Air traffic controllers spend their entire careers keeping aircraft apart from each other. It’s an absolutely fundamental part of the job that ensures our skies remain safe and secure.
There is, however one exception.
Based on the West coast of Wales, at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) Range at Aberporth, NATS specialise in a very different kind of air traffic control, which often involves bringing aircraft as close together as possible to enable the safe and successful simulation of a military air to air engagement.
Under contract to QinetiQ, NATS provides air traffic services at some of the MOD’s core Test and Evaluation (T&E) Air Ranges at MOD Aberporth, MOD Hebrides and MOD West Freugh. It also provides air traffic services to the T&E Land Range at MOD Shoeburyness. All of the Ranges are operated and managed by QinetiQ under a 25-year Long Term Partnering Agreement, which delivers T&E and training support services to the MOD.
At these locations, NATS provides a specialist air traffic management (ATM) service unlike anything else in the country. Depending on the nature of the trial – which could involve tanks, ships, Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) or advanced fighter aircraft – we have two specific roles. Firstly, we advise on and devise the ATM element of the trial, working to get the vehicles where they need to be for any particular event, enabling QinetiQ and its customer to capture and analyse specific data from the sortie. Weapon firing tests are very costly, and maximising the data gained from each event is critical, which inevitably increases pressure to get it right.
Secondly, we have to keep the airspace ‘sterile’. Infringements into segregated ‘Danger Area’ airspace are always an issue wherever they occur, but especially so where fast jet and live weapon trials are taking place. As such they remain the single biggest safety risk and something that we have to remain constantly vigilant against.
This highly specialised role inevitably requires the use of highly specialised equipment. We’re often required to control multiple aircraft in close proximity with reduced separation minima, and the radar systems have to be highly accurate. In addition to normal ATC surveillance systems, we also use dedicated tracking radars that “lock-on” to aircraft involved in weapon trials. These radars provide a host of real-time positional data, updated 20 times every second for increased accuracy and safety.
Equally, providing ATM services to RPAS is also something that sets us apart. Given the nature of our work, we have gained significant knowledge and expertise of working with these systems in a relatively short period of time. In due course, we will almost certainly see the integration of RPAS into civilian airspace.
[Header image by QinetiQ Group via Flickr]
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I did a two week stint at Aberporth in the late 70’s when I was in the Royal Air Force. We used to do live Bloodhound MKII missile firings against Jindivics; instead of the normal warhead we would have a “telemetry” pack to feed back all the flight information. They also had some seriously accurate radars which could pick up flying seagulls. Enjoyed every minute of it!
An excellent article on the unique aspects of Weapons Range ATS. The NIDIR Radars really are something else, the equipment displays used to bring targets together are extremely impressive and the Trial Control Suite aspects ensuring missile/target debris is kept free of surface shipping is great. I was always particularly impressed with the successful interaction between NSL ATC and QQ Trial Control Officers, ensuring maximal levels of safety in a much riskier task environment.