Belfast Aldergrove

Posted by

August has been a very busy month with constant demand for flight instruction. Nonetheless, I was determined to take at least one flight in my shared TB20. My IR qualified friend Adam was keen to join me on an airways flight somewhere, and we settled on Belfast Aldergrove, staying nearby overnight. It’s the one large airport in Northern Ireland that I hadn’t yet visited and enabled a reasonable but not unduly long airways IFR flight. Despite instructing for IRR and IR, you can easily lose the currency of planning and executing an IFR flight to a new destination. You become very familiar with the approach procedures at your base and nearby airports, able to recite the target altitudes, distances and minima from memory. So this would be a good refresher and it helped having another IR pilot in the right hand seat. We agreed that Adam would press the buttons on the navigation and radio kit while I would do the flying and talking.

Autorouter remains my go-to application for IFR flight planning complemented by SkyDemon during the flight. Some prefer RocketRoute which offers a concierge service in case of any problems or you want someone else to deal with accommodation, handling agents etc, and these are all available at a price for that convenience. Others have adopted ForeFlight which was designed for US airspace and in my view still hasn’t quite caught up with the many quirks of European or UK real world practices.

Western sector UK airspace underwent a major revision in March 2023 which had upset the IFR routes offered for simple GA aircraft like mine. It took some time for that to settle down, but there was no problem finding a selection to choose from for our trip. The options were either an almost direct VFR flight outside controlled airspace routing via Anglesey in north west Wales, or a dogleg via Liverpool that was within controlled airspace from about 20 miles south. The advantages of the latter were the safety of being separated under positive radar control and with a shorter period of being outside glide range of land, at the expense of a slightly longer flight time.

Since both Gloucester and Aldergrove and designated Police airports, no GAR form is required. Unlike my visit to Belfast City airport, I wasn’t asked to fill one in for convenience and it caused no issues.

Aldergrove’s AIP entry specifies mandatory handling for all GA flights. While there is more than one agent, lighter GA visits Woodgate. A very quick response to my email enquiry confirmed the landing and parking fees which were reasonable for a regional airport. It’s only if arriving/departing outside their normal hours between 0800 and 2000 which would attract a £150 fee.

Woodgate have their own apron and office building/lounge in a separate location on the north west of the airport, a couple of miles by road from the main terminal.

Aldergrove is some distance west of Belfast, but only a few miles south of Antrim town.

Airways again

The CRAFT acronym works well when copying down IFR departure clearances:

  • Clearance limit: Route direct KISWO, remain outside controlled airspace
  • Routing: After departure, climb straight ahead
  • Altitude limit: FL80
  • Frequency for use after departure: Western Radar
  • Transponder Code: XXXX

Gloucester does not (officially) have a radar screen in the tower, so relies on procedural separation between IFR traffic. This results in much wider separation and reliance on pilot’s position reports. The straight ahead departure was purely for separation from inbound.

Western Radar is a controller position at Swanwick, near Southampton, operated by the UK National Air Traffic Service. In the US, this might be called “Centre”, and most of the controllers there have the same callsign of London Control. The role of Western Radar is to act as the gatekeeper in and out of the IFR airways.

Not long after departure, we were given a GPS track to fly of 315 and stepped climbs to FL50, then FL60. Once clear of another IFR aircraft, we got our squawk code, FL80 and direct-to MONTY.

We were offered a traffic service above FL70, issued a further squawk, cleared to enter controlled airspace and then handed over to London Control with the clear statement of “My Radar Service terminates”. This phrase seems appropriate when exiting controlled airspace but feels strange to me during a positive handover to the airways controller. I appreciate that this is the standard procedure which controllers have to follow – they do not have any flexibility or discretion – and there is a very high level of consistency throughout ATC in this country.

London Control were keen to offer us a shortcut and kept us to the south of their airway which provided separation from another light aircraft at a similar level. We entered and exited a block of controlled airspace between Liverpool and the Isle of Man, being given clearance to do so well in advance – “You are cleared to enter and exit controlled airspace“. Ronaldsway radar tracked us through their airspace – we had opted to route via IOM rather than take a further shortcut offered – again mainly to remain within glide range for more of the flight.

A shortcut balanced the desire to be within glide range versus minimise any impact for ATC’s commercial traffic

I requested and was given a climb to FL90 which kept us just above the clouds.

After another brief sector with Scottish Control, the UK’s other main ATC “centre” based at Prestwick, and a direct to ROBOP (which I needed to ask how to spell), we were handed over to Aldergrove Approach for a vectored ILS. We heard an airliner and a PC12 both being vectored in ahead of us, with me thinking this would be very long final approach. Indeed, we were vectored onto the ILS at more than 10 miles out at 5,000 feet. The problem with this is that when descending on the glideslope without gear and flap down, the TB20 can easily exceed the flap and gear limiting speeds – you can get into a scenario where you need both in use to slow you down but can’t deploy either because you are going too fast. The other problem is that we intercepted the glideslope almost at the same time as the localiser. You can’t descend until the localiser is established (within half scale and confident of keeping it there). We are trained not to intercept an ILS from above in case it is a false duplicate, which can theoretically happen although only above and not below the real one.

North of Belfast – vectoring for the ILS 25 at 5,000 feet. First stage of flaps deployed to help slow down.

We did just manage it, but the other option would have been to request a lower altitude before we reached the localiser.

Our standard approach speed is 110 indicated, which with a headwind of about 20 knots reduced our groundspeed to about 90. The final approach seemed to take forever and we were cleared to land by tower from about 5 miles out. It was a good landing given some fairly gusty winds.

It’s easy to overlook having a taxi-chart ready for use at this point. The excitement of a successful landing doesn’t mean the flight is complete – we had to taxi to parking and didn’t really know exactly where that might be. It’s also helpful to have the Ground frequency tuned in. I like to use Box 2 for that (and ATIS), which was possible with our new 8.33kHz capable radio. We turned left in front of the main terminal and taxied west, crossing runway 17 into the Woodgate apron (highlighted on the far left of the diagram below).

SkyDemon taxi chart – the holding points and taxiway lettering becomes visible when you zoom in

Woodgate had marshaller who guided us to our parking spot, put chocks and cones out, then waited while we extracted our luggage and locked up. He drove us and another crew to our hotel nearby without delay – very convenient. The alternative would have been a taxi from the main airport terminal or calling one of the frequent Uber cars in the neighbourhood. After checking in, we took an Uber into Antrim town nearby, which is on Lough Neagh and gives its name to the county. I can recommend the Top of the Town pub for good quality pub food and a well deserved beer.

Top of the Town pub – The Guinness sign seems quite appropriate here


We aimed for a 0930 departure the next morning and all went to plan. Woodgate picked us up with the crew bus at 8:15, giving us plenty of time to pre-flight the aircraft, settle up the landing fee and even drink a quick cup of coffee in their lounge.

Large airports like this generally require you to listen to the ATIS then call for start. I didn’t expect our clearance to come through too quickly, but it was ready by the time we wanted to taxi. “Cleared to Staverton as filed” – somewhat of a surprise partly because I can’t recall ever getting cleared to destination when departing from Gloucester, and also partly because not everyone uses the older airport name.

We taxied the short distance to the hold for runway 17, completed our power checks and reported ready. Our clearance was route to PEPOD climbing to FL90 and expect to switch to Aldergrove Approach. After a short delay for various airliner movements on the main 25 runway, we headed off and climbed away.

Overhead Ballynahinch, directly south of Belfast, heading southwest above the cloud layer
Just about to coast out
About two minutes later – very clear view of Strangford Lough entrance to our north as we coasted out

I was playing with our new avionics upgrade – we now have a second 8.33kHz radio where before it was only 25kHz and could no longer be used for transmissions. This was a plug-in replacement for the older KX165 model. It has a more modern display, so much less flickering and hopefully longer lasting. The NAV features two independent VOR receivers, one driving the external CDI and a second built in which displays only on the screen. You can adjust the OBS direction, similar to using the OBS knob on the CDI, and additionally just ask it for the current radial to or from the VOR. The mode button cycles through these functions.

Can you spot the error in the pictures below?

The GPS indicates that the IOM VOR is on a bearing 113 to the beacon (we call this QDM in the UK). However when the OBS mode is used, it locally displays 104, which was confirmed in TO mode. Clearly some adjustment on the bench will be required to recalibrate and correct that.

Our routing back via IOM towards Liverpool was almost the reverse of our outbound, routing south when coasting in. Once clear of Liverpool airspace, it was easy to descend at our discretion back to Gloucester. There were few clouds down to about 2000 feet, but I requested the RNP via LAPKU for practice.

In the end, a relatively short trip but always a useful reminder and refresher of IFR airways flights. Benefitting from favourable winds both days, we had flown to Belfast in less than a couple of hours each way.

PIC this trip: 3:50
Total PIC: 2,167:20
Total Time: 2,380:30

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *