Look at this two-minute video showing a day of oceanic air traffic, as thousands of flights travel across the Atlantic en route to Europe from North America in both directions.
With the world’s attention riveted now on the southern Indian Ocean and the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 operated as flight MH370, take a moment to see this remarkably beautiful video clip at the end of this brief description of why and how we can fly so safe every day across the oceanic regions of our world.
The Atlantic Oceanic Airspace is the Front Door to Europe.
Shanwick is the Air Traffic Control (ATC) designation for the international airspace that resides above the northeast portion of the Atlantic Ocean. Upon an agreement between the U.K. and Irish governments, after 1966 the designation Shanwick combined, SHANnon and PrestWICK, the original ATC providers and ground communications centers at Ballygirreen, near Shannon (Ireland), and at Prestwick, near Ayrshire, Scotland.
Up to 80% of all transatlantic oceanic air traffic passes through the Shanwick Oceanic Area Control Center (OACC), which is airspace controlled by the United Kingdom. Each day between two and three thousand, primarily Boeing 767, 777-200, 787 and Airbus A380, A330-200, A340 airliners, fly across the North Atlantic to the United Kingdom – and the Shanwick OACC of the oceanic air traffic control service.
Using the call-sign “Shanwick Oceanic“, the Prestwick Center has two dedicated VHF frequencies, specifically for the issuance of oceanic clearances to westbound flights about to enter the Shanwick OACC.
Analogously, there is a similar transpacific oceanic air traffic routes system for flights outbound from the North American west coast, called Pacific Organized Track System (PACOTS). PACOTS is operated under the call-sign “Oakland Oceanic.” Primarily dependent upon the jet streams, Oakland Oceanic Area Control Center (OACC) and PACOTS coordinates transpacific air traffic of flights en route primarily between Hawaii, Japan, China and Southeast Asia and the United States west coast.
Photo: Airbus A330-200 airliner
NATS Holdings (formerly National Air Traffic Services), known today as North Atlantic Tracks (NATS), is the coordinating transatlantic air navigation service provider for North American outbound (inbound) airliners en route to (from) the United Kingdom and destination points east beyond into Europe, Russia, and the Mideast. It provides en-route air traffic control services to flights within the United Kingdom and the Shanwick OACC. NATS provides air traffic control services to fifteen U.K. airports (including London’s Heathrow and Gatwick) and Gibraltar Airport.
NATS Prestwick Center in Ayrshire, Scotland serves as the Atlantic Oceanic airspace “front door to Europe.”
NATS controls the Shanwick OACC – made up of 700,000 square miles of sky – from Scotland’s Prestwick Center. Flying through Shanwick OACC airspace is about 1,400 flights, traveling across the North East Atlantic en route to destinations in the United Kingdom, Northern or Southern Europe, and daily back across the Atlantic en route to destinations in North America.
For instance, British Airways has up to 47 flights a day from London to nearly 24 different destinations in North America. Every day these flights are all guided safely to London and back to North America by NATS controls of the Shanwick OACC. Besides this, a large amount of North American bound air traffic passes through Gander OACC, located close to Gander International Airport, Newfoundland, Canada. The Gander ATC center, is responsible for flights traveling through the northwest part of the North Atlantic.
The North America destinations of the London Heathrow or London Gatwick home base flights of British Airways, passing through the Gander OACC, include: Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Newark, Washington-Dulles, Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, Mexico City (limited to 3 times a week), Orlando, Miami, San Diego, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, San Francisco, Montreal, Vancouver, Canada, and Calgary, Canada – Alberta.
Photo: Boeing 777-200ER airliner, British Airways
The Shanwick OACC is the busiest of all North Atlantic Airspace regions, which is why it is so often referred to as ‘the Atlantic Oceanic front door to Europe’. Approximately 80% of all North Atlantic Air Traffic passes through Shanwick OACC, which firmly establishes it as the strategic global aviation asset of the NATS Prestwick Center and United Kingdom airspace.
Responsibility for the provision of air traffic services within International Airspace is delegated to UN Member States by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO divides such Shanwick OACC (off the U.K. west coast), Oakland OACC (off the U.S. west coast), and Gander OACC (off the U.S. east coast) airspace into flight information regions, parts of which may be deemed controlled airspace, and sometimes conventionally classified as an Oceanic Control Areas (OCA).
Pilots can text message and communicate via satellite to air traffic controllers.
The Prestwick Center provides an Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) called ORCA – Oceanic Route Clearance Authorization – for suitably equipped aircraft to obtain Shanwick OACC clearances without the need for voice communications.
NATS oceanic airspace was also the first to initiate the use of satellite technology for airliner travel communications and air traffic controls. Specially, the Prestwick Center coordination of Shanwick OACC receives forwarding waypoint position reports from aircraft operators through Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcasts (ADS-B and ADS-C), which it first tested years ago and is now employed on transatlantic, transpacific, and transpolar air travel daily across our world.
Modern digital-age Boeing 777-200 and Airbus A330-200 airliners engage with Prestwick Center through modern datalink communications, future air navigation systems, or flight management computers. Despite such digital-age aviation technological advances, aircraft continue to carry as backup high-frequency radio, as a conventional means of communication within oceanic airspace. So, pilots can always at all times stay in touch with somebody on the ground or another airliner in the vicinity of the oceanic airspace.
Photo: Air Traffic Controllers at NATS Prestwick Center in Scotland
Nevertheless, airliners along oceanic routes are not controlled using radar. Because radar is limited to about a 250 mile range, according to NATS. Instead, oceanic air traffic controllers must rely on pilots communicating regularly back to controllers – either via satellite or high frequency radio – at regular intervals. Controller–pilot data link communication systems also enable the sending and receiving of text-based messages, thus cutting out the requirement to make verbal reports. Oceanic air traffic controllers then use these pilot communications to maintain separation between other airliners to avoid mid-air collisions and to maintain uniform streams of smooth air travel and flight operations well-navigated and well-communicated.
International Aviation Safety is Visually on Display.
Deep-down we all are fascinated with flying. Flying makes possible our freedom. It is also a commodity we cannot do without, much like our cellphones and our internet. Voyage and air travel makes our world more accessible.
Pilots of modern-day, digital-age flying marvels, like a Boeing 777-200 or an Airbus A330-200, often assert an old-adage of aeronautics, saying ‘in an emergency, we first must fundamentally reside in aeronautics to aviate and navigate the plane, then, we can communicate’ to others. They act in ‘automatic aeronautics mode’ to fundamentally save a prevailing aircraft first from any safety breach, most especially in the remote occurrence of a safety mishap over oceanic air space. Holding onto this old-adage allows us to sit back and rest assured we are indeed safe inside the airplane cabin during our transatlantic, transpacific, and transpolar air travel daily across our world.
Photo: London Heathrow International Airport
International aviation safety and air traffic control is now on display through their time-lapse of European flight paths, as the air traffic control service, NATS, has released a remarkable video, condensing all its flights from a typical day into a stunningly beautiful two-minute video clip shown below.
According to NATS, the visualization shows transatlantic traffic over a 24 hour period taken from a day in August last year. The NATS video clip includes 2,524 flights, of which 1,273 pass through the Shanwick OACC. As typically August is the busiest air travel periods in the summer, air traffic can peak as high as 1,500 flights a day that may pass through the Shanwick OACC. Not shown are thousands of additional flights passing through Gander OACC, New York OACC, Santa Maria OACC, and Pacific-based Oakland OACC.
Watch and share this extraordinary two-minute video, courtesy of NATS and HuffPo, as hundreds of planes make their transatlantic and transpolar “predetermined tracks” in a pattern so intriguing, it looks like the little blue airliner bulbs are “dancing over each other in the sky.”
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