A process of air traffic control.

A radar handover is the process by which the responsibility for control of an aircraft is passed from one air traffic controller to another. It is so called because the transferring controller uses radar to identify, to the receiving controller, the aircraft being transferred.

Hard as it is to believe, I am loathe to repeat myself too much in these writeups. However, I should at least say as a preamble that airspace is composed of many interlocking sectors, most of which are controlled by individual controllers (sometimes sectors are combined during quiet periods and run by one controller - this is called 'bandboxing'). An aircraft will frequently fly through more than one of these sectors on its way to its destination.

A radar handover is one of three main methods by which aircraft can be transferred from one controller to another - another being a 'silent handover' and the other being 'releases' of various kinds. The silent handover is the prevailing method for handing over aircraft as it requires little or no controller input. A radar handover, conversely, is a process.

It may take the form of a phone call (if the two controllers are based at separate radar installations) or a face-to-face conversation (if the two controllers are working at adjacent controller positions).

In all cases, the conversation begins with the words "radar handover" and the aircraft callsign. It may be that the soon-to-be-receiving controller is already expecting the flight and has all of the pertinent details (the aircraft type, requested cruising level, cruising airspeed, etc.), in which case the transferring controller goes straight on to stating the aircraft's position, level, squawk and any other information that may help the receiving controller identify the aircraft. If the receiving controller doesn't have any details on the flight, the transferring controller must pass all of that information first - i.e. "Speedbird 123 is a Boeing 737 inbound to Dublin from Glasgow, squawking 6302..." - then continue, passing its position.

There are a few variations on how the position of the aircraft may be pointed out to the receiving controller:

  • If the two controllers are working at adjacent controller positions, the transferring controller may physically point to the appropriate blip on the receiving controller's display.
  • If the hardware is available and certified by the Civil Aviation Authority to be used for this purpose, an electronic pointer (like a mouse cursor) may be used to indicate the position of the appropriate blip on the receiving controller's display.
  • Stating the aircraft's position in relation to an Exact Reporting Point (this may be a navigation beacon, a landmark which is marked on the radar display, or a position marked using specific navigation beacons), which again must be certified to be used for this purpose. There are a couple of rules on how this position may be given:
    • It may be given using the cardinal points of the compass - e.g. North, North-East, etc. Only the eight main points may be used; North-North-East, for example, isn't acceptable. If the aircraft is more than 15 nautical miles from the reference point, its position must be given as:
    • ...bearing and distance from the reference point (rather than the bearing and distance of the reference point from the aircraft, which would be the opposite). Both figures must be accurate to within a few units.

Once the receiving controller is happy they have radar contact with the aircraft, the transferring controller may pass any more information that's relevant, such as the aircraft's general intentions, what type of service it wishes to receive from the controller, or any other special considerations. On the basis of all of that information, the receiving controller decides whether or not to accept the aircraft and if so, gives their radio frequency to the other controller and any other conditions. They may, for example, say that they will accept the aircraft once it has passed a certain point.

So that's fine, you now know another method of transferring control of an aircraft between two sectors. We now get to the point of this writeup, which is for me to mock people not here to defend themselves. There follows an example of how not to do a radar handover.

My job involves running radar simulations for trainee air traffic controllers. I pretend to be the pilots of the aircraft they are controlling, and they give me instructions as if I were those pilots. I then make the blips on the screen do as instructed. I'm a blip driver. I am presently involved in a course training foreign students. They have been here for about two months now, and should know well what they are doing. This includes the use of (at a minimum) conversational English, which is the international language of aviation.

Generally speaking, a pilot and a controller may only use their respective native languages if they are the same, and they are both in their home country. A French pilot and a French controller may only speak French to each other if both aircraft and controller are in France. Otherwise, everyone speaks English. Not always good English, as I'm discovering.

This is a "radar handover" that just took place between one said student and me, which I am transposing from one fictional set of airspace to my own BLOCK/STACKER sectors. The student is the STACKER sector controller. I am everyone else. The aircraft being handed over is the 7140 blip — which we'll call G-ABCD — heading north-west towards NODER in the little diagram below. It is wanting to go from the STACKER sector — which it is presently in — to an airway belonging to BLOCK sector (controlled by me), marked by the boundary it is approaching.

  |         |
  |         |
  |    o    |
  |  NODER  |
  |         |        7140
  |         |      / 080
  |         |     *.

(ring ring)
BLOCK (me): "Block sector?"
STACKER:    "Stacker sector, radar handover, G-ABCD."
B:          "Pass your message."
S:          "Position from NODER bearing 140, range 20 miles, squawking 7140."
B:          "Contact. What's he doing?"
S:          "Uh.. I... hand him to you."
B:          "Um, no.

            Why are you handing him to me?
            What does he want?
            Where's he going?
            Does he want to join the airway?
            What level does he want?"

S:          "Uhhh... I am Arabic."

B:          "..."

Instructor: "Alright, stop the exercise."

ATC students: a constant source of free entertainment. This coming from someone who's been one.

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