The world's busiest commercial heliport A spotlight on Aberdeen

Nicknamed 'The Granite City', Aberdeen is world famous for its distinctive architecture, interesting microclimate and stunning Highland scenery.

What many don't know about is that the crucial role aviation plays in Aberdeen’s oil gas and renewables industry, and how the air traffic controllers working from Aberdeen Airport look after a piece of airspace larger than the UK’s entire landmass.

In fact, there are more controllers at Aberdeen International Airport than there are at Heathrow.

There’s nothing quite as complex as the operation in Aberdeen. Not only does the airport have commercial aircraft to manage, but each day more than 150 helicopters travel to and from the remote oil and gas sites in the North Sea, transferring workers and equipment.

The NATS Aberdeen operation has two distinct and separate elements; airport and offshore...

Aberdeen International Airport

The airport has one main runway (1953m x 46m) and two helicopter runways which connect in the centre. In marginal and poor weather conditions, both helicopters and aircraft use the same runway; this is where the skill of an Aberdeen Airport air traffic controller really comes to the fore.

The variety and quantity of traffic provides a unique challenge to the NATS team as they work to safely and seamlessly integrate the different types of aircraft to maximise capacity and efficiency.

The fixed wing aircraft range significantly in size. One of the most frequent visitors are British Airways A320s operating flights to and from London, and as an international airport, Aberdeen also handles aircraft such as KLM’s B737s, Wideroe Dash8-Q400s and BMI Regional E135s flying to and from destinations outside the UK. Regular military visitors include the A400 and the Typhoon, with pilots using Aberdeen to practice flying into a civil airport.

At Aberdeen Airport, which is both an international airport and the world's busiest commercial heliport, NATS' air traffic controllers move between heliport and airport operations many times a day, seamlessly integrating a very complex air traffic scenario."

- Daryl Heaselgrave, GM NATS Aberdeen

Standing 21m tall, the control tower has become an iconic landmark at the airport and has even featured in an airport tower exhibition at Smithsonian Aerospace Museum in Washington thanks to its unique shape.

The current control tower was opened in 1977 but NATS has been providing an ATC service at Aberdeen airport since 1972.

The ‘offset ziggurat’ shape came about by accident after a final check of the building design highlighted that the corners closest to the runway infringed the Transitional Slopes (airfield design regulations state that only frangible structures can infringe the slopes - and a control tower building is rather sturdy!). Rather than move the tower, the design was altered to give it a sloping perspective that kept the building within the guidelines.

Inside the visual control room, housed in the highest point of the tower, controllers look after all airport traffic including ground movements, landings and take-offs.

Downstairs in the tower, radar controllers perform two tasks. Some look after the airport radar function, controlling both inbound and outbound helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to a range of approximately 55 nautical miles. They sit alongside another group of controllers who control the Offshore traffic; a service to aircraft in North Sea airspace stretching from the coast of Norfolk in the south and all the way into the Norwegian airspace and up towards Iceland.

Tom, an air traffic controller at Aberdeen, explains how the radar room operates:

Aberdeen Offshore

The first offshore helicopter flight departed from Aberdeen Airport in 1967, the same year that oil was discovered in the North Sea. Helicopters now account for 39% of the airport movements; that’s almost 40,000 every year.

Aberdeen is home to four helicopter terminals dedicated to North Sea operations, used by Bristow Helicopters, CHC-Scotia, Bond Offshore Helicopters and NHV.

The oil and gas industry in Aberdeen supports approximately 100,000 jobs in Aberdeen alone with numerous indirect benefits across the UK.

Aberdeen's area of responsibility over the North Sea is the same size as the entire UK landmass, approximately 100,000² nautical miles. Most of this area is ‘uncontrolled’ Class G airspace, with a number of military Danger Areas; this makes the controlling environment complex and demanding.

Connectivity to Aberdeen is also a vital link for many Scottish Islands. From the radar room at Aberdeen, NATS provides air traffic control radar services to Sumburgh Airport on Shetland in the same way they do for Aberdeen Airport.

Tricky conditions such as strong winds, fog in summer and snow in winter provide challenges to the team in Aberdeen, with high waves around the rigs and a phenomenon called ‘triggered lightning’ (where the movement of rotor blade generates electricity between them in certain weather conditions) also affect operations, making it one of the most challenging and interested places to be an air traffic controller anywhere in the world.

Our work in the North Sea radar environment is equally challenging across a huge piece of airspace, with helicopters often flying in the most demanding weather conditions and using some of the most technologically advanced ATC equipment."

- Daryl Heaselgrave, GM NATS Aberdeen

Controllers must integrate a mix of IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and VFR (Visual Flight Rules) helicopter arrivals and departures in a way that doesn't impact on the capacity of commercial fixed-wing traffic using the Instrument Landing System (ILS) and main runway.

An extensive network of Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) technology gives the air traffic controllers a much better picture of off-shore traffic than comes from traditional radar sources and in many cases helicopters can be seen down to rig height, even at the furthest ranges from Aberdeen. The controllers work is also supported by a network of radio transmitters and receivers on the rig platforms themselves.

The future is bright for Aberdeen. The airport itself is currently undergoing a multi-million pound transformation to the Terminal and working hard to bring-in more airlines flying European routes.

Offshore, the oil and gas industry is moving into new territorial waters, meaning increasing numbers of helicopters routing through the airport.

The WAM system is being expended across the North Sea and NATS is working with partners to trial drones in BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) operations; both initiatives will further benefit the oil, gas and renewables industry.

Every controller at Aberdeen is proud of the contribution that they make to supporting the UK oil, gas and renewables industry; proud that they are playing a vital role in delivering safety in operations to underpin an enormous part of UK GDP."

- Daryl Heaselgrave, GM NATS Aberdeen