Get Better On The Radio! Annabel Cook gets tips straight from the controllers
6 May 2023
Using the radio seems to be perennially at the top of many new pilots’ list of challenges. And, let’s face it, the UK has some of the most congested and challenging airspace in the world, where being confident with RadioTelephony (RT) can contribute to a stress-free flight.
Reading CAP413 will give you the ‘what to say’. But understanding the ‘why’ can be helpful in making confident calls. Some of those working on the other side of the radio share their advice about what makes for good RT in different situations.
Let’s approach this as a slightly unusual, but definitely achievable, flight, from Jersey to Blackbushe via a few stops…
Before pushing the PTT button, double-checking which type of air traffic service is provided at your location is vital. Our starting point is Jersey Airport, which has full air traffic control.
Alan Moss: Watch Manager: Training and Competence, Jersey Air Traffic Control Centre – shares his advice:
“In this scenario, you are a visitor to Jersey. So, remember to file your Flight Plan and submit a GAR before you leave us. If you call the tower more than 40 minutes before your FPL departure time, the electronic strip won’t be in front of the controller and it may take some time to be found in the computer.
“At an airport like Jersey, with full ATC, you must ask for – and follow – instructions at every step. Before making your first call, pick up the ATIS to get the airfield information. Remember that some places with full ATC will require you to call for engine start. Check the AIP if you’re not sure.”
“When you are ready to make your call, be ready to jot down the reply, as you will need to read back all the salient parts – the level, flight conditions and routing. Almost all VFR departure clearances include a squawk, which you must remember to read back, too. Our standard clearances and FPL routing are published online, as part of the Channel Island Airspace VFR Flight Planning Guide, so you should definitely familiarise yourself with this.”
G-XX Jersey Tower, cleared to leave the zone on track Cap de la Hague, not above 1,000ft VFR Squawk 36**
“You will normally be cleared to leave the CTR not above 1,000 ft and direct to a listed VRP. Some people find full ATC daunting, but don’t be afraid to ask for a higher level or a different routing; if we can help, we will.
Cleared to leave the zone on track Cap de la Hague, not above 1,000ft VFR Squawking 36**. Requesting 5,000ft direct ORIST G-XX
“On this trip, you have a long water crossing to Goodwood, so there are several good reasons to request a higher level. As well as giving you increased glide distance, your radio calls carry longer distances and radar can pick you up from further away. Useful if you have any emergency situations, such as engine issues.”
“A few minutes after getting airborne you will be transferred to Radar. For us, this is normally Jersey Approach and then Jersey Control. But if it’s quiet or staffing is short, we may transfer you straight to Jersey Control.”
Jersey Approach G-XXXX passing 900ft for 5,000ft on track ORIST.
“Points to remember are to listen for a few seconds after switching frequency, don’t just transmit straight away as you will likely step on someone. And know where the buttons are on your transponder, in case you are asked to squawk ident.
“The controller will call you when you are close to leaving controlled airspace and let you know the type of service available. As of June this year, Jersey ATC are not allowed to offer a Basic Service, so you will be offered ‘alerting service’ and the reporting points appropriate for your route. Again, remember that controllers are here to help. If you need weather information, for example, let us know and we will do our best to provide it.
“Once you do leave our airspace, you will probably be given a suggested frequency en route. If you have a preferred service, let us know when we are ready for you to leave our frequency so we can make a note in case overdue action is needed. At Jersey we rarely have time to hand you over, so be ready with all your information for your next call.”
Arriving at the mainland, our first destination is Goodwood. The airfield sits in fairly simple airspace, but it is busy and has multiple runways.
Janet Bendell, FISO at Goodwood Aerodrome, suggests:
“About 10 miles out is a good time to call an airfield. Listen out for a few minutes before pressing the PTT, to get an idea of the volume of traffic and, as always, to make sure you don’t step on other transmissions. Most airfields with an information service will need PPR, so we should have your details already. This means your initial call can be simplified, with just your callsign and where you are, which is helpful for traffic awareness.
“Similarly, at Goodwood, you will already have most of our details from your phone call for PPR, so – as an information service – we would give you basic airfield information and ask how you would like to join.
“At many smaller airfields, overhead joins are standard, but if it’s quiet then you could consider a different type of join. Remember that a FISO doesn’t control aircraft in the air, but we can make suggestions. If we do, there will be a good reason! It may be because the circuit is busy or there is other traffic around that might impact you. Or just to be helpful, for example, if there’s no circuit traffic, a suggestion to join by the most convenient leg of the circuit for you.”
G-XX, there is no known traffic if you would prefer to make a straight in approach.
“On final approach you must not land until you have been given the runway, with the phrase ‘land at your discretion’ as FISOs don’t give any clearances. A response of ‘Roger’, or acknowledging with your callsign is fine, but please say something if you change to a touch-and-go or if you go-around. After you’ve vacated and are well clear of the runway, you are under the control of the FISO. Remember that you do need permission to taxi, and that we need to know where you would like to taxi to – parking, fuel, or maintenance for example.”
“When you pay your landing fee it’s a good opportunity to check whether you need to book out, as it’s not always clear. When you do leave, you don’t need permission to start up. But you do, as on arrival, need permission to taxi. At some airfields it can be confusing where the run-up points and holds are. FISOs can see around the airfield, so if you’re not sure, ask. The S in FISO is for ‘service’ – let us help.”
G-XX, the run-up point is ahead of you to the left.
“Once you are airborne, you must remain on frequency while in the ATZ, but then it’s up to you. Your choice might depend on how busy it is. When you are ready to leave the frequency, it’s really important to let the FISO know you are going and which station you are switching to. We like to know people are safe and have a duty of care to the pilots who use our service, which means we have to track you down if you have changed without reporting.”
Our route now takes us westwards from Goodwood to Compton Abbas. It looks like complicated airspace, but a straight line on one frequency is easily achievable.
When you are away from Goodwood, just make a standard freecall to Solent Radar to request a zone transit. Remember that an initial VFR call should contain minimal information: who you are, what you want.
Solent Radar, G-XXXX, request zone transit.
You will need positive clearance from them before entering the CTA, and be prepared for radar vectors for them to keep you away from arriving and departing traffic. Also be prepared for fantastic views of Southampton Airport and the New Forest!
Janet re-joins us to share some guidance:
“Ten miles out is still a good ballpark for making your initial call, but some very small airfields might struggle to pick you up. Remember that air ground stations vary in how they are operated. Many use handheld radios and an Air Ground Radio Operator could well have a second role, such as airfield maintenance or working in the airfield café. If you don’t get a response to your call, double check the frequency and then try again in a few miles. A good tip is to listen out on frequency as you might be able to pick up the basic airfield information from other pilots on frequency.
“Air ground radio doesn’t provide control at all so, when you are inbound, it is likely you would be given no more than the runway in use and the QFE. It’s up to you to decide how to join, based on listening out for what other people are doing. As you make your calls you might just get ‘Roger’ or no response. On final, you should be given the current wind.”
G-XX, roger, surface wind 170 degrees at 8 knots. Traffic is a PA28 reported in the overhead.
“After landing, you might get a suggestion of where to park. You can, of course, ask for help if it’s not clear, but it’s up to you to make all the decisions. When you’re ready to leave, again, you’re not under any control from the radio operator. You might get the runway in use and the wind. Taxying safely and entry onto the runway is all your responsibility. It’s unlikely that you would get any traffic information. Just remember to make a call before you leave frequency and say which station you are calling next.”
Our next stop is at a private strip just south of Salisbury. Before leaving Compton Abbas, check any available information, for example to see if there are specific circuit procedures to follow at your destination, including for noise abatement.
The strip won’t be in the AIP, so ideally you would speak to the owner. You can also see if the strip has a website and what information is shared by SkyDemon.
There is no frequency allocated, so SAFETYCOM (135.480 MHz) will be in use. Because this is a shared frequency, it’s important to use the name of the airfield in all transmissions as, on a good day, calls can carry hundreds of miles and it can get very confusing.
Use the name at the start (fictional in our example below), so the relevant traffic knows to listen out, and at the end, in case your transmission is clipped. There might also be another aircraft on SAFETYCOM with a similar registration, so you could use your full callsign, just in case.
Smallfarm traffic, G-XXXX, 5 miles south-west, joining overhead for runway ZZ, Smallfarm.
CAP413 suggests that, as a minimum, you make calls when approaching the strip, when downwind, and on final. The calls should include the runway and circuit direction you plan to use.
As there will be no-one around to provide basic airfield information, you need to work it out for yourself. If Compton Abbas provided a QNH, you can use this to quickly calculate the QFE for the private strip.
If not, work out the QFE while you’re still on the ground there, and use the difference in elevation between the two airfields to calculate the QFE for the private strip. You could alternatively use the QNH by flying the circuit at the strip elevation plus circuit height. For example, 18 ft plus 800ft – fly at 1,000ft QNH.
Wind can be estimated based on the wind at Compton Abbas. You can also look for clues, such as the direction of any smoke or steam that you see en route. If you decide to go around on final, make a call on SAFETYCOM to let local traffic know your plans.
After landing, make sure you park well clear of the runway. Check how firm the ground is before leaving your aircraft for too long. Departure is similar to arrival. Listen out for other traffic on SAFETYCOM, and fit in with it safely, and remember to ‘top and tail’ all your calls with the strip’s name.
Smallfarm traffic, G-XXXX, backtracking for departure, runway 23, Smallfarm.
The final leg of our flight takes us north-east through the Boscombe Down/Middle Wallop CMATZ to Blackbushe Airport.
Fg Off David Voller, ATCO from 78 Squadron RAF, gives his advice for dealing with transiting military airspace:
“Crossing a MATZ is like any other airspace crossing. While it’s Class G, and in theory you don’t need to talk to anyone, we advise that you do. We are here to help and it’s straightforward. In this instance, while the airspace might initially look complicated, you only need to talk to Boscombe. They are the authority for the whole zone.
“Because you are taking off from a private strip that’s very close to the CMATZ, I would recommend one of two options. The simplest is to make a phone call while you’re on the ground. That way you have time to chat about what you want to do and agree a plan that works for everyone. Alternatively, you could route away from the CMATZ initially, to give yourself more time to call Boscombe before you reach the airspace.
“On your initial call, we need your callsign and your routing – whether you would like to cross the ATZ, for example. You could say that you would like to transit west to east or north to south. Or, in this case, pick a sensible reporting point on either side of the MATZ, such as Alderbury to Whitchurch. You should also say what service you would like.”
G-XX, MATZ penetration approved, squawk 1234.
“Once the controller has identified you from your squawk, they will give you the service as requested. If workload allows, they might then offer you a transit from your current position direct Whitchurch. If you are routing through the ATZ – and why not, as you’ll get a great view – they might ask you to report overhead. This is usually because the radar is on the airfield and there’s a ‘cone of silence’ directly over the top where they can’t see you.”
“We try not to apply restrictions, on vertical height for example. But if there is some traffic, you might be asked if you can maintain a height or a heading. Remember that it’s Class G outside the ATZ though, so if you can’t comply then let us know. We are there to help as much as possible.”
G-XX, descend to height 1,500ft, QFE 1011 hectopascals.
“In some situations, it’s easier to use plain English than to try to stick to CAP413. In fact, much of the time I do just this. The more we understand about what you are planning to do, the more we can predict and expect. Equally, if we’re not busy and we can help you expedite your route, we will offer it. Always ask for what you want in the first instance and if we can help, we will.
“Once you are through our airspace, if it’s busy, we would want to move you off the frequency as quickly as possible. This is as much about ensuring you have a safe service on a quieter frequency as it is about our workload. If it’s so busy that you are struggling to fit a call in, and you are flying VFR, then a good option is to change frequency to another service – in this case, Blackbushe – and let them know. They will phone us so we don’t worry about whether you are ok. We don’t recommend this if you are under radar control though.”
Our final stop is at Blackbushe Airport, which sits in a patch of busy airspace, with RAF Odiham and Farnborough Airport to the south and London to the east.
Phil Wickwar, Tower Manager at Blackbushe, shares its procedures for GA traffic:
“On this flight, you will be coming in from the west, which means you won’t need to deal with Farnborough. As with other airfields, make your first call to us about ten miles out. We will ask you to report at the ATZ and join dead side, which is to the north.
“We would give a squawk – 7010 – because you will be entering the Farnborough Local Flying Area, the LFA, which is class D airspace. This is activated every morning when we phone Farnborough to tell them we are open.”
“If the wind is favourable then, coming in from the west, you could request a straight in for Runway 07. As long as traffic allows, we are happy to accommodate this and would ask you to report at a four-mile final. Although we don’t have a left-hand circuit, you could also join left base for 07 as there are no conflicts with noise abatement procedures. If you joined this way, you wouldn’t enter the LFA so we won’t ask for a squawk. If we are using Runway 25 though, you would always enter the LFA, so we would definitely give you a squawk.”
G-XX squawk 7010, report downwind.
“We ask for PPR so, once you are booked in, we will have a strip ready and waiting for you on the board. We can get very busy, so we prefer to keep the airwaves clear through having short calls. So, as with Goodwood, you can use a brief initial call, with just your callsign and where you are. However, unlike Goodwood, we have heavy traffic, such as small jets. These get vectored into us from Farnborough, so usually report on a base leg. It’s worth having this in mind, particularly when you are inbound.”
G-XX, traffic for you is an Eclipse joining right base for 07.
“Odiham, to our south-west, doesn’t tend to cause any challenges for us, so we don’t have a direct line with them in the same way we do with Farnborough. We generally recommend that Blackbushe traffic avoids the Odiham MATZ by coming in from north-west.”
|AIP||Aeronautical Information Publication|
|ATC||Air Traffic Control|
|ATIS||Automatic Terminal Information Service|
|ATZ||Aerodrome Traffic Zone|
|FISO||Flight Information Service Officer|
|GAR||General Aviation Report|
|PTT||Press To Talk|
|PPR||Prior Permission Required|
|QFE||Atmospheric pressure at aerodrome elevation|
|QNH||Atmospheric pressure at mean sea level|
|VFR||Visual Flight Rules|
|VRP||Visual Reference Points|