Air Ground Radio Operator Course Review (ROCC)

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As an instructor, I’ve been training (and correcting) students how to talk on the radio for several years. More recently, I’ve run a couple of extensive FRTOL practical training courses online and held 1:1 online sessions via Zoom with students from other schools to prepare for their practical exam. Some have limited or no experience outside a grass strip with at most an air/ground service. Others have not been taught the correct/official phrases or don’t fully understand the clearances they might be given. Many are apprehensive about crossing controlled airspace or even visiting an AFIS airfield, and this gives them confidence not just to take the test but also to make full use of their hard earned PPL or NPPL licence.

So I thought taking a professional class on this would help ensure I was up to standard myself and be useful professional development. The ROCC (Radio Operators Certificate of Competence) permits the holder to operate an Air/Ground radio at any UK airfield. The airfield radio licence holder must first have signed the certificate, and there must be a dedicated radio frequency in use – the shared Safetycom or Microlight frequencies can’t be used. In some cases, the airfield licence holder and operator can be the same person.

There’s no requirement to have had any previous training and there is no published/approved training syllabus. However, it really helps if you hold or have held a pilot’s licence or have some aviation experience. The CAA lists almost 100 ROCC examiners, all of whom can invigilate both the written paper and practical tests. A further web search lists several examiners who provide ROCC training; most state that courses run on demand and take one or two days to complete including the test. You may find one nearby or with dates that are more convenient.

The CAA recently revamped the practical radio examination scheme, requiring all FRTOL examiners to undergo a thorough assessment every three years. I understand that a significant proportion retired as a result. All students are required to have a form signed by their instructor before sitting the practical exam, although those who already have their PPL can self-certify. A FRTOL licence is not required to gain a PPL, because you don’t need to have a radio fitted in your aircraft, but it makes it very much more useful and safe if you do.

BOOKING

I chose the LAA course delivered by their Chief Coach, Chris Thompson, at Popham Airfield. It’s a two-day event spread over a weekend, with a typical class size of four. These are scheduled on ad-hoc/on-demand basis when there is enough interest. Dates are not announced in advance although demand seems to be quite high. Candidates express interest by phoning an administrator at the LAA who then contacts you later with a date. You must then accept or defer quickly (usually same working day). This required a dozen emails and three or four phone calls to complete. I would have thought it more efficient if a schedule of available dates were posted on the LAA website from which a course could be bought and paid for online.

The instructor sent an email to attendees about three weeks beforehand, indicating suggested pre-reading material, and emphasising that you need to bring a colour copy of photo ID and your CAA reference number. Documents included CAP 413 (the UK CAA “bible” on radiotelephony), CAP 452 (Aeronautical Radio Station Operator’s Guide) and Safety Sense Leaflet 22 (Radiotelephony for General Aviation Pilots).

Although possible to commute, I decided to stay overnight and make it easy to arrive promptly for the second day’s 0830 start on Sunday. Other examiners squeeze both training and exam into the same day, but I liked the opportunity to meet other students and have the opportunity to ask more questions in a more relaxed environment.

TRAINING FACILITY

The course was held in the conference room at Popham airfield. This was spacious, well equipped, warm and in good condition. Desks and chairs for candidates with paper and pens provided. Unlimited hot water with tea/coffee/milk was available for use throughout. The airfield café was open all day. Plenty of parking available. I’d not visited for some years and was quite surprised at how much it has expanded, with many additional hangars, clear signage and other improvements. It’s so disappointing to learn that the airfield is under threat from a large new housing development.

A large TV monitor was used plus specialist audio equipment for R/T practical training and the test.

Many smaller airfields provide Air/Ground radio service

TRAINING PROGRAM

The course consists of two days over a weekend. The first day delivered training towards the test, with the written and practical tests conducted on the second.

The course assumes some aviation knowledge and is typically attended by experienced pilots. After everybody introduced themselves, the presentation ran from about 10am through to 5pm with breaks for lunch and coffee. The content is focussed on passing the tests but emphasises the most common practical aspects.

The presenter was a very experienced GA aviator and instructor with a good manner, interspersing occasional (but not too many) personal flying experiences, and highlighting what was important/relevant vs just needed for the test.

The presenter allowed for and actively encouraged interaction, asking questions, involving candidates, while ensuring that the more relevant and pragmatic elements were highlighted.

The syllabus was broken down into

  • Radio Telephony techniques, procedures, categories of message
  • Phraseology, including spelling out letters and numbers phonetically
  • Regular calls, such as pass your message, issuing information not instructions
  • Emergencies, especially the calls for start/end of distress and urgency

There was a practice written test with questions that would be similar, but not identical, to those found in the real papers.

There was a brief practical session where each candidate used the physical equipment to make and receive and respond to calls. This consisted of a small box with a light, a button, and a headset socket. The headset was the type used for computer video calls. The two boxes are connected by long wires. Either user can press their button, see a red light come on, and then speak to the other party.

At the end of the day, the instructor recapped the course, explained in detail the process for the following day and suggested some light revision but not too much. He circulated the slide deck by email early evening.

SOME QUIRKS OF AIR/GROUND

One of the common themes of the day was the constant reminder that you can only provide information. You can’t tell anybody what to do. Obviously not any clearances to take-off or land (with or without their discretion), but also not taxi instructions on the ground. Instead you craft your answer to give information only, e.g. there is a spare parking spot to the right of the blue Cessna rather than taxi straight ahead and park on the right of the blue Cessna. Or informing an approaching pilot that the airfield has two in the circuit, and letting him/her figure out whether a direct join is or isn’t appropriate.

An Air/Ground operator cannot request a pilot to report anywhere, so report overhead or report final shouldn’t be said. Instead, you are only supposed to say roger.

Most of the time, you’ll simply be stating the runway in use and the QFE and any known traffic to affect, and replying ROGER to position calls.This point was emphasised many times during the course.

I found there were only two instructions that an air ground operator can issue:

  1. Instructing an aircraft to use their full callsign because another similar callsign is on frequency
  2. Stop transmitting during a MAYDAY distress.

TEST

The CAA issue several written test papers. These are NOT multiple choice and require the candidate to write down all their answers on specially formatted CAA exam sheets.

Some of the questions are fairly irrelevant, such as what the abbreviation OPC stands for, or where in the country is D&D located. The marking scheme is disproportionate (eg 6 marks for making up 3 call signs and stating their shortened form) vs 2 marks for detailing how airways clearances are readback.

An hour is allowed for the written test, but typically this takes about 20 minutes. Candidates left the room when finished and were called back one at a time in the order they left for a debrief. All passed but nobody got 100%. The pass mark is 75%.

The room layout was then reconfigured to run the practical test. The examiner remains in the same room but is hidden behind a screen. He also drives a laptop which updates the position of the actively transmitting aircraft on the large monitor.

Candidates waited in the café until their turn, which was in order of how far each had to travel home (furthest first). The practical test took about an hour, comprising

  • About 10 minutes briefing and familiarisation. A picture of an airfield is shown on screen and on paper, together with a picture of the altimeters (QNH/QFE) plus windspeed/direction, briefing note listing aircraft activity and a blank movement log to note activity.
  • About 30 minutes of practice calls with a predetermined scenario. The screen showed the position of each vehicle and aircraft, highlighting in turn which was speaking. This included traffic departing, traffic arriving, traffic in the circuit, transiting, departing IFR and requiring an airways clearance and various other feasible events.
  • About 20 minutes debrief. The CAA publish a model answer onto which the examiner notes your responses including deviations and errors. At this point, you are informed if you have passed or failed.

While the next practical candidate self-briefs the scenario, the examiner carefully goes through the CAA application form and ensures that everything is signed an in order. This includes signing a credit card payment form with your CVV number for the ROCC certificate issue (currently £42). It must be one of the few payments to the CAA that still requires a paper form, and I was unhappy about having to provide those details “in the clear” rather than pay through a website.

Candidates can then leave, so depending on who attends and how far they must go, this might be anywhere between about 10:30 and 16:30.

SCOPE

The course did not include any mention of RNP approaches or Flight Information Displays, for which there are recent CAA additions to CAP413. I thought that was reasonable since both require specific approval at individual airfields, which is exceptional. Perhaps these might have been worth a mention.

It did specifically explain that there are several different types of ROCC certificate, including variants for parachute dropping, flying display directors, offshore platforms (e.g. oil rig helidecks), for which additional/alternative training and testing is required. This course is purely for the mainstream airfield air/ground operator.

Several points were included in the training that were clearly relevant only for the test and could be forgotten afterwards, but were needed to do well in the exam. I guess you could say that about almost any CAA theory exam though!

LIFETIME CERTIFICATE

The ROCC arrived in the post about three weeks later. I didn’t opt for the courier delivery option as it’s just a single A4 piece of paper. It is a certificate, not a licence. I know this because it states that clearly on the front. This is different to my UK CAA pilot licence, my FAA airman certificate and my Ground Examiner Licensing Certificate (also not a licence). I have no idea what the subtle difference between these terms might be. It remains valid for life and there is no revalidation or renewal. It must be signed by the air/ground equipment licensee at each airfield it is used at, after receiving a briefing of local procedures has been given including for emergencies. Both roles (air ground operator and airfield licensee) can be the same person.

In the past, it was possible to be issued an ROCC purely on the basis of holding a FRTOL with no training or examination. Such ROCCs remain valid today.

FUTURE REGULATORY PLANS

The CAA have indicated that they would like to move the ROCC written test onto their e-Exam platform. This would likely include revising the test questions, which might help improve the quality and scope (removing irrelevant ones). It would also add to the complexity of running the tests on a course of this format, and would probably require all candidates to bring a laptop. A concern would be any additional CAA fees for examiners to become registered on the e-Exam system (currently £151 every three years for PPL Ground Examiners) and £12.88 per exam taken. It all drives the costs up.

The CAA are said to be considering introducing some form of revalidation to improve the quality of Air Ground operations and standardisation. It is thought this could likely result in considerable number of volunteer radio operators dropping out and many airfields reverting to safetycom or often becoming unmanned. There’s clearly a balance between any safety improvement achieved by added testing vs the additional safety risk of many more unmanned airfields.

The CAA publish a list of ROCC examiners. There is no test to become an examiner (although you do have to have served as an A/G operator for at least two years) and no revalidation. Unlike FRTOL tests, ROCC practical tests are not voice recorded.

OVERALL

I thought this was a well-run course, delivering relevant and useful content while ensuring a high chance of passing the theory and practical exams. The venue was relatively convenient and comfortable, with good equipment for the practical aspects. The presenter and examiner was professional and suitably thorough but not overbearing. The price was reasonable for what was given.

It was interesting to meet the other students who were more likely to use the certificate more immediately than I am likely to do. All were experienced private pilots. One already has a post ready and waiting, while the others expect to serve part time in the next year or two.

This will help me refocus the FRTOL training I provide, probably by simplifying and focussing more on the common and pragmatic aspects used in daily communications. It’s also an option for the future, in case I lose my medical or become unable to fly.

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