Crossing the Atlantic – How we do it…

The Atlantic Ocean is one of the busiest areas of airspace in the world. Each day, hundreds of aircraft cross this large expanse of water between North America and Europe, safely and efficiently. This is how it’s done…

North Atlantic Tracks

Most North Atlantic traffic consists of two separate patterns. A west-bound flow departing Europe in the morning and an east-bound departing N.America in the evening. However, out over the Atlantic there is no conventional radar coverage. So, in order to provide an efficient and safe crossing, a system of organised tracks are used. The North Atlantic Tracks (NATs) are constructed every 12 hours by controllers in either Shannon, Ireland or Gander, Canada. These tracks are normally separated 60 miles laterally. Aircraft are also separated by a minimum of 1000ft vertically and 10 minutes longitudinally from other aircraft on the same track.

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Map showing a typical track structure (from www.nats.aero)

Oceanic Clearance

As we approach the Oceanic entry point, we contact the relevant Air Traffic unit to request our Oceanic Clearance. Normally Shanwick when flying west and Gander when flying east. The Air Traffic Unit already has a record of the NAT track we would like to use so we let them know the flight level (altitude) and speed at which we’d like to cross the Atlantic and also the time which we will reach the entry point.

The controllers in Gander then combine this with the similar requests from the hundreds of other aircraft crossing the Atlantic. They then come up with a plan which will keep us all safely separated from each other. A specific clearance is then given to each aircraft which dictates on which NAT track they must fly, at what altitude and speed.

In the example below, we were cleared to EGLL (London Heathrow) via RAFIN (the entry point) and Track U. The message then continues to give the GPS co-ordinates of the track and the altitude (41,000ft) and speed (Mach0.85) at which we need to fly. Both pilots meticulously check these details in the aircraft’s computers individually and then together. The autopilot is only as good as the information which we give it.

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Our Oceanic Clearance…

Oceanic Entry

In the photo below, you can see the picture we get on our screens. Our Oceanic clearance has been received and we are about to start our crossing at our assigned speed and level. (41,000ft) at the waypoint ‘RAFIN’. The solid purple line is our route along our assigned track. Whilst out over the Atlantic, we always like to know where the nearest airfield is should we need to divert for any reason. To do this, we can either place green rings around the airfield as seen, or use a special ‘Alternates’ page in the computer.

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The view on the Navigation Display

The Crossing

Once out over the Atlantic, the wonders of CPDLC keep ATC updated of our position on a regular basis. We are also able to send them a message to request a whole host of things. For example, a change in altitude due turbulence or aircraft performance. Very much like sending a text message. When reaching the half way point, we then contact the controllers in Ireland who oversee the remaining part of the crossing. On reaching the Irish coast, flights are then taken off the track system and fed into the regular flow of European traffic.

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