Trip to Newcastle - January 2011

This article describes a very straightforward IFR (airways) trip from Shoreham (EGKA) to Newcastle (EGNT), and back the same day.

Procedurally, the flight was very similar to other airways flights I have done. Other VFR and IFR trip reports can be found here. IFR flying tends to follow a set pattern, with the main variable being the weather.

This is one of the shortest IFR flights (in the European airway system) I've ever done. On a nice day, many instrument rated pilots would have chosen to do a flight like this under VFR, and any PPL can work out how to do that (get the VFR charts, draw lines on them, etc). The UK also allows non-radio IFR in its extensive Class G airspace so an IFR qualified pilot can freely mix VFR and IFR enroute as required, without IFR clearances. Consequently, I rarely fly in controlled airspace (the "airway" network) on flights wholly within the UK.

However, high altitude (controlled airspace) IFR has advantages even in the simple UK airspace: where the low level weather is poor, presenting turbulence or icing conditions, but the cloud layer is relatively thin and high altitude situation is clear. This is even more relevant to a non-deiced aircraft which cannot sit in icing conditions for hours. The purpose of this article is to illustrate the simplicity of such a flight.

Here is a glossary for non-aviation readers.



The aircraft is a 2002 Socata TB20GT which has a zero-fuel "book" range of approximately 1100nm and an economical cruise speed of 155kt TAS at 10,000ft. Extra economical cruise power settings can extend the zero-fuel range to 1300nm which, according to FAA rules, translates to approximately 1100nm with IFR reserves. It has a ceiling of about 20,000ft and is equipped with oxygen. It is not certified for flight into icing conditions but has a TKS de-iced propeller.

Navigation equipment includes a KLN94 IFR/BRNAV GPS and a KMD550 MFD and these are used for primary navigation. IFR flight in Europe above FL095 (generally) requires BRNAV certification which in the GA context is met only with a BRNAV approved IFR GPS installation. The most common means of BRNAV compliance is one of the Garmin 430/530 products but many other panel mounted GPSs have been approved.

The aircraft has a KFC225 autopilot which can track VOR/GPS/LOC/ILS and fly a preset altitude or a preset VS. There is an additional battery powered Garmin 496 GPS which also provides an audio terrain warning (TAWS) function with a European terrain and obstacle database. A WX500 stormscope and two independent VOR and ILS receivers are installed.

Flight Planning Equipment

In this case, being a very short trip, all planning and flight plan filing was done at home, before departure, on my PC. However, I always carry a laptop just in case. Nowadays it is easy to get TAFs and METARs on any modern mobile phone capable of WWW access, but unless one carries a huge "phone" a laptop is still much easier for anything complicated. The laptop has GPRS/3G internet access, via a bluetooth-connected mobile phone, which provides independence from airport weather briefing and flight plan filing services, and enables flights to be fully replanned if one gets stuck somewhere.

On a short trip like this, it makes sense to file even the return flight plan in advance, because cancelling or delaying it is much easier than filing it.



I normally avoid enroute frontal weather because the cloud tops tend to be above the aircraft ceiling (20,000ft).

The outbound and return flights were on the same day. The MSLP chart 1200 showed good stable conditions, and these remained for a few days thereafter. The MSLP also indicated a substantial headwind on the way up and a tailwind on the way back.

As for SigWx, and as expected, the 1200 one showed nothing significant. These charts show weather hazardous to jets and other larger aircraft, and are much less useful to non-deiced pilots. Contrary to widespread belief, they do not show cloud tops. I barely look at the SigWx nowadays, and have never seen anything on them which was not obvious from the MSLP chart.

The IR satellite image on the morning of the flight showed no high altitude cloud along the route (shown approximately in yellow)

On these images, the whiter the cloud is the lower its temperature and thus the greater its altitude. High altitude cloud, say FL200 plus, shows up as something approaching solid white. IR imagery which contains a temperature scale (enabling a more accurate altitude estimate; if necessary by reference to altitude/temperature data which for some reason is a lot more accurate) is available but I have not found any which is free and less than several hours old...

When IFR, I always fly the enroute section VMC on top and have spent way too much time trying to understand cloud tops forecasting. An article on tops is here. However, tops forecasting remains far from reliable and is likely to remain so because commercial aviation has no use for that kind of data. This is exemplified by the SigWx form which has recently been stripped of information irrelevant to jet operations. Consequently, nowadays, my IFR go/no-go decision is made on the day, on the basis of the TAFs/METARs (for surface conditions) and the satellite IR image (for enroute / high altitude conditions).

This simple but very effective system has never let me down in that I have never had a "rough" flight or had to turn back, although it does result in the cancellation of some flights which a bolder pilot would have embarked on and, due to the "scattered" nature of weather, would have got away with. The question is ... what about the ones he does not get away with? If you are in IMC, with several hours to run at that altitude, with no way to outclimb it, and things are getting "rough", or you start collecting ice in a big way, you have no way of knowing if things are going to get better or worse. I don't like to be in that situation. One should always have an escape route but if that is a diversion to some dump, what was the point? It's better to stay put till the next day.

On very long flights, the winds aloft also matter. I usually disregard tailwind for fuel planning purposes and use the forecast headwind directly. However, in Europe, the effective aircraft range is more often set by the availability of airports and suitable alternates that have Customs and Avgas. The effect of the actual wind does of course show up in the constantly updated LFOB computation and this figure can be used for diversion decisions on the actual flight.

On the morning of the flight I got the TAFs and METARs which showed good conditions for an IFR flight.

For good measure, the radar image and sferics (lightning) were obtained and both showed nothing.

This type of high pressure is really excellent high altitude flying weather, but - in the winter, especially - it can be very mucky at low altitudes, and there is the risk of fog especially as the evening arrives and the air starts to cool towards its dew point. In fact, fog was forecast for Newcastle on the previous day's TAF.


IFR Route Design

Today, FlightPlanPro (FPP) is the tool of choice. It delivers good routings at least 95% of the time. The two routes for this trip were developed in seconds, and most unusually they were identical:

The outbound route:

EGKA (Shoreham)
EGNT (Newcastle)
257 nm (GC) 269nm (airways)
Alternates: EGKA (Shoreham), EGHH (Bournemouth)

The return route:

EGNT (Newcastle)
EGKA (Shoreham)
257 nm (GC) 269nm (airways)
Alternates: Alternates: EGKA (Shoreham), EGHH (Bournemouth)

I normally file for FL140 or higher as this yields better routings than lower down, places the flight decisively in controlled airspace, and places the enroute section above the clouds most of the time. One can always ask for a "stop climb" once in clear VMC, although I would not ask for a level below about FL100 due to the busy terminal airspace below (Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, etc).

Some notes on European airways route design are here.

Of course, FL140 requires oxygen but I never fly anywhere seriously without oxygen because doing so nearly halves the aircraft operating ceiling and discards by far the most attractive weather/ice avoidance option: climbing to VMC on top. I also use oxygen anytime at/above FL100; the flow rate at FL100 is very low but it keeps you fresh and you don't arrive tired.

Curiously, Newcastle does not publish any SIDs/STARs. One would therefore expect a radar vectored ILS, with a procedural ILS as a backup, and some kind of "made up on the spot" IFR departure.

More detail on the usage of FPP and Flitestar are in this trip writeup. However, there are plenty of other ways to plan IFR flights; for example FPP alone, or EuroFPL alone, are quite capable of generating all the information actually required for the flight. I like to use Flitestar because of the nice mapdata. It is a rather clunky program though and I don't use most of its features.


Other Preflight Tasks

PPR (prior permission required) is a frequent issue in Europe does not apply in this case. There is mandatory handling done by Samson; they did not answer the phone so I left a message on their answering machine. On the day, the flight was actually "handled" by the aeroclub as I was meeting up with a local pilot who organised it.

Flight plan filing was done electronically, at zero cost, using EuroFPL. EuroFPL is a data-efficient website which is usable over a slow GPRS/3G connection, and it has a flight tracking facility which enables someone on the ground to monitor your progress. More notes on electronic flight plan filing options are here.

Note: The Eurocontrol routings given here and elsewhere will most likely not work by the time you might try them because the precise form needed to get the route into the Eurocontrol computer in Brussels changes from one week to the next, and there are frequent differences between weekdays and weekends which are largely due to a lack of military activity on weekends. However, fragments of old routes can be useful even if the route does not validate as a whole anymore.


Fuel Planning

Fuel was not an issue on this flight, involving around 40% of the aircraft zero-fuel range and that is assuming one diverts all the way back to the departure airport. The winds were not insignificant (up to 40kt forecast) but not an issue given the aircraft range and the availability of avgas at Newcastle.


Outbound Flight

Shoreham is in Class G and thus unable to issue a clearance to enter controlled airspace (CAS). One normally collects a provisional departure clearance from the tower, but this flight departed 0845 and the tower was unmanned. I was a little concerned about this departure because the filed route leads straight into CAS which is potentially busy with Gatwick traffic, so any delay in getting the IFR clearance could result in being held down for a long distance.

The flight entered IMC within a minute or two and stayed there for the next half an hour. A call for the IFR clearance was made shortly after departure to London Information 124.60 who issued provisional instructions of "remain outside controlled airspace, squawk 1177". By then we had levelled off at 2400ft; just below the base of CAS. While waiting for London Control to get back to them, London Info helpfully offered the latest Newcastle weather (280/03, 9k, NSC). Later they called back with "remain outside controlled airspace, squawk 5431, contact London Control 134.125" who then gave me a DCT CPT and a clearance to enter CAS climbing to FL080.

The cloud tops were found at about 4000ft

Before reaching FL080, London Control issued a clearance to climb to the filed level of FL140 but due to the good clear conditions I asked for a "stop climb" at FL100, which they agreed immediately. I could have continued to FL140 but there was nearly 40kt of headwind and wind is usually stronger at a higher altitude...

Shortly after levelling off, the computed Landing Fuel on Board (LFOB) was 58USG which left plenty for the return trip - especially as the return flight would have a lot of tailwind

At FL100, +1C, the aircraft was doing about 143kt TAS, at MP=20" (wide open throttle), 2400RPM, 10.2 USG/hr (38.5 litres/hr).

Due to an inversion typical of these high pressure conditions, the temperature at FL100 was similar to the temperature on the ground!

Further north, the cloud cover thinned out

With about 100nm left to run, and due to the slight possibility of fog, I checked the Newcastle weather using the Thuraya satellite phone, connected to my LS800 tablet computer

The connection is billed at US$0.99/minute and this call was under a minute. This is a super facility - when the Thuraya network is not broken, which it is about 5% of the time. The LS800 is normally running in the cockpit anyway, showing a GPS moving map over a VFR chart; on high altitude flights this might come in handy for emergencies, and it works great for low level VFR flight where one is dodging controlled airspace.

London Control handed us over to Scottish Control about halfway along. The entire flight was on headings, with a few DCTs to waypoints of which most were not on the filed route. On the last portion of the flight, FL100 places the aircraft outside CAS so ATC offered a Traffic Service.

With just 30nm to run we got a descent; initially to FL070 and then 3500ft, and then 2000ft, and then vectors to the ILS


Return Flight

Newcastle does not publish any SIDs so I expected some kind of composite departure clearance and indeed got "runway 25, straight ahead, at 1.5D turn left 210 degrees, climb 6000ft, squawk 6031".

The return flight was as straightforward as the inbound one, with an early climb clearance to FL140 and another "request stop climb" at FL100. As on outbound flight, the route was mostly on headings, with a few DCTs to waypoints off the filed route.

It was time for some good sunset pictures...

and the last one at FL100 showing the cities down below

Due to the busy terminal airspace around London, I did not expect an early descent from London Control and indeed did not get one until about 30nm to run, when we got FL090, FL070, and then a descent below CAS.


Both flights were tracked using the EuroFPL aircraft tracking facility which accesses a feature provided by Eurocontrol. Some example snapshots can be seen in this writeup. It is a fairly reliable system but the data source (Eurocontrol) sometimes messes up, especially if one diverts. This is a nice feature which enables friends/relatives to keep an eye on where you are, although a text message from a satellite phone can be more useful to someone waiting for you.

As is usual in European low-airways IFR, no other aircraft were seen anywhere near the cruise level. This was about the nearest one

All ATC were entirely professional and helpful.

Airborne times were 2:10 and 1:45.

The routes actually flown are shown below:

The altitude profile of the two flights is here:

The QNH varied by a couple of millibars along the route and this is evident in the very slight slope of the FL100 portions.

Due to the conditions at the Shoreham departure end, this trip could not have been done under VFR.

The aircraft performed perfectly. Some notes on Socata TB20 ownership and operation are here.


Pilot: FAA CPL/IR, approx 1300 hours.

Any feedback, reports of dead links, corrections or suggestions much appreciated:
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This page last edited 24th January 2011