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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Navigating the complex UK airspace

Delighted with a wonderful 10 day stay in Iceland (which also put us on the “green list” for entry into the UK), Alex and I were ready to don our immersion suits and life jackets again for our last big oceanic crossing: from Reykjavik (BIRK) to Wick (EGPC) in the Scottish Highlands, which seems to be a must-stop for earthrounders.

After saying goodbye to Gudni and Artur from Reykjavik FBO on May 25th, we hopped in our seats and headed South-East. This third cold-water crossing was much more relaxed than the previous ones: first, we were getting used to it - even though the collars still felt tight around our necks- and second, the Faroe Islands were right in the middle, so even if the flight was about 4.5 hours over water, there was a possible stop in the middle. Even though it was not an easy one: Vagar, Faroe island’s main airport, is notorious for bad visibility and strong winds but still a possible alternative, much better than none.

The flight was quite uneventful, the highlight was the transfer from Iceland control to Scottish center: we had reached the UK! Of course we had forgotten what the Scottish accent sounded like so when the center asked “whats yer a tea a enwec” we had to replay the message several times – replay is a super cool feature of our perspective avionics- before decoding “what’s your ETA in Wick?”. Aha! But then it got a little more complicated: the controller started stating strange kinds of services and we didn’t really know what they meant. Closer to Wick, the agent kept repeating “procedural service” after every instruction and we had no idea what he meant by that. Minutes away from the airport, we were still at 8000 or 9000 feet. Alex had requested descent, but we did not get a clear answer until all of a sudden we heard-guessed the authorization to descend to 2000 feet – followed by procedural service again- and had to dive so fast that all 6 cylinders went from green to white, i.e. too cold. Of course, we could have refused – is that covered by procedural service???- but it was feasible and we safely landed at John O’Groats airport and taxi’d to the Far North Aviation offices where Drew was waiting for us in the fuel truck.

We had heard about them from many earthrounders and in their guestbook we saw names we knew, but also a name we did not: Mike Bradford from the US. Over the course of several years, there was about one entry a week by Mike ! Drew shared that he ferried airplanes – mostly Cirrus I recall- from the US to Europe constantly and we thought “we really should try to meet him, such a hero, some day!”.

With Drew and Adrienne from Far North Aviation

Even though Wick was just a short stop for us, seeing all these names made it feel like a visit to the mecca of earthrounders and ferry pilots, and of course we added ours and “Argentina” to The Book.

The formalities to reach the UK had been minimal: Alex had filed a flight plan and I had filled out the “General Aviation Report (GAR)” and the “FNA WICK Covid-19 Pre-Booking Health Questionnaire” requested by Far North. Upon arrival, a customs officer phoned the FBO and asked to speak to the Captain of LV GQF. The Captain answered all the questions about departure airport, length of stay in the UK, our awareness of Covid protocols etc… After apologizing for the disruption after such a long flight, the officer hung up and we were free to go. Now that our Oceanic crossing was officially finished, we also had the pleasure of promptly receiving an invoice for “EN ROUTE NAVIGATION SERVICE CHARGES RAISED ON BEHALF OF THE GOVERNMENTS OF DENMARK AND ICELAND”. The GBP 107.75 were well deserved given the peace of mind it gave us to be speaking to the Oceanic controllers between points VAXAN and OSBON.

Our next destination, and the true purpose of our presence in Scotland, was Glasgow where my sister Heleen lives with her family. Based on an article she had shared -“6 Great Scottish Airfields for GA pilots” by, we had picked Cumbernauld (EGPG) instead of Glasgow International (EGPF) because it was smaller, cheaper and more relaxed. The latter feature turned out not to be completely true …

The flight to get there, over the Scottish Highlands, was a little over one hour and in that short time, we heard about and had to constantly choose between four types of UK air traffic control services:

- Basic service

- Traffic service

- Deconfliction Service

- Procedural Service (ha! there it is again).

It felt like being in a trendy coffee shop where you have to choose between almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, skim milk, lactose free milk and….yes, it still exists… regular milk for your coffee. Or when ordering a salad, you need to be ready to immediately ID the exact type of dressing you want: Balsamic, Italian, Caesar, thousand island, ranch… or when paying for something in Argentina you need to know what type of invoice you want (unless you don’t want any at all which is sometimes cheaper), with which bank’s credit card you will pay (discounts and types of credit depend on Bank and day of the week) and in how many installments… (given the fact that inflation is 50%, your best bet is of course to choose the payment method with the most possible interest-free installments, sometimes up to 18)…. except that in UK airspace, the flavors/choices are not all available at the same time. For those who are interested, below is the definition of each. By chance, Drew from Far North had given us a speed course and some tips but it still felt very overwhelming. (apparently we were supposed to repeat "procedural service" when the controller used the expression but we were not aware of that, hence his insistence with the expression. Why didn't he just ask??).

When we landed in Cumbernauld around 18h (instead of the 17h we had announced) there was no one in the tower and the only person in the airport was my sister who had entered through an open fence to greet us. We found a parking spot, unloaded our luggage, tied the plane down, put its cover on, and followed Heleen to her car, only to find out that the gate had been locked in the meantime. We skimmed the whole area, checked all doors and gates but we were definitely stuck inside, or rather airside, in EGPG airport. All three of us. And there were no telephone numbers or instructions on the door, no businesses or cars around. Heleen’s car was the only one parked in front. While she called her husband Grant to see if he had an idea and Alex was trying to call the airport number he had used the day before, I continued to look for exits and spotted a little blue car that had just parked next to Heleen’s. A man exited and with my best “damsel in distress” voice, I called “help!” and waved. Louis, an engineer who worked there and had just stopped by on his time-off to pick something up, immediately came to the rescue and was able to free us through the main exit thanks to his magic key. We were reminded that touching down is only the first hurdle before actually landing, reaching “streetside” (after quarantine, controls, bureaucracy or even temporary “imprisonment”) is the final accomplishment!

Flying over the highlands

Being saved by Louis

We spent two great days in Glasgow (or technically right outside it which was for the better since Glasgow, being “Covid level 3” did not allow house visits) , reconnecting, refueling, sharing all our adventures (including our Cumbernauld escape), eating Indian food and French cheese, drinking French wine and Scottish whisky…. Paradise!

With Grant, Heleen, Marcus and Delphie (holding Jasper)

Jasper is very happy to have two more laps to sit on in lock-down times

Grant is 100% Scottish

We discovered Glasgow was a relatively “new” city: it grew a lot in the Victorian era, meaning the buildings and streets are quite square and not medievally picturesque like in Edinburgh for example, where Heleen used to live. No major castles in sight either but imposing administrative buildings instead.

But of course, it is clearly in Scotland, complete with men in kilts and drizzle.

Our next stop before reaching the continent was Cardiff (EGFF) where Alex’ Argentinian pilot friend Adrian lives with his wife Sandra and their daughter. Again, we went through the overwhelming choice of ATC services -sprinkled every now and then with the instruction "own navigation", did the controller suddenly quit??- and about 25 Transponder code changes during the 2 hour flight. I wonder how long it would take us to get used to this system and adequately be prepared for it?

Landing in Cardiff, welcome to Wales!

Spent a wonderful afternoon and evening in the capital of Wales, walking around the harbor and marina, hearing about its locks and barrage, about its people and habits as experienced by Argentines, navigating to the restaurant with the small boat Adrian bought to use as an office during the pandemic, in order to get out of the apartment and Sandra’s hair every now and then- so smart!

We even learnt some Welsh thanks to all the bilingual signs

The day after, May 28th, we left Cardiff and the Brexited UK in direction of The Continent, my continent.

Last picture before leaving, just before entering Aeros FBO with our hi-vis jackets ready (these "gilets jaunes" are compulsory to be allowed "airside" in the UK and other airports, might come in handy in France as well:))

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1 comentário

Aydin Kurt-Elli
Aydin Kurt-Elli
21 de jul. de 2021

What a trip! The stukka dive is one I know well (GVA Arrivals won't let a descent as I return home over the Jura, then I have 10nm to lose 8000ft...! Leaning as much as I dare to avoid shock cooling seems the only trick...

Re UK, yes the ATC situ is "unique" - I think the own nav thing is that parts of the route (esp Glasgow to Cardiff) they have no primary radar coverage (along the West coast of S Scotland down towards Blackpool). In the era of ModeS / ADS-B I hope this will change... but no ADS-B mandate in Europe / UK yet, so...!

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