Every qualified pilot has an obligation to understand and respect the rules and regulations concerning UK airspace. To do otherwise can have serious consequences for the safety of the pilot and other airspace users.
All pilots must understand the airspace they are flying in and ensure that they comply with the relevant requirements.
And the CAA should do its utmost when regulating airspace to satisfy the requirements of operators and owners of all classes of aircraft. You can read more about regulating airspace under ‘Airspace Change’ below.
What is airspace?
In simple terms, the sky over the UK comprises of airspace that is categorised as controlled or uncontrolled. Most gliding takes place in uncontrolled airspace.
There are various categories of controlled airspace which exclude sailplanes either through rules or in practice because its too difficult to soar and comply with the restrictions.
All airspace, including uncontrolled airspace, is subject to temporary restrictions and changes. Information about restrictions and changes is published in Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs). All pilots should check NOTAMs (see below) as part of their pre-flight planning.
Staying safe, legal and respecting others…
All pilots are urged to consider others who are also operating perfectly legitimately in the same airspace. This includes military, other air sport and GA, commercial air transport and emergency services. Instrument procedures/approaches that extend into uncontrolled airspace need extra care. By staying aware of other operations, pilots can plan to avoid hazards.
A 2016 analysis of over 500 infringements identified that around 90% of the GA pilots who infringed were not using a GPS or GPS moving map. Every year, a number of Airprox’s are reported. An airprox is a reported ‘close encounter’. The reports range from visual sightings at many nm’s distance (often for reasons that go beyond safety) through to near collisions where the pilots reacted just in time. Or were just lucky. It should be appreciated that normal proximity between gliders is perceived to be frighteningly close by other aviators. Anticipating potential threats and inconveniences to other airspace users can be improved through careful pre-flight planning and through in-flight awareness and decision making.
Infringements, ie entering controlled or restricted airspace without the authority to do so, are potentially dangerous and disruptive – and ultimately results in curtailment of the freedoms to fly that all pilots need and enjoy.
The Airspace Safety Initiative website is another good source of information.
Use of Radio
Training and qualifying for a Flight Telephony Radio Operators Licence (FRTOL) is very useful for any pilot who flies cross-country. Learn more here.
Appropriate use of electronic conspicuity (EC) can both reduce midair conflict and facilitate access to controlled airspace. The BGA recommends use of appropriate collision avoidance technology to support effective lookout.
Most gliders are equipped with FLARM. The CAA has selected ADS-B as its EC technology of choice. NATS and other air navigation service providers can only supply identified access to controlled airspace where the aircraft is equipped with a transponder. There is no single EC technology that addresses mid-air collision risk and provides airspace access. Learn more below and here.
Aerobatic Competitions and Boxes. The aerobatic community practice aerobatics within defined aerobatic boxes. These are often promulgated in NOTAMs. Please be aware that whilst aerobatic pilots have to compy with the rules of the air and lookout as much as other class G users, the nature of competition aerobatics is that the majority of the pilots time will be focussed on achieving specific attitudes and the desired aircraft trajectory. In addition to the important safety aspects, we should also consider the need to give these fellow air sport pilots the space they require to enjoy their sport.
Airspace access or air traffic control problems? The CAA provides a form for reporting issues regarding UK airspace including refusal of access. The online form is available here.
Aeronautical Information Circulars. AIC’s are notices containing information that does not qualify for the origination of a NOTAM or for inclusion in the AIP. They are used to publish administrative matters and advanced warnings of impending operational changes and to add explanation or emphasis on matters of safety or operational significance. Aeronautical chart issues and corrections are also notified through the medium of the AIC. In order to facilitate easy selection of AICs they are printed on different coloured paper according to their subject matter. Access AIC’s via the NATS AIS website.
Airprox. When a pilot feels that the proximity of another aircraft was in their view unsafe, they can submit an Airprox report. Airprox reports are investigated and given a risk category. You can learn more on the Airprox website, which includes their published Airprox investigation reports.
Airspace Modernisation and Change. The CAA has published its finalised Airspace Modernisation Strategy (AMS). The new strategy is in response to the Department for Transport tasking the Civil Aviation Authority with preparing and maintaining a co-ordinated strategy and plan for the use of UK airspace up to 2050, including modernisation. The AMS will result in numerous CAP1616 airspace change proposals that the BGA intends to engage with in partnership with the GA Alliance. Read more here.
ATZs. The status of Air Traffic Zones can confuse pilots. There is some helpful guidance on the CAA’s Airspace Safety Initiative website – the specific guidance is linked here.
Awareness of gliding needs. Pilots who don’t fly gliders may need some help in understanding how and where gliders operate. View the BGA briefing document ‘Gliding awareness for non-glider pilots’
This briefing that was published in the RAF flight safety magazine in Spring 2016 may be helpful.
An ‘ATCO perspective’ of soaring was provided by the CAA during 2016.
Charts. Glider pilots use the 1:500 000 chart that is designed for use in visual navigation. The charts are regularly updated. Out of date charts should be discarded. VFR chart information, including a list of stockists, is available on the NATS AIS website. Radio frequency cards are available on the NATS website and linked from this webpage.
GPS and moving maps. Global Position Satellite navigation is used extensively in aviation. Most cross-country glider pilots use GPS to assist with navigation and to help avoid airspace restrictions. A number of freeware and commercial software options are available that take much of the load that otherwise would distract from flying the glider and looking out.
Controlled airspace changes every now and again. The 1/2 million hard copy chart is updated annually. It’s very important that GPS data files are also updated. You can read more about airspace files here. Pilots should note that they should take great care when programming their GPS before flight, and must always maintain situational awareness in flight through using visual navigation techniques and a current chart. This final point is nothing to do with ‘old school’ – it’s simply an important aspect of airmanship, ie cross checking and being prepared for equipment failure or pilot ‘finger trouble’.
Instrument Procedural Traffic. A number of airfields in the UK have instrument traffic procedures which are detailed in the UK AIP. In some cases the instrument approaches are indicated by a feather on the ½ mil chart (for example Cambridge, Gloucester, Exeter, Cranfield, Oxford). These instrument approaches are available as a file for most gliding moving map software. Invariably, instrument traffic operating in Class G is not looking out. Glider pilots should aim to avoid the airfield overhead or the ILS approach areas. When operating close to these airfields, pilots should listen out on the ATC frequency. Where there is a need to operate overhead the airfield, or when vertically close to and when horizontally within say an approximate 20 degree arc either side of the ILS ‘slope’, it can be very helpful if the glider pilot makes contact with ATC prefixing the call with ‘glider’, stating their location (eg 5nm NE of the airfield at 2000’) and stating their intentions (eg to climb, to glide to xxxxx, etc). Don’t forget that last minute calls can result in pilot overload as the pressure comes on. Air traffic controllers have almost no appreciation of pilot workload. As ever, aviate, navigate and communicate in that order.
Letters of Agreement (LoA’s). Where there is a need and the related risks can be managed appropriately, it is possible to establish letters of agreement between airspace controlling authorities and operators. Sometimes these are national arrangements. In other cases these are local arrangements. Some LoA’s are legally binding. Others are voluntary in nature. In all cases, pilots must understand and comply FULLY with the detail within the LoA. If in doubt, ask. Do not assume.
Some clubs have a local agreement with NATS on flexible use of airspace. The ongoing success of the agreement between London GC and NATS is reliant on pilots receiving a specific, face to face briefing by the London GC. Unless that LoA briefing has taken place and pilots are briefed on the operating protocols in place on the day, pilots may not use the LoA. The LoA is not published on this website. Contact the London GC for further details.
The challenges of maintaining mutual awareness between busy flying operations is in part being addressed around Cambridge airport using protocols described in a Cambridge LoA that all glider pilots who are likely to operate in the Cambridge area are requested to comply with.
If a pilot or club identifies any changes or errors with published LoA’s, please contact the Airspace Committee via the BGA office.
Military – Learn more about the military perspective on the airspace we share with. Information about activity that can be expected at military airfields is available here.
NOTAM. All pilots are expected to check Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) before flight. Failure to do so can have serious safety repercussions. Infringements of temporary restricted airspace will result in CAA investigation and may result in prosecution. Accessing NOTAMs forms a part of all glider pilot training. Any pilot who is unsure about how to check NOTAMs is advised to discuss the matter with his or her CFI or with another experienced pilot. Learn more on the BGA’s NOTAM webpage.
Parachute Drop Zones. You can find parachute drop zone frequencies and other detail here.
Restricted Areas (Temporary) are a regular feature within UK airspace. A common example of a RA(T) is when an air display needs protection from other activity. The RA(T) will be notified in advance through NOTAM and all pilots must comply with the requirements. Usually that means avoiding a specific volume of airspace for a particular period. RA(T)’s are also notified through Temporary Airspace Restrictions listed within specific Aeronautical Information Circulars (AIC) on the NATS AIS website.
RMZ (Radio Mandatory Zone). There are specific requirements for accessing RMZs. You can read the CAA’s policy here.
Rules of the Air. For further information, please go to the Laws and Rules webpage for helpful links.
Task setting. Airspace is a major consideration when task setting. Learn more here.
TMZ (Transponder Mandatory Zone). There are specific requirements for accessing TMZs. You can read the CAA’s policy here.
Transponders. Aircraft flying in certain categories of controlled airspace or in all airspace above FL100 are required to be equipped with a transponder. In 2012 the BGA negotiated a number of non-transponder areas above FL100. These are detailed as exceptions in the UK AIP under ENR 1.1 and 5.2. and the CAA exemption is published in the CAA’s Official Record Series. The situation continues under review with both BGA and CAA keen to ensure that the level of risk is understood and continues to be appropriately mitigated.
PLEASE NOTE – most modern transponders have built in altitude encoding which is pretty foolproof, but a few have a separate blind encoder and it is these that usually require annual maintenance to check the encoder and wiring is correct. It is a parallel interface and one wrong bit can cause problems. TCAS treats a transponder return without altitude information as if it were at the same level. In other words, a Traffic Advisory alert may be generated. A TA for an IFR aircraft is a major cause for concern.
An aircraft flying below airspace with transponder on but no altitude information can cause mayhem with higher altitude IFR traffic above. Transponder users are urged to make sure they know how to operate the equipment, and make themselves aware of the problems that may arise if they deselect altitude mode.
VRPs. Visual Reporting Points at major airports should be treated with caution due to possible conflicts with powered trafficthat is more than likely engrossed with the radio.
Freedom to fly – you can help!
The BGA Airspace Committee works with other airspace stakeholders with the aim of maintaining reasonably safe airspace, equitable access to airspace, and freedom of movement across the UK for gliding. The task is ongoing and growing as an increasing amount of airspace is being demanded for the exclusive use of commercial operations. Volunteer assistance is always welcome. Airline pilots have particularly valuable experience. If you can help, please contact the BGA Airspace Committee chairman via the BGA office.