When learning to fly, you may well find yourself operating out of various sizes of airfield or airport, from small grass strips in the countryside to international airports bordering busy cities. These airports will have different levels of Air Traffic Control (ATC), so is one better than the other? Both have their advantages and disadvantages, however to explain further we must cover a few basics.
Types of ATC services
Each airport will have a designation to the people you speak to. This can vary from Radio, Information, Radar, Tower etc. The name that a radio station is given gives a clue to what type of service they provide. Whilst it’s not quite black and white, below are the basic types of ATC service you can expect to receive.
“Radio” (e.g. Stapleford Radio)
Radio is the most basic form of air traffic control service. It functions purely as a service to provide information to a pilot and at no time give direction or instruction. For example, a Radio service will happily provide a radio check, let you know the runway in use and any airfield information, along with surface winds and any other reported weather. Radio can not instruct you to do anything, on the ground or in the air, therefore airfields like this can be said to be “uncontrolled”.
G-VB, readability 5, runway in use is 24, QNH 1014.
“Information” (e.g. Kemble Information)
Information is the first level of ATC provided at smaller airfields. An airport with a call sign of Information means that they can control the movement of aircraft on the ground, including taxi instructions and engine starts, in addition to the services provided by a Radio service. However, as soon as your wheels leave the ground, you are no longer in control from ATC. For example, when departing an airfield with an Information service, they will clear you to taxi and line up. However, they will only tell you take off at your discretion and when returning they will only advise you to land at your discretion, plus advise you on the surface winds.
G-VB, via E, taxi to holding point A1 advise ready for departure.
“Ground/Tower/Radar” (e.g. Glasgow Ground / Glasgow Tower / Glasgow Radar)
These three ATC services are lumped together as are often collocated at larger airports. An airport with a ground frequency will control your movements on the ground, just like an Information service. In addition you are still under the control of ATC when you have departed and will often be provided a radar control service once airborne. Airports with these facilities are often large, busy and used by commercial aircraft too, so you will be expect to follow instructions by ATC to join the airfield or controlled airspace. Sometimes these different ATC frequencies are controlled by a single person at less busy times of the day, so Ground and Tower may be the same person on the same frequency.
G-VB, you are cleared to enter controlled airspace via the VRP, join left hand down wind runway 24, expect orbit on base leg due traffic Boeing 737 on 2 mile final, caution wake turbulence.
I only want to learn to fly for leisure, I don’t want the hassle of controlled airports!
Many airports run just a simple Radio or Information service, which places the onus of navigation and communication on the pilot. This is a low stress, easy to manage form of ATC and can be very enjoyable in the right settings. Most smaller airfields use this system as there isn’t sufficient requirement or equipment to offer a fully controlled service. From engine start to stop, ATC are there to assist and provide information where needed, but apart from taxi instructions and take off clearances with an information service, it’s your choice to do what you want in your time frame. This can reduce the stress involved with learning to use ATC considerably, but what happens when you need to fly somewhere with a bit more ATC control?
The daunting nature of these airports often leads to statements like the title of this section, but you’d be surprised at what classifies as a controlled airport. A popular destination in the East of England is Cambridge Airport, home of Cambridge Aero Club, Mid Anglia School of Flying , Cambridge Flying Group and Virtual Aviation. This airport is an excellent destination and well worth a visit, especially for a day trip into the city, but it is a fully controlled airport. You will speak to Radar, who will provide a basic service, then be transferred to Tower who will clear you to land and finally on to Ground, who will assist with ground movements and parking. Like everything in aviation, planning here is key. Whilst a controller will transfer you from their frequency to the next with the expected frequency, “G-VB, contact tower 120.725”, it’s much better to have these frequencies noted down ready to read back and enter, or even better still to have them pre-tuned in your radio as a standby if your equipment allows you to do this.
Like all things in aviation, practice makes perfect. Due to the verbal only nature of communication, talking over the radios can be quite difficult to get the hang of. These large and more complex airports have multiple stages that you don’t find in a smaller airfield, but so long as you are well prepared and know what to expect, it is no harder to fly at London Heathrow (though probably not in a Cessna!) than it is at Shobdon Airfield.
If I want to train to be a commercial pilot, is it better to start at a commercial airport?
There are some arguments to this, getting used to the style of commercial air traffic control early on can be a great thing for the budding pilot. Controlled airports, often handling thousands of passengers a day, are an exercise in punctuality, expeditious communication and clear and concise instructions and read backs. If you learn to use the radios in this manor from day one, arguably you will adapt to the style of RT in commercial aviation quicker later on in your training.
On the negative side however, learning to talk on the radios is actually one of the hardest parts of flying. The quick fire, verbal only communication in a semi-foreign language takes some getting used to. To start flying at a major international airport is jumping in the deep end and it can cause some nervousness to start with. This does improve with time, but it is completely correct to say that to start with, RT may be the hardest part of your flight training.
Do not forget that RT is a part of flight training. If you learn to fly at a small airfield, then transition on to a commercial or IR course, you will learn the style of RT that is required. Professional sounding ATC communication doesn’t necessarily need to be there from day one.
This might sound daft, but actually there is no requirement in the United Kingdom, when flying outside of controlled airspace (Class G), to communicate with anyone. Many people enjoy a flight without the requirement to talk to anyone at all. Is this the right thing to do, or is it just dangerous? Arguably in VFR flight, you will have your eyes out of the cockpit at all times, so even when talking to ATC keeping your distance from other traffic is the responsibility of the pilot. If you’re flying in an area of the country with little traffic and sporadic ATC, it may just not be worth talking to anyone.
Remember, ATC is not there to keep track of what you are doing (that’s what radar is for!), but they are there when you need them. Many people meet in the middle ground and just listen in to the local frequency (often with an accompanying listening squawk) but don’t actually talk, or perhaps they listen in on 121.5MHz. This is a great way of having someone there if need be, but enjoying the peace and quiet of radio-free aviation.
So what is better for me?
The type of control shouldn’t necessarily sway your choice of airfield to learn to fly at, but it is something that you should take in to consideration. Some people enjoy the freedom of uncontrolled airfields, with nobody to tell them what to do and nobody watching over their every move. The freedom of these uncontrolled airfields is appealing, but also has some draw backs. When things get busy, the amount of aircraft moving and not communicating can be chaotic and reduce safety margins. On the flip side, a controlled airfield has almost no reduction in safety margins, no matter how busy, but the structured and directed feel can feel a little restricted to a pilot who just wishes to go for a Sunday bimble in the skies.
If you have two flight schools narrowed down, both have identical fleets, courses and facilities, but one has a more “preferential” ATC service for your needs, then pick that one. However, if you find the right school but it isn’t the right type of ATC, do not worry! As mentioned above, ATC communication is all part and parcel of learning to fly. No matter if you fly from the largest airport in the country or a small farm yard strip, you will get used to ATC communication and the benefits that each service can provide to you as a pilot.