I have recently been one of many microlight pilots to take advantage of the current clear skies and venture into the world of jumbo jets.
Oh, I know you can always get a zone transit across Luton or Stansted, and even now Heathrow won’t let you transit, but when next in the history of the world, will you be able to look down on fleets of parked aircraft as you cross the runway threshold at 1500 feet as instructed?
In one week, I experienced eight zone transits, not all where I was flying or doing the radio, but I certainly was taking notes. Three of them were over Gatwick, and each time my eyes were out on stalks looking at the huge Dreamliners parked around a hub, and the rows and rows of aircraft waiting to take to the skies again. At our club, it has become something of a competition to see who has done what, and I have listened intently to everyone’s tales of victory.
“It’s all the same, no matter what you are doing”, an experienced pilot I know always says. In that, he is absolutely right. The ‘Pass your message’ is the same, wherever, to whomever. He also believes that the faster you speak, the more the Air Traffic Controllers will assume you know what you are doing and let you get on with it. To be honest, that hasn’t worked for me so far, but I will let you know.
Radio competence is most definitely a case of ‘Use it or Lose it.’ If you never do zone transits, you will need to go back and check up on the format of the interchange, but there are a few things I have noticed. Consensus has it that ATC are more willing to indulge the little pilots having a field day while the big boys are parked up, probably because the controllers themselves are also slightly rusty since lockdown! I know Stansted gave a non-transponder aircraft the chance to fly down the runway at 1000 feet. That’s not often going to happen!
Never assume though, that just because the pilot before you had one experience, you will be given the same clearance or height. I spoke to two pilots at Sandown, who had done a Gatwick transit an hour earlier, and only spoken to Gatwick Director. So when we were suddenly passed over to the Tower, I was very pleased I had the frequency jotted down on my kneepad. Much easier to confirm, when you have it written in front of you.
Sometimes small things can trip you up. You are asked for a position report and give your height and position. They ask the same thing again. And again. What are you missing? Perhaps you haven’t said you are flying VFR, or you haven’t given the QNH. The first time I was told ‘Not cleared to transit controlled airspace,’ I didn’t understand it was simply because they were waiting for me to get closer to the zone. One controller could be kind and pass your details on to the next, as has happened to many fellow pilots. Or they could let you go with ‘Squawk Conspicuity’. ‘What’s that?’ a friend asked. ‘Why not just say, Squawk 7000?’
Another critical issue is that you need to know all the different VRP points in the zone, even if you aren’t passing over them. When they tell you to orbit at x, while you wait for a Gulfstream to land, you need to be able to figure out pretty fast where they are sending you, because no doubt you didn’t have that plotted on your Skydemon.
My advice to anyone who doesn’t do zone transits regularly: two pairs of ears work better than one. It’s easier if one of you is concentrating on keeping to the required height, and one of you doing the talking. Expect the unexpected. Know what they will ask, and have your answers ready, and then listen for the questions you haven’t prepared.
I spoke to a fellow microlight pilot and air traffic controller, the friendly Ben Wyatt to get his take on things. “Check in on frequency first with callsign and what type of service you’re after (eg Xyz Radar, G-ABCD request zone transit), rather than diving straight in with the full details of type, pob, departure point, destination blah blah blah. Even if the frequency sounds quiet, it doesn’t mean the controller isn’t working. It might be a landline call, aircraft handover, position handover or they might be working multiple frequencies (and with the general lull in traffic at the moment, I’d say this is even more likely).
“If you are two up, having one doing the radio work and one doing the flying is a good idea. It gives the radio person greater capacity to write down instructions/clearances and other information the controller might give. That’s what they do in most airlines. You just need to ensure that as a crew of two you are communicating effectively with each other (not just the controller) and be absolutely certain that both of you fully understand.
“The listening out thing is a biggy in any ATC setting. Sometimes a controller may need to get hold of a pilot directly, sometimes very urgently. It could be routine things like a new pressure setting or a change of service (Radar Control as you enter the CTA/CTR for example), or it may be that the initial plan to get you across has had to change and they’d rather you took a slightly different routing or a different level.
“Ultimately, ATC exists to provide a service to pilots and keep everything flowing safely. I will always try and approve a request wherever possible, but if I can’t I’ll give a reason or offer an alternative. I know many private pilots can be quite radio averse and shy away from speaking to ATC, but I’m always happy to help the little guys too, if I have capacity – especially being one of them!
“Most controllers like being busy. A session with plenty going on passes much quicker than one where you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for your next inbound.”
We talk about how often a controller is also a pilot who understands that it takes a moment to input that squawk code they have just given you, and Ben agrees he’s a fairly rare breed. “Most have done a few lessons for awareness, but that goes both ways, when pilots rattle through their calls at a million miles per hour while I am desperately trying to write it all down!”
So spare a thought for the guy at the other end. He could be just as friendly as Ben, and happy to help. Go and take advantage of a moment in aviation history.
If you aren’t sure what to say, here’s a great cheat sheet from the CAA. Simply download it and fill in the blanks. You can’t go wrong.
Then post your photos, to inspire some more pilots to keep the ATC busy!