSOCAS 917

the only approach that I could find was ILS21
Thats the only ILS there.

http://www.ead.eurocontrol.int/eadba...2010-12-16.pdf

The Thames radar controller (who was not busy)
Sorry but you have NO idea from listening to one frequency what is going on.


I did try to get familiar with the area before the flight, but couldn't immediately place Lambourne
You didn't try too hard then.If I was flying into the London TMA I sure as heck would have a good working knowledge of VOR's to which I may be sent.

Is it me... or the UK ATC system?
Seems like it's you
eastern wiseguy is offline  
Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:01
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I can understand where the original poster is coming from.

Sometimes UK pilots have a tendency to think that their ATC system is best and should be a role-model for the rest of the world. I will say that generally speaking UK controllers are indeed very good. However, the UK system has lot's of differences to ICAO and I agree that it doesn't help to have country specific terms such as basic service, deconfliction service etc.

Imagine if we had to put of with those kind of national differences everywhere. Impossible. Same for expecting a foreign pilot to immediately recognise the name of a VOR and find it on the chart. I think the least ATC could do would be to offer the three letter code.

Also being on vectors when in the terminal area only to be told to go to a VOR (which may or may not be on the STAR you were expecting can be surprising.

Same thing for "remain outside controlled airspace" when on an IFR flightplan.

Again, Britisch ATC is generally world class but the procedures and phraseology differ considerably from ICAO standard and are nowhere near as intuitive and user-friendly as in the US.

Having said all that, flying into major airports is easy in the UK, it's those smaller places surrounded by uncontrolled airspace that I find a bit more unusual.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:18
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Incredible that this guy is let loose in Controlled Airspace!!
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:31
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Agreed, H-D.

In fact, one of the significant aspects of his report is that it gives the impression he did not understand when he was, and was not, in controlled airspace, and what the ramifications were...

Yes, UK ATC has it's idiosyncrasies, but this is not surprising given the volume of traffic and density of aerodromes.

There is no excuse for failing to prepare for flight, and a pilot who doesn't prepare, and then posts a series of complaints such as those above, only succeeds in highlighting his own inadequacies...
Kerling-Approsh KG is offline  
Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:34
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Incredible that this guy is let loose in Controlled Airspace!!
I have no desire to get into a proving contest about flying credentials, but will reiterate I haven't encountered these issues in any other ATC system.

Also, I believe I asked for suggestions, please elaborate what you would have done differently.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:44
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HD, I find it even more incredible that Brits have the nerve to call such "service' Air Traffic control! It needs to be explained to you folks that you are down there because we are up here, not the other way around! Its interesting to note that when various UK airlines are in our airspace the contollers go to great pains to give the three leter idents of the VORs to them.Another thing you might like to consider is the incredible variations on spoken English that a non Brit is suposed to understand when flying from the North of Scotland to the South Coast of the UK, you might think you dont have bloody impossible accents, but belive me you really do, as for the multiple standard presure levels, we wont even go there.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:46
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Geez. Cut the guy some slack. What if you operated in a country where place names and pronunciation are not familiar? It's not as easy as you think. Perhaps you should step outside your little world and try it.

I operate mostly in the US and believe it or not I don't have all the VOR names and idents memorized. Corporate guys flying to an unfamiliar destinations often ask for 3 letter identifiers to clarify as controllers assume everyone knows their local nav aids by name. Sounds like the difference is that our ATC guys are happy to help.

Just flew KSJC-EGLF non-stop, 9.5 hours, and the only time ATC seemed out of the ordinary was about 4 miles from destination and this business about "...say type of services requested".

It's a unique procedure. There are many others around the world.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:48
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To "wiseguy":

I didn't leave controlled airspace on my own account, but on the other hand once the controllers near Aberdeen started to give me direct point-to-point navigation (as opposed to my original clearance via airways) I also didn't object. I understand that the service levels are regulatory requirements in the UK but it's still quircky, not something I've seen elsewhere.

You didn't try too hard then.If I was flying into the London TMA I sure as heck would have a good working knowledge of VOR's to which I may be sent.
I disagree. In a GPS equipped aircraft most of the points I was given to navigate to were not VORs but arbitrarty intersections. There are many around London. Lambourne was not on my original flightplan and if I recall correctly (I left the tripkits with my customer) it's also not a fix on the approach. To be given an arbitrary point to navigate to when you're that close to your destination instead of being told what approach to expect simply is not good practice.

I agree with your point about the Thames radar controller.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:52
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I believe I asked for suggestions, please elaborate what you would have done differently.
How about stayed with the original plan as filed...or planned comprehensively what you really wanted to do.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:57
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I thought about making some suggestions for the OP, but really, it's impossible to know where to start...

I'd 'cut some slack' over not knowing where Lambourne was, if it seemed that he had looked at the plates for Biggin and knew there was only one precision approach, or if he had read up on the services he might get OCAS, or if he had posted asking for some help without making a criticism of it.

Clunkdriver, have you any idea how long your slot delays would be into UK airports if the ATC service wasn't the very best? Have you any idea how many incidents occur in UK airspace specifically involving N registered business jets, whose crews have not briefed properly on the procedures?

And have you any idea how busy ATC positions like Thames can get? RTF loading is no indicator at all of workload. A controller might have fifteen aircraft on and be doing nothing, or have three on, and be shovelling like mad!
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 19:59
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There is no excuse for failing to prepare for flight, and a pilot who doesn't prepare, and then posts a series of complaints such as those above, only succeeds in highlighting his own inadequacies...
Again, I don't want to get into a contest. When a controller gives me a fix to navigate to that is not on my original flightplan, I'll accept it when possible. I don't see any need to be difficult about that.

But not knowing what approach to expect, getting a slew of transponder codes, being given an ILS intercept from above the glideslope, and so forth has nothing to do with my flight planning.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 20:06
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wwelvaert,

You couldn't post the route you filed here could you? It would help clarify.

Some of the other posts, such as HD's, aren't helpful.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 20:07
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if it seemed that he had looked at the plates for Biggin and knew there was only one precision approach, or if he had read up on the services he might get OCAS
Maybe my point was not well made:

I looked at the approach plates for Biggin Hill and by those I believed (correctly) that there was only an ILS approach to RY21. Once I picked up the ATIS which stated 600 foot ceilings and RY03 in use I began to second-guess myself. Maybe I overlooked something?

I can only speak for myself but with 600 ft ceilings and light (9kt) winds I find it unusual that they would state the runway in use was one without instrument approaches.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 20:15
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Roffa:

I don't have the complete filed route in front of me, but my initial clearance was:

"Cleared via W4D P18 maintain F090 squawk 5434."
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 20:28
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wwelvaert

First of all, a big 'well done!' for having opted for the straight-in on RWY21 with a light tailwind instead of circling (at night?) with a 600ft cloudbase. There is some gently rising ground to the southwest, as I remember.

Second of all, I can understand why you were disappointed by the service you received that night.

I agree with 733 driver.

As a 'born and bred' UK pilot/instructor/examiner I used to think that the UK way of doing things was not only the best way, but the only way!

Then I started flying on worldwide routes and my eyes were opened. I am now still of the opinion that the UK controllers are, for the most part, equal to or better than any others. BUT, as already mentioned, it's the UK system that is hopelessly complicated and user-unfriendly.

It seems that the procedures are designed to serve the interests of the local ATC and not the intended user - the PILOT. I could probably list several examples but as I'm about to fall into bed, I'll start with one of my favourites:

1. Transition Altitude. Why does it have to differ from airport to airport? Why is it 3000ft outside CAS (unless you're beneath the LTMA of course when it's 6000ft!)

A few years ago, departing southbound from Oxford in a jet, the Trans Alt was 3000ft and the initial clearance was to join CAS north of Compton at FL50. Called London, only to be told to maintain 5000ft! Compton is just on the edge of the LTMA, so the London controller assumed a Trans Alt of 6000ft. (I understand the Trans Alt at EGTK is now 6000ft, so this particular hole in the cheese has been plugged.) After a rapid re-setting of the altimeters we adjusted by a few hundred feet and all was well, but what on earth did this achieve?

Any pilot who has flown a high-performance aircraft will tell you the dangers of a low Trans Alt. The CAA keep bleating on about level busts, yet blithely ignore the procedures such as BHX SIDs that invite just such a bust (Trans Alt 4000ft and initial SID stop-height of FL60). Try flying that at 3000fpm with a QNH of 983mb. Yes, that's mb, not hPa as adopted by everyone else outside N. America!

Here's another:

2. 'Turn onto 240 degrees, when established on the 27L localiser descend with the glidepath'. Why not 'cleared for the approach' as in every other country? Do pilots need reminding not to descend on the glidepath before being established on the localiser?

This terminology is, of course, an improvement over the old one: 'Flight 123, turn onto 240 degrees and establish on the localiser, 27L.'

'Flt 123, localiser established, 27L.'

'Roger Flt 123, descend with the glidepath'.

Ah yes, but what about that helicopter flying down the Thames? He may be in our way, so we can't be cleared for the approach just yet! In 39 years of flying, I can not recall ever NOT being cleared to descend on the glidepath. Where is the justification for these arcane procedures? Is our accident/incident record so much better in the UK than elsewhere?

The US system isn't perfect by any means, but I like the way that busy parts of the flight are generally kept simple for the pilot:

SID? Fly runway heading to 5000ft and expect vectors to filed fix.

G/A? Fly runway heading to 3000ft and expect vectors.

Keeps the workload where it belongs; on the ground!

In an ideal world, the US controllers would be trained in the UK and the UK controllers would all spend at least a year at ORD. And the UK airspace system and procedures would be designed with the pilots' needs uppermost.

Rant over; off to bed! (Standing by for some 'incoming' from Kerling-Approsh KG and HEATROW DIRECTOR!)
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 20:50
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Hi wwelvaert,

I'm a UK based pilot and I wouldn't take issue with anything you've described. I think some of the contributers here are being slightly disingenuous when they suggest that you are in someway at fault.

1) Filed my IFR flightplan with EuroControl accepted route from Wick to Biggin Hill.

2) Flew about 80 miles of my planned route and then no part of it for the rest of the trip. (this is fairly similar in mainland Europe)
This is fairly typical when transiting the UK North/South. I have flown London to Scotland all on a HDG, no airways at all - and that is in the upper flight levels. At 090 you will be off airways for some or most of your route.

3) Every other controller asks me "what kind of service are you requesting?" How about the "I don't want to run into any other aircraft" service. I know we are all aware of limitations of ground based infrastructure and controlled airspace, but outside of those issues, these various service levels just seem pointless.
It is what it is - understaffed and underfunded. To be honest you are fortunate you were offered a comprehensive service outside CAS. I have been dumped out of CAS in the NW corner of London, doing 250kts and heading towards Oxford with a "squawk 7000 and freecall..." No chance of saying, "hang on a minute, I don't want to go VFR right now..."

4) I got perhaps 8 to 12 different transponder codes between Wick and Biggin Hill. That's more codes than I got on the entire trip from Quebec City to Scotland!

5) At one point near NewCastle (don't land there after 8:00 pm) a controller tells me to squawk 7000 and go to the next frequency. Like an idiot I comply, only to be told by the next controller to maintain VFR clear of controlled airspace. Took a few minutes to sort out the idea that I was on an active IFR flight plan on an assigned route.
I don't know about these - probably bad luck and a busy controller who perhaps didn't notice your IFR f/p. You evidently took it in your stride.

6) I pick up the ATIS at Biggin Hill well in advance. Weather was ceiling 600 broken with reasonable visibility. The ATIS gave me runway in use but no approach information. The ATIS stated RY03 in use but the only approach that I could find was ILS21. It's not above me to screw up an approach plate or have overlooked something in the trip kit, but I planned for ILS21.

7) I requested vectors to ILS21 and the controller said he'd pass on the request. The next several controllers gave me headings to fly for traffic purposes, but still no confirmation as to the approach.
This bit is a bit confusing. I guess BQH is idiosyncratic - but there is only the one approach to RWY 21. 9kts of tail is just about within the cababilities of most commercial traffic. It is hard to see exactly who could get in on 03 since there was a 600ft cloud base - so I see your point I guess. The controllers weren't giving you vectors for the approach (as you mention) but steers for your course. You needed to cross the inbound approach to LCY and the climbout from STN. It's a busy bit of airspace.

8) About 25 miles out or so a controller tells me "fly direct Lambourne". I said "I'm sorry I thought we were being radar vectored, can you give us the identifier for Lambourne". (I did try to get familiar with the area before the flight, but couldn't immediately place Lambourne).

His response: "NEGATIVE". And then he proceeds to rattle off nonstop instructions to a handful of other aircraft, no one able to get a word in edgewise.

Now I was getting a wee bit unhappy. It took me a moment to find Lambourne and punch it in the GPS.
This is simply a grumpy, unhelpful (and possibly overworked) controller. Of course you don't have to know the names of all VORs in the UK. I've been on the receiving end of this sort of bullshit myself. Everybody's approach will be different. Me - I'd have been back on, using up airtime until he gave me the LAM that he should have provided in the first place. YMMV

9) This same controller now turns me over to Thames radar who finally confirms that I'll be vectored for ILS21. If he had given me anything else I would have been in trouble trying to change my approach setup at that late of a stage. By the way, the ILS gave me a 9 knot tailwind, but I'd rather take that than circling with a 600 ft ceiling any day.

10) The Thames radar controller (who was not busy) vectored me through the final approach course and then back. He cleared me for the approach on my second intercept FROM ABOVE THE GLIDESLOPE something like 4.5 miles out! He did almost immediately thereafter offer to take me back around and vector me for a proper intercept, but as I quickly got ground contact I just made a steep approach to about 500 feet and got stabilized for a reasonable landing.
It was only Thames who can vector you for BQH - it's just the way it is. Biggin is established OCAS with no more than an overlarge ATZ to protect it. Changing approach setup at the last minute can be a feature of European aviation I'm afraid. I know of a crew that had six RWY changes inbound to Schipol one time.

Thames sometimes vector through on purpose (because they are also controlling perpendicular traffic into LCY, and sometimes they do it by accident - often not helped by crew charging around at 240kts 8 miles out of Biggin. The 4.5 miles is standard for Biggin. If I remember correctly the GS comes in at about 1800ft! There is no real procedure for BQH, it's just vectors to a low-level intercept on the ILS.

All in all it seems you picked a fine day to (leave me Lucille) do a tricky little route.

It's not just you - but you are flying at an unusual level, at an unusual speed, in unusual airspace. Like any trip - whether it goes easy or tricky can be simply a matter of luck. You had a bit of luck against you (but nothing you couldn't handle) coupled with unfamiliar procedures where the people you were talking to expected you to be familiar. It's not a rule that you have to know - they just expected that you did.

Sounds like you should be pleased with yourself that it passed off uneventful.
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Old 7th Apr 2011, 20:52
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W,

Hats off to you, mate. On two counts.

Firstly, on a successful flight southbound despite the system.

Secondly, for having the 'lef' to come on here looking for background to the system knowing the defensive, sanctimonious crap you'd get masquerading as a serious response. Or did that come as a surprise?

eckhard,

Good post.
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