The night we moved London Terminal Control November marks 10 years since the transition of London Terminal Control from West Drayton to Swanwick. Stu McBride, who managed the transition project, reflects on the challenge from concept to reality.

On the 23rd of November 2007 a monumental move took place in NATS. The London Terminal Control Centre, which manages some of the busiest and most complex airspace in the world, moved over 70 miles from its home in West Drayton near Heathrow to Swanwick in Hampshire.

This was a key milestone in the NATS two centre strategy merging four Air Traffic Control Centres into two. It took two years of meticulous planning and preparation to ensure transition night went smoothly and as planned.

Stu’s story…

Stu McBride

In 2005 the journey to Terminal Control's new home began. As an ATC support manager at West Drayton, I led a dedicated team which was responsible for all operational aspects of the move, alongside managing the day to day operations.

My team began to draw up detailed plans exploring all of the elements required for the move. This included building our server rooms which power the 24/7/365 operation and upgraded systems.

As for the new operations room, we decided that input from the Controllers themselves was crucial, and so we ran a competition asking for design ideas that we could incorporate into the final build.

PHOTO: London Terminal Control at West Drayton

PHOTO: The empty Terminal Control Room in Swanwick

A vital part of the move to Swanwick was developing training for controllers on the new systems that they would be using once the new centre was up and running.

This included reviewing and updating operational procedures. These updates paved the way for future developments in the way we manage air traffic and have helped to ensure that we can safely manage high levels of air traffic as they continue to rise.

PHOTO: Kitted out Terminal Control Room in Swanwick

By 2006, everything was in place technically. We were given the opportunity to choose a transition night, so we chose the 23rd November 2007. It was great to be given the freedom, however once we selected this Operational date (O Date) we were committed to achieving it, which was hugely challenging.

As the project progressed towards O date a huge number of operational tests were required which had to be undertaken during the night to avoid disruption as traffic levels are much lighter. Air traffic controllers have strict working time guidelines, but we needed their help to test and validate equipment. It was a challenging task to manage things carefully so we had enough operational staff to conduct tests whilst others kept the skies safe from West Drayton.

Night of the transition

On the transition night I stayed at West Drayton with the Director of Operations - Ian Hall. As part of the transition process we needed to maintain normal operations at West Drayton until systems could be transferred to the new centre at Swanwick.

PHOTO: Stu McBride and John Paton handing over the last flight from West Drayton to Swanwick. PHOTO: Ian Hall - NATS Operations Director 2007.


At midnight we started to handover all of the systems. As we had tested the transition sequence for over a year, we had planned a gradual handover process, which we estimated would take a few hours.


At 02:30 we had successfully transferred all systems over to Swanwick which now had full responsibility for London Area Control. Ian and I had a ceremonial moment as the engineers allowed us to remove the final cable from the West Drayton systems network. That was a key moment in NATS history and one that i'll never forget.

The system time of the first transmission


The first transmission was made from Swanwick at 02:43. Two years of planning and a lot of hard work by many people had come to fruition - it was another an amazing moment and the huge sense of pride felt by everybody who had been part of the move was a true testament to the scale of what we had just achieved.


After Swanwick had taken control of the operation we monitored the systems for several hours to make sure there were no technical glitches, as the systems would became fully operational when traffic arrived from the Atlantic.


Ian and I had been in constant communication with Swanwick throughout the night and at around 06:30 the engineers advised that all systems were now fully operational and Swanwick had full control.

Ryan Rutlidge - The controller who handled the first flight at Swanwick Terminal Control.


At around 07:00 I made my way to the West Drayton operations room, and advised the controllers on the night shift that the transition had been successful and Swanwick now had full control. I'm sure it was a poignant moment for them as their next shift would be in the new centre at Swanwick.


Alex Bristol, who was the operations director for the newly combined operation, let me know everything was operating as planned and we could officially stand West Drayton down. After a very successful but emotional evening I went into the ops room for one last look round, and turned the lights off for the last time. This was a really weird feeling considering this is where my journey as a controller had began and I spent 26 years there, with so many great memories and colleagues.

Ian Hall and John Paton (the last controller to speak to an aircraft at West Drayton)

West Drayton was officially closed after operating for 39 years and handling a total of 48,206,332 aircraft movements. In this time it was responsible for the safe passage of billions passengers between their destinations in UK Airspace.

As for me, well after controlling for 26 years at West Drayton, and six years at Swanwick, I am now based at the Whiteley head office working on new challenges in an ever changing Air Traffic Management environment.

Looking back, the transition was probably the most difficult challenge I've been involved with in my 36 years at NATS. It’s also the most rewarding and memorable as it involved fantastic teamwork throughout almost every area of NATS, not only the technical changes, procedures and training but also having to relocate 300+ colleagues and their families to an entirely new county.

The 23rd of November is a date I won’t forget. Happy 10 year transition anniversary TC!

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