A Ball of Blue

The United Kingdom’s air traffic control entity, NATS, recently published the third in a series of computer-generated videos depicting a typical day’s traffic in the skies controlled by the National Air Traffic Service.

The first two, Europe 24 and North Atlantic Skies, were impressive enough. But this one, which focuses on air traffic over the British Isles, is of particular interest because I’ve flow in and out of the London area on many occasions. I can imagine myself as one of those tiny dots (“which one am I”?), zipping around the skies of southern England like a 35-ton firefly or launching westward toward America in the manner of a sleek metal bullet being fired across a placid lake.

This clip, entitled “UK 24”, is also worth watching because it breaks down the traffic by type: military, commercial, helicopter, light GA, and so on. After watching the video a few times, I was struck by the paltry ratio of general aviation to airline activity — the polar opposite of what we’ve traditionally seen in the States. Perhaps that’s because the airplanes operating without ATC services are not modeled in this video. Either way, it’s a sad (and unintended, I’m sure) commentary on the state of grass roots general aviation in Europe.

I wonder if the FAA provides a similar visualization of flights over the continental U.S. It would certainly be an interesting comparison. I imagine it would make a dramatic statement about the size and scope of traffic in the national airspace system. NATS controls an average of 6,000 flights per day in U.K. airspace. According to the FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System, the U.S. sees ten times as many flights over the same period. And that doesn’t include non-participating VFR targets which, unlike our British cousins, outnumber IFR operations by several orders of magnitude.

A visualization of all American air traffic would probably be so overwhelming that portions of the map near major metropolitan areas would be nothing but a vibrant ball of blue. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

  9 comments for “A Ball of Blue

  1. November 19, 2014 at 9:48 am

    There are others, but here’s one for the US: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iEhvrI3FWI

    • November 19, 2014 at 9:59 am

      Thanks Keith. I should have known you’d be able to point out a video of U.S. air traffic without batting an eye! 🙂

      I would note that this isn’t a fair comparison to the NATS video, because Thanksgiving is an abnormally heavy travel day in the United States. It is interesting to see the patterns, though. For example, how the east coast gets going before the west coast. Or how the evening departures to Europe all head out around the same time.

      That video shows IFR traffic. Imagine if all the VFR targets were displayed as well. I’m not sure such a thing could exist, because not even ATC radar shows them all.

      • November 19, 2014 at 4:05 pm

        My pleasure, Ron. Fair enough, here’s a regular day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbnOQrpcG5Y 🙂

        • November 20, 2014 at 1:26 am

          The section at the end showing the weather diversions, holds, and delays was interesting, especially since the severe weather was also plotted.

  2. November 19, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Very interesting synchonicity; just yesterday I was rummaging around the back alleys of my brain waves with just that thought: a depiction of all of the aircrat airborne over the Conus during the busiest travel time period (perhaps, to even include quadricopters, as well as police and weather choppers). If one were to look at that picture the likely conclusion would be of awe in that there are not far more mid-air accidents. Hooray for TCAS, Allen Morris/aka Ace Abbott (www.therogueaviator.com)

    • November 19, 2014 at 10:54 am

      We are reading your mind, Ace! (And by we, I mean the NSA of course…)

      It is surprising that there aren’t more midairs. Not because of the depicted IFR traffic — as you noted, TCAS and positive control reduce the odds of a collision quite nicely — but rather because there is so much more VFR traffic buzzing around at lower altitudes, often travailing the same compact slices of sky because of airspace and terrain considerations.

  3. Mike Trevor
    November 19, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    There are a few good FedEx radar tapes on YouTube like this one: http://youtu.be/39eq5lgq9TA

    • November 20, 2014 at 1:31 am

      Thanks for the contribution, Mike. Looks a bit like ants returning to the nest, doesn’t it? The cargo traffic in and out of Memphis is significant enough to have warranted a mention in the clip Keith referenced above.

  4. Alan Rocker
    November 21, 2014 at 5:58 am

    The official attitude to GA in the UK is that it is an aberration, an unwelcome disturbance of an orderly and well-regulated official structure. Non-instrument rated traffic is forced outside controlled airspace, frequently through congested low-altitude corridors. Consequently, instead of being in contact with ATC, anonymous targets accidentally infringe control areas and cause unnecessary excitement all round.

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