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Foreign air traffic procedures

Although international GA flight is very rewarding, sometimes the combination of different requirements for customs, PPR etc and now of course Covid-19, can seem a hassle. From an airspace and air traffic control point of view though, flying in Europe is normally straightforward, in fact often more so than in the UK.

But there are still some differences in the application of the ICAO rules of the air and airspace procedures that are worth being aware of. So, in no particular order and by no means exhaustive, here are a selection you might come across in the major European states compared to the UK. Reading national AIPs or VFR flight guides will give country specific information.

Flight Information Service

The ICAO definition of a ‘Flight Information Service’ is a service provided for the purpose of giving advice and information useful for the safe and efficient conduct of flight. In most parts of the world, if you are talking to an air traffic unit but not within controlled airspace, a Flight Information Service (FIS) is what you ask for. There is a loosely defined list in ICAO Annex 11 (Air Traffic Services) of what a FIS should offer, which notably includes information on collision hazards and relevant weather information. In most places, FIS is provided by regional air traffic service units.

The separation of the FIS concept into three different levels – ‘Basic’, ‘Traffic’ and ‘Deconfliction’ is a UK procedure, and the terms are not normally recognised elsewhere. So, do not start asking Paris Information for ‘Basic Service’.

VFR cruising levels

In many states, VFR en route flight must be conducted at the VFR cruising levels when over 3,000ft above ground level. Depending on the local transition altitude, this will either be as an altitude or flight level. On magnetic tracks 360° through 179° you must fly at an odd level + 500ft (i.e. levels 3500ft, 5500 ft etc) and between 180° and 359°, even + 500ft (4,500ft, 6,500ft etc). One reason for this is that IFR cruising levels are assigned at the whole levels, so the idea being that VFR and IFR are deconflicted by 500ft.

Class E airspace

This is not a procedure difference as such, but Class E airspace is more widespread outside of the UK. In some European states it can start at (for example) around 1500 ft above the surface and cover large areas. There is no requirement for VFR flights to be in receipt of a clearance to enter Class E, or indeed be in contact with ATC, but be aware you will likely be sharing Class E with IFR flights, so it is prudent to be in contact with the relevant air traffic unit.

The main difference in Class E vs G is the visibility and cloud clearance requirements – in Class E you always need 5km inflight visibility (8km above 10,000ft) and to have 1,000ft vertical and 1,500 m horizontal clearance from cloud. In theory this is to avoid being on the edge of a cloud when an IFR aircraft might come out of it.

Class D airspace

The ‘clear of cloud’ rule when below 3,000ft in Class D is a UK thing – in most states to fly VFR in Class D you need 1,000ft vertical cloud clearance. If this is not possible, you can ask for Special VFR. It is unlikely to be denied except around busy airports when separation capacity might be limited.

Under a standard VFR clearance in Class D, remember there is no requirement for ATC to separate from other traffic. While traffic information should always be passed, you might find the lack of separation to be more literal in some states than perhaps is normal in the UK – so keep a good look out.

Uncontrolled aerodromes

‘Air/Ground’ radio is mostly a UK thing. Normally in Europe you will find either ATC, Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) or a common traffic frequency. AFIS giving instructions to aircraft on the ground is also a UK thing and not normally found elsewhere – just ask for aerodrome information and announce your intentions. ICAO conventions of turning left in the circuit (unless otherwise indicated by local procedures) and conforming to the established traffic pattern are universal. Check local language requirements, at some uncontrolled aerodromes radio must be in the national language rather than English.

Flight plans

Occasionally people are caught out by this one – you need to file a full flight plan to fly internationally, but if arriving in the UK at an unattended aerodrome, overdue action is not initiated if you fail to close the flight plan on arrival, unless you have nominated someone to do so for you.

In many states once a flight plan is activated, if the estimated arrival time passes without closure, overdue action may be initiated. Normally at an aerodrome with ATC or AFIS, they will close it for you once you land, however at an unattended aerodrome you will probably need to call a flight planning office to confirm you are safely on the ground. It is sensible to put a mobile number in the remarks section of the flight plan form, so that the authorities can call to check on you before sending out the search parties.

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