Monday, June 21, 2010

Pushing Tin

On March 17th I had the chance to visit the Air Traffic Control Facility at Newcastle International Airport. The reason for the visit was to become more familiar with the local procedures and the airspace as I was in the process of trying to find a flying school in the North East of England where I could complete my PPL training. There was additional interest due to the fact that I have spent the last two years flying our of the airport on a weekly basis as self loading freight on business trips with my day job.

The accompanying video to my visit can be found on below.

The Facility
The new ATC facility opened in 2007. The facility has moved away from the terminal buildings allowing a better view of runway 07/25 and the surrounding taxiways. The new facility is split into two areas. There is a Radar/Approach room on the lower floor and the Tower Visual Control Room (called the tower) located at the top. The airport is served by Easyjet, Ryanair, British Airways, BMI, Jet2, Thomson, Emirates and a few others. But as you will read below, depending on the day of the week, the controllers can handle a wide range of military traffic.
I knew the facility was only a couple of years older, but I was not expecting the equipment to be as state of the art as it was. Must admit, I was expecting the scopes to look much more conventional, rather than modern LCD monitors. There are three workstations forming a semicircle. The Director Controller (125.825 MHz) sits on the right hand side and the Radar/Military Controller (124.375/284.6 MHz) sits in the centre. On the left hand side there is a work station where the Assistant Traffic Controller spends his/her time. During quiet hours, the Director frequency is normally not manned. On this particular day, both the Director and Radar freqs were in use. The Director controller was handling the inbounds into Newcastle. The Radar Controller was handing the civilian outbounds. The Radar Controller was also working the military frequency 284.6 MHz.
Due to the location of the new Tower, it's difficult to see aircraft parked on the domestic stands. But state of the art monitoring equipment allows the Tower Controller to monitor all ground movement in reduce visibility operations. There are three workstations shared between the assistant, ground control and the Tower frequency (119.7 MHz). The ground frequency was not used during my visit. In fact, I believe it's only used early in the morning when several aircraft are looking for clearance at the start of a the day. The Tower was less hectic than the radar room. During my stay up top, the daily Emirates A330 arrived (UAE35). One of the flights that I frequently travel on with business also departed.
Airspace/Radar Plot
The majority of departing and arriving traffic will use the Papa18 (P18) airway that is south west of the airfield. Other traffic will route either North or South (normally on track Ottringham which is located in Humberside). There are several over flights largely comprising of Transatlantic traffic going in or out of Europe. There aircraft are under the control of Swanick or Scottish Control and don't tend to interfere with Newcastle ATC operations. The Controllers use a state of the art communication system that allows them to talk to other controllers around the country by simply pressing a button. The controllers spend their idle time when not talking to the pilots on another line with other facilities, e.g. Leeming, Durham Tees Valley, Scottish Control. I have a Mode S receiver at home which allows me to monitor aircraft that are transmitting ADS-B signals. So the first time I saw the radar screen at Newcastle, I was very surprised at seeing no callsigns on the aircraft tags. The data tag shows only the squawk number and height readout. The software would need upgrading in order to display callsigns. The Controllers use normal flight progress strips for tracking the aircraft progress/intentions.
Military Traffic
I probably visited on one of the busier days in term of traffic mixture. There were two major military excercises going on around the north east of England. The Radar/Military Controller monitoring 124.375/284.6 Mhz had to co-ordinate a mixture of different traffic ranging from Apache's out low to the west, F-15's up north, Hercules requesting to operate within the P18 corridor near Leeds and traffic that was transitioning the corridor that lies north west of Newcastle (Hexham Gap). One of the highlights was a Eurofighter Typhoon practising a simulated hijack escort of an airliner. The hijacked aircraft was played by a Hawk (PIRATE12). The Typhoon (GUNFIGHTER1) escorted the airliner to the ILS and then broke off and went on-route. The Hawk received a talk down/PAR approach from the Director Controller.

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