One of the lesser known functions carried out by personnel from RNAS, Stretton (HMS Blackcap) was the manning Northern Radar Control, Antrobus.
Owing to the position of RNAS Stretton, being unfortunately geographically positioned in the middle of “ Controlled Air Space “, namely 2 The Manchester Control Zone “. This air space or zone as it is officially recognized, is a specific area determined by height from ground level and covers several airfields , Manchester / Ringway, Barton, Stretton, Burtonwood, Liverpool / Speake, Southport, Burscough., all within its dimensions where conflicts of movements could and often did, lead to near misses.
RNAS Stretton mainly, but not entirely being a weekend flying station with RNVR Aircrew, tended to increase the normal air traffic in the area along side traffic going into the previously mentioned airfields. In addition to this local traffic was the additional problem of the main North / South Airway known as “ Amber One “ passing through the middle of the zone, used mainly by International Flights. In order to inject some sort of safety in to this miss-match of aircraft a joint Royal Navy / Ministry of Civil Aviation Radar control unit was established at Antrobus called “ Northern Radar “. This facility was situated a few miles south of Stretton on isolated farmland.
The prime function of Northern Radar was to “Facilitate the safe and expedious flights of both service and civil traffic within the Manchester Control Zone “. The civilian air traffic controller’s task was to effect an efficient flow of traffic into and out of Manchester / Ringway and Liverpool/ Speake Airports. The U.S.A.A.F. at Burtonwood as is their ilk used Nothern Radar on a need – you – when – I – need – you – basis, only calling for assistance when they felt the need arose, that was a bit dodgy, even in those days, knowing the ability and quality of some of the pilots, all very well on a fine, clear day, but you should have heard them shout when it got a bit foggy and the weather closed in!!!!!!.
Two types of Radar were used on the site, a radar for low coverage and a radar for higher coverage. There was an overlap between the top of the low coverage and the bottom of the higher coverage radar. This meant that before an aircraft disappeared from the screen on the low radar, it appeared on the bottom of the screen for the higher radar giving you a positive control of the aircraft at all times, this was in the days before I.F.F. ( Identification Friend / Foe), no squawking you had to instruct the pilot to make 90 degree turn either left or right and watch the echo on the screen respond to identify the plane you were talking to.
The low coverage radar was a type 227, a standard (at that time) ships radar. The aerial being chicken wire nailed to a large wooden frame rotated by an electric motor, after all it was the 1950’s, the presentation of this in the ops room was on a P.P.I ( Plan Position Indicator ) the all too familiar rotating sweeping arm on a circular TV type screen.
The high radar was a type 15 of similar construction to the type 227, whose presentation in the ops room was different. It was an “ A “ scope presentation with the incoming aircraft being displayed vertical on a screen with side lobes coming off at various levels to indicate the aircraft’s height, premature, yes, but it made flying in the Manchester Control Zone much safer.
Communications were rather more modern, each civil controller had direct “talk- back “ to his opposite number at either Manchester or Liverpool by a small directly switchable loudspeaker/earphones as required, in that, they could liaise directly with incoming and outgoing flights. The Naval controllers likewise had similar facilities to the airfield at Stretton and sat side by side with their civilian controllers working together to identify each others aircraft.
All Naval aircraft upon getting airborne from Stretton, had to transfer their radio frequency to Northern radar for clearance through the control zone to their destination, be it to an exercise area or a destination airfield, obtaining radar surveillance to the edge of the zone, providing the radar coverage was sufficient.
Maintenance of the equipment was the responsibility of the Ministry of Civil Aviation who had several on-site technicians with a fully equipped electronic workshop. Great reliance was placed on Northern Radar, the serviceability and operational status of the site was of the utmost importance, as any “down –time “caused congestion at both Liverpool and Manchester Airports.
The Naval personnel came to the site daily from Stretton, whilst the Civilian personnel came over from Manchester in a mini bus with their Air traffic Control Assistants. There was usually four Air Traffic Controllers plus two assistants and on the Naval side two Controllers and two Assistants. The Naval Officer in Charge was Lt/ Cmdr. Maurice Graham and Lt. (Kit) Carson.
Unfortunately very little indeed is left today of Northern Radar, a very important feature of Naval and Civil flying in the area.
Credits for the article - Don Macgregor (Aircraft Handler and Air Traffic Control Stretton and Northern Radar)