Learn the language of aviation in this interactive simulation that lets you see – and hear – how Air Traffic Controllers carry us safely through the skies.
Most of the aircraft in Britain’s skies are under their control. But quite likely, you’ve never heard of them.
National Air Traffic Services (NATS) – better known as the UK’s air traffic controllers – asked us to help them give the world a new appreciation and understanding of their fascinating work.
Every year, NATS guides more than 2.5 million flights. For this project, we used data visualization and digital storytelling to take people on one of them: a 40-minute flight from London to Manchester.
Unusually, this was a data visualization driven by words as much as numbers.
The language that ATC uses to safely steer pilots through the busy skies is packed with code words, abstract concepts and commands.
We wanted this to be a journey of understanding for the user. By the time they reach Manchester, the user would have a new understanding of Air Traffic Control and air travel itself.
Along with a full transcript of the conversations between the Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) and pilot on this particular flight, we had numerous data points with which to build our visualization.
Things like airspaces, altitude, speed and location. It might be just a 150-mile journey. But it takes nine ATCs in four different locations across the UK to guide the aircraft through five different air spaces.
We designed the conversations between Air Traffic Control and the aircraft’s pilots to appear like a message thread.
And we decoded each bit of dialogue with a handy explanation, helping people to learn the language of aviation with each passing conversation.
Not only do you read the words, you also hear them: we added audio recordings of the ATCs and pilots to give the experience an even deeper level of realism.
We wanted people to see exactly how the Air Traffic Controllers’ words will dictate the movements of an aircraft, both on the ground and in the sky.
So alongside this scrolling message thread, we built a virtual world: an interactive 3D recreation of the aircraft’s entire journey from Heathrow to Manchester airport.
This viewpoint enabled us to show the aircraft’s exact height, direction and geographic location – both on the runway and in the air.
As you read the ATC’s conversations, you’ll watch the aircraft taxi along the runway, take off into the air and fly above England’s cities. We plotted everything with real topographic data.
To help users fully understand what’s happening during the journey, we included a map of the UK, showing the five different air sectors the aircraft passes through.
There’s also a conversation timeline, colour-coded to show the different ATCs, tracking the aircraft’s climb, cruise and descent.
Some concepts were too complex (and, frankly, too interesting) to be explained in just a few words.
So there are several mind-expanding stop-offs on our journey – animated explainers that deep dive into some key areas of Air Traffic Control.
These include the aviation alphabet (Alpha to Zulu), the difference between ‘Altitude’ and ‘Flight level’ and how runways work.
To promote the piece on social media, we designed some witty teaser animations that reimagined two of the Air Traffic Control messages as emoji puzzles.
These fun, cryptic animations give users a taste of the weird and wonderful language of aviation – and invite them to learn more about it by visiting the interactive.