State Your Intentions
There are different levels of radio service available to pilots flying in the UK: Air/Ground Radio, Flight Information Service and Air Traffic Control. If you fly into Military Air Traffic Zones, things work somewhat differently. I’ve spent quite some time speaking on the radio and am considered quite experienced. Here are my explanations of the different type of services along with real interactions which I have had.
Airfields with A/G Radio offer an information service with a radio operator who are not licensed and not under close CAA supervision. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by the word radio. It could be trained staff sitting in a tower at an unlicensed airfield. It could just be just some guy on a mobile radio with no other support. They will offer a basic information service and report known traffic to you.
“Enstone, this is November 666 Echo X-ray.”
No response. I frowned and after a few minutes, I called again.
“Enstone Radio, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, requesting radio check.”
This had been a fun trip but a chaotic last day on the island and we were late leaving. And now that finally everyone is bundled up into the plane and ready to go, the youngster on the radio isn’t responding. Technically, I didn’t have to request permission to start my engine but it’s generally the polite thing to do.
The last time we spent the weekend here, the guy on the radio called me just as I was entering the runway to let my know my son had left his bookbag in the cafeteria. Service like that is invaluable, I didn’t like to risk upsetting anyone. Better to wait until he responded. Still, it was frustrating to be sitting here waiting on someone who’d walked away from the mike.
I called a third time, no response. Had he gone for a cup of tea or what? Cliff frowned at me and I shrugged. I decided to try once more. This fourth call elicited a response: a confused voice came back over the radio.
“Um, are you talking to me?”
I winced. Who was playing with the radio, for god’s sake? That’s when Cliff’s mum piped up from the back seat.
“I don’t understand why you are saying Enstone Radio,” she said.
I started to snap back an answer when it sunk in. We were at Bembridge. Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. I’d been flying in and out of Enstone in Oxfordshire the previous week and we’d be landing there later today but right now? We weren’t there. I shouldn’t be trying to talk to them.
I keyed the mike, abashed. “Bembridge, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, requesting, uh … geography check.”
I could hear the relieved laughter as he responded. “November 666 Echo X-ray, confirmed, you are parked just outside of my window.”
“Thanks for that. Request start.”
“Nothing to affect,” he told me and we were finally on our way.
Flight Information Service
Airfields with FIS are an information air traffic support unit staffed by licensed Flight Information Service officers. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by the word Information. Their function is to assist pilots to operate safely by offering a traffic service and helping with information regarding weather and aerodrome details.
The tricky thing about Information stations is how they let you know what you should be doing without ever actually telling you what to do.
“Shobdon, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, inbound to you.”
“November 666 Echo X-ray, this is Shobdon Information, go ahead.”
“November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA32 inbound to you, I’m looking to join the circuit downwind for runway 09, right hand.”
I had already descended to 1,300 feet, too low for the manoeuvre that he was referring to. He wanted me to fly across the middle of the runway and then descend on the “dead side”, out of the way of the other traffic.
I couldn’t see the point, I was perfectly set up to simply turn right and join the circuit in another mile rather than cross over and turn left on the other side. And I certainly couldn’t do it from this height, it would be the equivalent of running across a road full of traffic.
He repeated the call, enunciating his words very clearly. “November 666 Echo X-ray, recommend an overhead join.”
I continued towards the airfield, frustrated and confused. The advice that the Officer was giving me didn’t make sense. But he was in a better position than I was to gauge the situation. I sighed and admitted it wouldn’t make that much difference to me. I might as well do it.
“November 666 Echo X-ray is climbing to 2,300 feet for overhead join.”
As I made the call, it suddenly clicked. I was turned around and in completely the wrong place. I said Runway 09 but I was heading for the join for Runway 27, that is, the same runway going the opposite direction. I couldn’t possibly join downwind for Runway 09 from my present position which is why he wanted me up and out of the way of his traffic.
I went overhead and joined downwind in a sensible manner, going the right way … much to the relief of Shobdon Information who were trying really hard not to tell me what to do.
Air Traffic Control
Airfields with an ATC service have an active control tower staffed by air traffic controllers and are under close CAA supervision. Only ATC are authorised to issue clearances. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by their function (Ground, Tower, Approach, Director, Radar). They offer a variety of services including control, flight information and traffic.
The flight from Guernsey to Alderney was only notable in its simplicity: it took longer to get everyone into the plane than it did to make the journey. Only as we landed did it get hectic.
“Backtrack and exit at Alpha.”
I always feel a faint Top Gun thrill at phrases like that which sound so complicated but are really straight-forward: permission to turn around and head back up the runway to the taxi-way marked with an A.
“Wilco,” I said with a knowing nod.
Except that having spun the plane around, I couldn’t find Alpha. There was a bit of a turn-in on my right which might be Alpha but there was no sign and it was really just a trail disappearing into the grass. With the wet weather I was worried about taking a wrong turn and getting stuck in the mud. It had happened before. I grabbed for my plate with a map of the airfield to try to work out where Alpha was.
“Turn right,” said an impatient voice on the radio. “And expedite, I’ve got another one coming in.” Two planes at the airfield at once, this must be a veritable traffic jam by Alderney standards. I bit my lip and turned the plane right onto the grass and paused.
“Carry on,” said the voice again. “Straight ahead, between the two markers. I take it you’ve never been here before?”
“Affirmative,” I said in my best professional pilot voice. Followed by “Sorry,” blowing away any semblance of radio competence.
“Just carry on straight. And expedite!”
I trundled forwards and made my way to where I could see other parked aircraft, hoping I was in the right place. The voice interrupted me.
“Pull forward to the blue markers, then face south and then west.”
I frowned as I pulled forward; was he trying to make it difficult?
“Which way is south,” I hissed at Cliff as I fumbled to get the map out again.
“Turn left,” he said. I turned then tried to picture a map in my head. If I am facing south then I’m looking towards Texas. California is west and on my right. Got it! I opened my eyes and looked around. “So west is to the right now, right?”
Cliff sighed at me. “Just use the Directional Indicator?”
I blushed. I used it all the time in the air but on the ground? Hadn’t occurred to me. I turned the plane until the big arrow on the DI pointed west.
“Just park there,” said the voice. The other plane landed and radio silence descended. It would probably be at least an hour before they see any further traffic. I shut the engine down.
Military Air Traffic Zones
It goes without saying that you should be unfailingly polite to any controller who has fighter jets to back him up. In the UK, the pilot should contact the controller either 15 nautical miles or 5 minutes flying time from a military boundary, whichever is sooner, requesting penetration. To enter the central area (Aerodrome Traffic Zone) you must receive permission and comply with the controller’s instructions.
My first run-in with the military was actually in France.
We had landed at an airfield for refuelling but they were having technical difficulties and informed us that they would not be able to offer fuel for the rest of the day. A quick glance at book showed us another airfield on route that listed AVGAS 100L and so we jumped into the plane and went straight there, plotting the route as we went.
“Cognac, this is November 666 Echo X-ray.”
“November 666 Echo X-ray, pass your message.”
I focused on making the perfect call. “November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA32 inbound to you, currently 20 miles to your northwest at 4,000 feet, request airfield information and joining instructions.”
There was a brief pause.
“November 666 Echo X-ray can you state your intentions?”
I was surprised by the question. “November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA 32 inbound to you for refuelling.”
“November 666 Echo X-ray are you aware that this is a military airfield?” Military airfield. Not for civilian use. Oops.
“Oh. Uh, no. Negative. I was not aware.”
“November 666 Echo X-ray I say again, can you state your intentions?”
I bit my lip but silence seemed likely to get a missile aimed in my direction.
“Er, I intend to ask your advice on where we could go for refuelling in the local area?”
The controller chuckled and agreed. He checked that it was not an emergency before recommending that I fly direct to Angoulême and even offered me a heading and a flight information service directly to the airfield. Anything, I guess, to keep me out of his zone.
Using the radio professionally has become an essential requirement in the modern aviation environment. Radio provides the interface between you and others, especially the Air Traffic Service Unit (ATSU) whose frequency you are using. You will make life more comfortable for yourself (and others) if you can use the radio efficiently.
When I first started my PPL, I was told that I had a real knack for using the radio. Getting my radio licence was the easiest part of the entire training. Little did I know that in the meantime, I would manage to mess up speaking to every different type of Air Traffic Service Unit in existence.
This was originally posted in November of 2008. My radio skills have not improved since then.
Read more about my flying experiences in my ebook: You Fly Like a Woman