Top tips for flying in the UK

I fly Cirrus SR-22s out of Denham Aerodrome in Northwest London. Vincent has asked me to write an article for Plastic Pilot about the eccentricities of flying in the UK.

I wrote an article for COPA’s Cirrus Pilot about flying in Europe a while ago and I opened with the good news: the laws of aerodynamics are the same on this side of the channel. However, many other things are different. This article is only an overview. I recommend plenty of ground school and a flight with an instructor.

Pre-flight

  • Weather information. The Met Office has a free basic weather briefing service for GA but you have to register for it.
  • Airfield information and NOTAMs. You can download free approach plates, airfield information and NOTAMs from the NATS website. Again registration is required. Most pilots use an airfield guide like Pooley’s. You can also use my site, GolfHotelWhiskey.com, to look up airport reviews and find interesting places to visit.
  • Charts. The CAA publishes very good GA charts in 1:250,000 and 1:500,000 format. They are available from aviation shops and most airports and FBOs. Many foreign pilots prefer to use Jeppesen charts which are consistent wherever they fly and these are valid too.
  • Busy areas. The area around London – especially Luton, Stanstead, London City, Heathrow, Farnborough and Gatwick airports – and also around Manchester are very busy with narrowly defined VFR corridors and class A airspace at low level (sometimes down to 1,500 feet). These areas need careful study before you fly into them to ensure you don’t bust controlled airspace. See Fly On Track’s tips for avoiding infringements and their excellent guides to busy areas.
  • Restrictions. Call 0500-354802 (+44 208 899 2401 from abroad) to get a daily briefing on temporary restrictions (e.g. royal flights, Red Arrows displays etc.)
  • Flight plans. My preference is to file flight plans online via Homebriefing but many pilots will file them at their departure airport. You need to give at least an hour’s notice. Flight plans are optional for most flights within the UK.

Radio

  • Radio. ATC in the UK is usually efficient and professional, especially when dealing with larger airports and military radar services. You can download a free copy of the official guide to R/T from the CAA (PDF). Appendix one contains a list of differences from ICAO standards. I have often heard foreign pilots (including American airline pilots) struggle with routings to unfamiliar places so it pays to study the map before you leave and familiarise yourself with the main navigation waypoints and their names.
  • IMC outside controlled airspace. The UK issues IMC ratings which allow PPLs to fly in IMC outside Class A airspace and fly instrument approaches. It’s a bit like a simplified instrument rating. This leads to a peculiarity whereby pilots will fly in IMC without filing an IFR flight plan. I don’t know how this affects foreign pilots with instrument ratings but I guess they could do the same.
  • ATC services outside controlled airspace. The rules and services changed very recently. The Flight Safety Initiative has a video that explains the new rules.
  • LARS. The Lower Airspace Radar Service covers most of the UK. It is provided by a mix of civilian and military ATC units. It can provide a Deconfliction or Traffic service which is especially useful for flying in IMC. The controllers can choose whether or not to provide the service depending on how busy they are and some sectors become congested, especially on weekends. However, it is a very useful service and popular with UK-based pilots.
  • London Information / Scottish Information. On your UK map you’ll find frequencies for London or Scottish Information. These services provide a basic service but they can be very useful. For example, UK-based pilots will often use them to join airways outside controlled airspace (they’re in the same room as en-route controllers) or for VFR cross-channel flights. I have always found the service to be immensely helpful and professional. Of course, the emergency frequency 121.5 is also available and provides a wonderful service for people with problems or people who get lost.

Procedures

  • Overhead joins. This form of VFR arrival can cause confusion, even to British-trained pilots. Full details are in the AIP but the principle is that, if instructed to fly an overhead join, you (a) Overfly the aerodrome at 2000 ft aal; (b) descend on the ‘dead side’ to circuit height; (c) join the circuit by crossing the upwind end of the runway at circuit height; (d) position downwind. I always find drawing a diagram helps to work out where the deadside of the airport is and how I’m going to fly the approach. You can usually ask for something simpler like a straight-in or base leg join if that is going to be safer. In general, however, aircraft in the UK do not practice the mid-downwind join favoured by US pilots and so asking for a downwind join is much less common.
  • Joining Airways. Many small airfields in the UK have special arrangements for flights departing into the airways system. It’s worth talking to air traffic to find out what the recommended procedure is. If there is no procedure, the best way to get an airways join is usually to call London Information or a LARS service while remaining clear of controlled airspace. They can open your flight plan and get you into the airways system. In many parts of the UK, class A airspace descends down to 2,500 or even 1,500 feet and it’s important not to fly into controlled airspace until you have an explicit clearance to do so.

In my experience, pilots everywhere in the UK are delighted to welcome visitors from overseas and happy to offer advice and make allowances for language difficulties. So, come on over. I’ll buy you a drink!

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