You could be lost, facing a medical emergency, suffering from engine failure or have a fuel leak – the list of reasons why a pilot may declare a PAN or a MAYDAY is endless and a frightening prospect for even the most experienced pilots.
But with the Distress and Diversion cell responding to a distress call within seconds, welcome reassurance is offered that somebody ‘out there’ knows you have a problem and has started the chain reaction of help.
The Distress and Diversion cell is located at NATS’ Swanwick centre in Hampshire and is manned by personnel from the Royal Air Force 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They can be contacted on 121.5MHz by civilians, mainly general aviation pilots, or 243.0MHz by the military.
The cell is one of very few facilities throughout the world that is solely dedicated to monitoring and responding to any aircraft facing an emergency or requiring assistance and the cell has many tools to aid pilots in distress.
Auto-triangulation enables controllers to locate an aircraft’s position by overlaying bearings created from transmissions on to a map. The place where the bearings cross over provides an approximate indication of the location of the aircraft, which is invaluable for aiding GA pilots who find themselves disorientated or temporarily lost.
The cell also has mapping facilities including all UK aerodromes alongside every registered airstrip and usable landing ground, complete with details such as runway direction and length. This allows controllers to locate the most appropriate landing site, which varies for each emergency depending upon factors such as aircraft type.
These maps can be zoomed in on to street level detail, which allows controllers to provide accurate steers and point out landmarks for pilots who may be lost. In addition to this, controllers in the cell come from all across the UK offering a wealth of local knowledge.
They also have details of special airfield modifications that may be needed for military emergencies such as cables and barriers and are able to alert the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) of a potential need for additional help.
As you would expect, when an alarm sounds to signify an emergency squawk has been entered by a pilot or an emergency transmission comes through, all of the controllers are on their feet and ready to act within seconds. Heart rates begin to rise and adrenaline starts pumping, but the controllers remain calm on the surface to enable them to focus on the situation.
Controllers have to learn this early on in their careers and do so by dealing with practice emergencies. It means the cell can teach new controllers about the role and provides opportunities for them to test out their skills without the pressure of facing a real emergency situation.
This is one of the reasons why GA pilots are actively encouraged to request training fixes and practice pans when they can. It also allows them to familiarise themselves with the process, helping them to understand how quick and easy contacting the cell is and eliminating any element of apprehension they may have.
Emergencies can be prevented from escalating if pilots contact the cell as soon as a problem occurs. Waiting and hoping that an issue will resolve itself can lead to infringements of controlled airspace or a full-scale emergency situation.
Distress and Diversion are there to help, all you have to do is ask for it.
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