Event involving Luton Radar

Whilst flying in marginal VFR to Turweston, routing Stapleford, Loughton, Hatfield, Harpenden, Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard with a Luton listening squawk, I requested of Luton Radar a southerly zone transit of Luton Class D – direct from Hatfield (J4 M1) to Turweston. I was given and set a squawk and was identified, cleared to enter and fly not above 2400ft, remaining East of Luton, and placed under radar control. Hatfield is to the SSE of Luton and Turweston is NW of Luton and I was asking for a direct Hatfield to Turweston.

This is an impossible clearance but nevertheless read it back and continued on track. My pilot-non-flying and I were trying to understand how one could comply since to travel to the East would mean backtracking the way we had come and yet we had been cleared to enter [Luton’s zone] and I had been radar identified and given a discrete squawk. Before we had the opportunity to query the clearance, the controller called and said I told you the clearance was to remain East. I indicated to the controller that this is an impossible clearance for a direct routing. Both myself and the pilot-non-flying had by this time concluded that it was an ambiguous clearance as we were already due South and to remain East would mean to turn 180 and go back the way we had come. Around Harpenden I was then told to “Hold Position” – not being a helicopter we began a right orbit. I called explaining we were SE, and Turweston was NW, and re-requested a direct to Turweston. The controller told me he knew where Turweston was and then, in what we considered was a little unprofessional, told us Luton was an International Airport with the implication that we should not be asking to come into the airspace. At no time was I instructed to fly any headings under radar control.

I did not develop the conversation any further on the radio, but re-requested the direct to Turweston as per my first request and, halfway round my orbit, was cleared again direct to Turweston. Whilst I agree that I read back the clearance as per my training but requesting a direct, being allocated a squawk, being identified, and then being cleared to enter and placed under radar control left us pondering the validity of the clearance especially as no radar vectors were given under radar control. We entered the CTR south of Harpenden, almost due south of Luton and then orbited. With the benefit of hindsight we could have turned 80 starboard and headed directly for Luton’s runway and passed to the north of the Luton runway. Certainly, for previous routings via Luton we have been asked to pass over the landing threshold, but in this case it was unclear to me, and the pilot-non-flying, exactly where the controller expected us to be and, by the time we had sorted out in our own minds that we needed to clarify, the controller had given us a bit of an ear-bashing in less than ideal VFR conditions. I suppose my expectation, once we had requested a direct from A to B, would have been something along the lines of “unable to clear you direct”. “Route via 26 Threshold” “traffic you may see is …” etc.

CAA Comment

The diagram shows the reporter’s requested route (VRP A1(M)J4 to Turweston) in red and the controller’s likely intended route (“…remaining east of Luton”) in green. The reporter later stated that they were actually SW of VRP A1(M)J4 and entered the CTR south of Harpenden but, from where the pilot received the routing instruction (Hatfield) they could easily have complied with the controller’s instructions with a minor deviation. So, why was there confusion in the reporter’s mind, to the extent that they thought they would have to reverse their route? The controller’s instruction “…remaining east of Luton” could conceivably be interpreted in a number of ways: remain east of Luton Town; remain east of Luton Airport; or remain east of Luton CTR. The controller would have been better served by either explicitly stating which of these ‘Lutons’ they meant, or using VRPs when communicating their instruction, of which there were many options (such as route ‘VRP Kimpton Hall to VRP Offley’ or similar).

Notwithstanding, it was unwise to simply continue on track after having been given specific routing instructions for a transit of controlled airspace. At the very least, the pilot should have immediately sought clarification of the exact routing required rather than carry on until the controller had to intervene and instruct them to hold at the airspace boundary. The plan to fly through the Luton departure lanes was somewhat flawed in the first place because these are very busy as commercial aircraft depart and climb; hence why controllers generally direct zone-crossing traffic to route through the airfield overhead where there will be few commercial aircraft at zone-transit levels. Fundamentally, the pilot could have helped themselves by routing around the Luton CTR and, if not possible, have a ‘Plan-B’ in case Luton refused their entry into controlled airspace. The reporter commented later that their Plan B had been to route via BNN and Berkhamsted but they did not appear to have considered employing this option when they could not understand what the controller wanted them to do. They also might have given themselves a better chance if they had made their call to Luton at an earlier stage, thereby giving themselves more time to request clarification or make a decision on re-routing if necessary.

Ultimately, pilots must comply with controller instructions when seeking to enter controlled airspace and should not press on with their own route if they cannot understand what they are being asked to do. In respect of such instructions, the pilot mentioned that they never received any headings whilst under radar control but, being VFR traffic, the controller would not give headings, just routing instructions; headings are only given to IFR traffic.