Behind the scenes at Farnborough Radar (LARS)

In August 2017 I was invited by NATS to film a piece about their Lower Airspace Radar Unit at Farnborough Airport.  It provides services to aircraft flying around London’s main airports up to FL100.

Farnborough LARS is one of 30 LARS units in the UK, but is the biggest and busiest of them all.  So much so, it’s split into 3 sectors, north, east and west.  It was set up with the intention of avoiding controlled airspace infringements – an infringement being when an aircraft enters controlled airspace without clearance.  Infringements can mean that commercial jet aircraft, inbound to busy airports like Gatwick and Heathrow, get directed away from their approach and take off paths to avoid the rogue aeroplane.  This is both costly and a risk to safety.

Farnborough air traffic control tower

The lower airspace radar controllers are based on the ground floor of the air traffic control tower at Farnborough Airport.  Walking into the ops room, given the airspace that the controllers here  watch over, I’m surprised at how little space it takes up.  There are radar positions for the three LARS sectors, a position for the Farnborough approach controller, an air traffic control assistant and display director.  Farnborough Airport hosts an international air show every two years.

Craig Parker on Farnborough west

Craig Parker is the ATCO on Farnborough west when I arrive.  He’s chirping away to aircraft giving them a host of flight information services…such as basic, traffic and deconfliction, and passing the Farnborough QNH.  The approach controller sits to his right, and the pair regularly coordinate.  The approach controller leaving his seat to look at Craig’s radar scope and paper strips to see where the LARS west traffic are heading.  He wants to know if aeroplanes in the vicinity of Farnborough Airport will conflict with inbound and outbound jets arriving or departing the ATZ.

“I love being an air traffic controller, I have since I left the college.” Craig tells me.  

“It’s an interesting job, people who aren’t involved in aviation tend to be interested in it, it carries certain perceptions around the world about being quite versatile, it can carry an element of stress, but we go through a rigorous training programme and they basically try to identify people with certain traits who are capable of speaking to bits of metal in the sky, flying at high velocities, high speeds. I thoroughly enjoy it. You get to speak to pilots from all over the world, it’s good fun, integrating traffic, its good fun keeping aircraft separated, and no day is the same.”

I asked Craig why people should call up to get a LARS service.

Craig Parker, ATCO

“When GA pilots call Farnborough they are getting a couple of things. They are getting an identity on their aircraft, that then allows us to monitor them, we’re speaking to them, we’re in two-way communication and we know what we’re doing. With that comes security. If the pilot found themselves in.. .. an undesired situation, we know where they’re going, what their intentions are, what aircraft type and how many people are on board. So straight away, you’ve got a security blanket around you if the worst were to happen.”

“Secondly, the reason that LARS pilots should contact farnborough is in order for them to remain outside controlled airspace and if they do find themselves in difficulty near controlled airspace or indeed find themselves infringing controlled airspace, we can assist them in leaving as quickly and safely as possible.”

“Thirdly, especially for airfields for which Farnborough provides a service for, it helps us safely integrate them with jet traffic flying in and out of Farnborough.”

Infringement alert

Every so often, while sitting in the ops room, you hear the words ‘Intrusion – Intrusion” echo from speakers at the radar positions.  A glance at the controllers’ screens then reveals a pop-up alert, showing that an aircraft has infringed controlled airspace.  The culpret’s radar trace is highlighted, showing their altitude, and whether they’re level, climbing or descending.  

On Farnborough north, a controller calls another pilot infringing.  He or she had taken advantage of a lower airspace radar service, and so could be identified and contacted without delay.  The aircraft had climbed to 2700ft – 200 ft above the base of class A controlled airspace.  The controller calmly but assertively instructs the pilot to descend.  

In 2016, Farnborough LARS controllers gave instructions or advice to pilots who’d infringed or nearly infringed 614 times. 

As well as seeing how the operation works in practice, I wanted to ask the staff and managers here the questions I know pilots want answers to.  A small but vocal number of pilots complain about Farnborough LARS on internet forums.  They don’t like it when air traffic controllers at Farnborough ask them if they can accept a level or heading restriction to enable separation from arriving or departing jets.  They suspect that because NATS has the contract to provide air traffic control services to Farnborough Airport, the LARS controllers (also NATS) will give priority to Farnborough’s exclusive jet customers.  Unit manager Maggie Gault denied this.

Maggie Gault, Farnborough LARS

“We try our best to make it a safe and efficient flow of traffic going through the area and we don’t prioritise on either side.”

“Whether it’s an aircraft that’s inbound to Farnborough or a GA pilot transiting through the area we try to make it safe and a known environment.  So, sometimes we will ask the GA pilot if he will accept a climb or a turn so that we can maintain separation against Farnborough traffic.  The pilot is absolutely at liberty not to take that advice, and then we turn the Farnborough traffic or we climb or descend the Farnborough traffic to maintain separation with the aircraft that’s inbound.   But all we try to do is find the safest, most efficient way to get both pilots to where they want to be.”

Some pilots simply refuse to talk to Farnborough when passing through the area, because they feel they’ve been over-controlled in the past.  They object to the principle of ‘control’, in uncontrolled airspace.  Maggie Gault says she understands this.

“The pilots..I do realise that sometimes they might not want to talk to Farnborough because they feel that they are being over-controlled, but at the end of the day it’s advice and it is guidance and it keeps them safe as well as keeping the pilots that are inbound to Farnborough safe.”

“My girls and boys.. ..will bend over backwards to do things as safely and efficiently as possible.  They work very hard and they are a team of dedicated professionals who absolutely want to keep the airspace around Farnborough as safe as possible.”

In reality, if you pass by any aerodrome, especially one with an instrument arrival, it is good airmanship to be in contact with the unit.  It is possible that you may be asked to agree a course of action in uncontrolled airspace, to assist with the safe and orderly flow of traffic.  What Farnborough does in that respect is nothing out of the ordinary.

Farnborough jet arrivals and departures are given a deconfliction service by default.  This results in ATCOs applying restrictive separation minima between those jets and other traffic in the area.  I asked Craig Parker to explain why they did this, even on CAVOK days.

“Firstly, it’s not always VMC, you’ve got to remember these jets that are in and out of Farnborough, they’ve been in controlled airspace for the duration of their flight. They’re now descending to leave controlled airspace and we’re obliged to provide them with a deconfliction service, so the deconfliction service minima against identified traffic is 3 miles horizontally and 1000ft vertically. So in order to provide that, the requests come in to the other pilots who are operating in the vicinity, the GA community, to help us to achieve our minima.”

I asked Craig who or what obliges them to provide this deconfliction minima?

“It’s in part of the contract that we have at Farnborough with NATS to provide a service to jet aircraft leaving controlled airspace, that we’ll provide them with a deconfliction service, unless they request otherwise.”

Farnborough Airport has applied to the CAA for permission to introduce class D controlled airspace around the aerodrome.

Farnborough LARS is the busiest unit of its kind in the UK.  So what’s it like working there.  Craig Parker agrees that it can be full-on.

“Yeah, absolutely. What we’ll find is when the weather’s nicer, the busier you get.  The reason for that is a lot of GA pilots are VFR pilots, they’ll fly in VMC, and therefore when the sun comes out, everybody comes out. So yeah, it’s a very busy frequency, depending on the weather or if there’s any other activity going on. What we have found in the past is when we have the Red Arrows doing a display, or the airshow, it will be generally quieter because a lot of pilots will be a little bit more reluctant to get airborne in case they get in the way, or a bit of airspace they’re not familiar with. But it is a busy frequency and the reason for it is, because GA pilots are taking advantage of the airspace that they’ve got to go and fly in, and at the same time being very aware that they’re very close to the TMA.   So I think a lot of pilots do utilise the service very well. We do appreciate that, other commercial airfields definitely appreciate that.”

My thanks to NATS & TAG Farnborough Airport for facilitating my visit.  

Video: Behind the scenes at Farnborough Radar