Ab Initio 22: “The other end of the ether”

In which I visit the people who talk to aeroplanes•

My sole knowledge of ATC up until now had been a mate’s copy of a copy of a copy of “What goes up Might Come Down” and a disembodied voice at the other end of the radio being subjected to my forgetting who I was, where I was, or both.

This was a trip that had been planned for some time, courtesy of Carole from the Flyer / UKGA forums. Her willingness to take on the not-inconsiderable feat of cat-herding showing a dozen curious pilots and students around the Cardiff LARS unit was much appreciated.

Also appreciated was the lift there and back–Cardiff airport being one of those airports nowhere near the city its name implies–at least from the point of view of a public transport user! Thanks to 2Close for that trip (and the loan of his CDs).

Carol met us in the terminal and we all trooped off for coffee and biscuits before splitting into two smaller groups for the tour. Some would visit the tower then the radar unit and vice versa so we were less of a mob. More thanks at this point to Carol’s colleague, whose name I didn’t catch but who I understand spent his lunch break escorting one half of the group.

Although one brave soul had managed to fly in, the weather was decidedly on the claggy side with the result that it was a reasonably quiet day. This meant we probably didn’t get a full appreciation of how busy it could be on a clear calm day when the world and his dog go flying, but did mean there was a lot of time to look around and ask lots of questions without making a thorough nuisance of ourselves.

I was in the group Carol was escorting and we visited the tower first. It’s amazing how much you can see and there’s a rather odd perspective, things look a lot smaller. It was very hard to appreciate for example how big the massive hangar really is. The first impression was a reasonably comfy open plan office, a long central desk with the radar displays on big monitors in the middle and what looked disconcertingly like a toy airport at the other. That turned out to be the gubbins for the lighting system but the toy aeroplane on the end of the runway added to the effect!

The display in use was of ‘processed’ radar, and had already been through a computer and had little tags of information added to the little green maggots, like their squawk, callsign, destination and similar. This meant that a) you could spot particular aeroplanes very quickly and easily and b) anyone not transponding stuck out like a sore thumb.

The rest of the display was pretty minimal to keep it uncluttered, though they could turn on extra features when wanted. A simple outline of the coast and airspace boundaries were plenty to pick out locations. The downstairs radar had another screen with a larger area coverage and I could see someone bimbling about over Pembrey and wondered who it might be.

The attitude adopted by Cardiff, Carole explained, was they’d rather have people talk to them than not. Even aircraft outside the controlled airspace could still have an effect on other traffic entering or leaving it, especially if they don’t know the intention of the other aircraft. They prefer to give people zone transits whenever possible. Not least because, it can be quicker and simpler to give you a squawk and get you through and away than have to keep an eye on you for twice as long as you crawl around the edge!

It was a very interesting day out and I feel much more relaxed about using the radio knowing a bit more about what goes on at the other end, and that there’s real and genuinely friendly and helpful people there.

Can’t recommend a trip highly enough. Anyone who gets the chance should jump at it.

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