Manchester Approach Radar:
118.575 (Manchester Radar)
121.350 (Manchester Director)
134.425 (Stafa Sector)
128.050 (Wallasey Sector)
133.800 (East Sector)
Manchester Fire Service:
121.600 (Used only during an emergency)
128.175 (Manchester Arrival Information)
121.975 (Manchester Departure Information)
All air traffic control communications are broadcast on the "Airband" range of frequencies which range from 108 to 137 megahertz. To put this into perspective, a normal FM radio is capable of tuning from 88 to 108 megahertz.
To listen to these frequencies you will need a scanner radio with a tuning range of 108 to 137 MHz. These types of scanners are sold online and in specialist radio shops. The shop at the Runway Visitor Park also sells a variety of scanners and accessories. The handheld type is the best for carrying around at the airport, desktop scanners are also available to listen with from home. A large telescopic antenna will greatly increase reception.
Generally, scanners are not cheap. A good quality handheld unit can cost anything from £100 to £300 but cheaper varieties with less complicated features can be found for under £50. Desktop units are more expensive but are generally worth it as they have more features than the average handheld.
It is likely that not all the frequencies listed here will be crystal clear when at home. On distant frequencies you may only be able to pick up transmissions from aircraft and not the controllers.
You should not experience any difficulty (security-wise) when using a scanner at the airport. Many spotters at the viewing park put them on for other people to hear and there is one constantly on inside the viewing park shop. I would not recommend listening to a scanner out loud inside the terminals.
It is technically illegal to relay any information heard from airband frequencies to anybody else - which accounts for the lack of any British ATC streams on the internet - because you are listening to private broadcasts that are not intended for the general public. However, nobody really enforces this law.
ATC Procedure Basics:
Approximately 20 minutes before departure, the first officer or captain calls the "Delivery" frequency. This is essentially the flight checking in with ATC. The "Delivery" controller provides the aircraft with a standard departure routing (SID), a unique squawk code (which is what's transmitted from the aircraft when interrogated by radar) and other items such as which runway is being used and the "QNH" (quote no height) number for setting the aircraft's pressure altimeter. This clearance is not clearance to move the aircraft but simply clearance to fly the flightplan route when airbourne. Clearance is given when the aircraft is sitting on its stand and the pilots are getting the computers in the cockpit set up. During the night when the airport is quieter clearance is given on the "Ground" frequency.
As soon as the aircraft is fully loaded and ready to go, the pilots call "Ground" in order to get clearance to pushback from their parking stand. Once pushback clearance is granted, a tug is used to push the aircraft back onto the nearest taxiway and the engines are started.
Now the aircraft is ready to taxi the pilots call "Ground" once again to get permission to taxi to the active runway. When approved, the controller reads back a series of taxiway letters which correspond to signs at the side of taxiways and maps on charts. "Ground" also designates the point where the aircraft must wait for permission to enter the runway.
As the aircraft approaches the runway "Ground" will tell the pilots to tune to the "Tower" frequency. The pilots then check-in with "Tower" citing their position and their designated holding point. When safe to do so the "Tower" controller gives the aircraft permission to line up on the runway. Providing there is adequate spacing ahead since the last departure the controller can then give the aircraft clearance for take-off. Following take-off the aircraft remains on the "Tower" frequency until 2,500ft after which it is handed off to "Scottish Control".
"Scottish Control" used to be called "Manchester Control" and handles departing aircraft above about 2,500ft. "Scottish Control" dictates what altitude the aircraft may climb to depending on the traffic around. The aircraft's actual route is pre-determined in the flightplan which ATC have access to, so re-routing is only necessary if there's a traffic confliction or bad weather.
The airspace above the UK is split up into many sectors which have vertical and horizontal limits of responsibility. "London Control" is responsible for all aircraft flying over the North of the UK above 28,500ft. Below 28,500ft "Scottish Control" is responsible for aircraft. However, complicated sector arrangements near airports mean that there is a minor difference between which ATC stations a pilot may have to contact on arrival and on departure. "Scottish Control" theoretically controls the North of England airspace down to the ground but each airport also has their own "Approach" or "Radar" sectors which are used to segregate inbound traffic from overflights or aircraft going to different airports. "Manchester Radar" is an example of this. Inbound aircraft will contact the "Radar" from anywhere around about 7,000ft and remain in contact until they are on the approach to the runway.
Once an aircraft has reached the end of its cruise and is ready to descend the pilots will request descent with the controller in the ATC sector that they are in. Once the aircraft has descended below the vertical minimum limit of that sector they are passed onto the next one below, which for Manchester arrivals is always "Scottish Control". "Scottish Control" will direct the aircraft's vertical profile through instructions to the crew, making sure there is acceptable seperation between all the aircraft in the sector.
Once the aircraft has descended to the "Manchester Radar" vertical limit, the "Scottish Control" controller can hand the aircraft off to the "Radar". The "Radar" will then give the aircraft specific instructions irrelevant of the flightplan. Required directional changes are given in degrees of heading and are usually not perfectly identical for each flight on the way in.
Once the aircraft has descended to around 2,500ft "Radar" may either hand the aircraft off to the "Director" which handles aircraft on turning final approach at busy times, or allow the aircraft to remain on "Manchester Radar" if there's not too much traffic. The controller will then direct aircraft towards the extended runway centreline, inline with the ILS (Instrument Landing System) which is a signal beamed from the start of the runway which the aircraft can target. Once the aircraft is established on this signal at usually about 10 miles from landing (known as being "localised on the ILS") the aircraft will then automatically fly the approach and the "Radar" or "Director" controller can hand the aircraft off to "Manchester Tower".
"Manchester Tower" is responsible for all that happens on the runway and approach paths and therefore may give the arriving aircraft clearance to land only if the runway expected to be clear at the time of landing. Following the landing, the aircraft will be requested to tune to "Manchester Ground" which will direct it to its parking stand in the same way a departing aircraft is given taxi instructions.
ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) is a method of communication used by aircraft crews to communicate with non-ATC ground stations without having to use voice.
Messages are written by flight crew or automatically generated by the aircraft and then encoded into a data transmission that lasts a fraction of a second. By transmitting this data over dedicated airband frequencies, airlines are able to effectively communicate with their crews flying miles above the Earth.
If you have an airband scanner you can listen to ACARS but some extra software is required to decode it. ACARS is broadcast on these frequencies: 131.525, 131.550, 131.725, 131.850, 136.750 and 136.900. 131.725 is the primary frequency in Europe and therefore the busiest.
There are many different freeware and payware programs that can decode ACARS transmissions with a variety of extra features and a search online will yield a dozen at least.
Written by Sam Newton, last revision 07/09/15.
The peak of the new tower at MAN which stands 60 metres tall.
The new ATC tower is now operational. Photos © Simon Cougill.