Aircraft Radar Beacon Transponder

A radar beacon transponder, or simply, a transponder, provides positive identification and location of an aircraft on the radar screens of ATC. For each aircraft equipped with an altitude encoder, the transponder also provides the pressure altitude of the aircraft to be displayed adjacent to the on-screen blip that represents the aircraft. [Figure 1]

Radar Beacon Transponder
Figure 1. 
A traditional transponder control head (A), a lightweight digital transponder (B), and a remote altitude encoder (C) that connects to a transponder to provide ATC with an aircraft’s altitude displayed on a PPI radar screen next to the target that represents the aircraft

Radar capabilities at airports vary. Generally, two types of radar are used by air traffic control (ATC). The primary radar transmits directional UHF or SHF radio waves sequentially in all directions. When the radio waves encounter an aircraft, part of those waves reflect back to a ground antenna. Calculations are made in a receiver to determine the direction and distance of the aircraft from the transmitter. A blip or target representing the aircraft is displayed on a radar screen also known as a plan position indicator (PPI). The azimuth direction and scaled distance from the tower are presented giving controllers a two dimensional fix on the aircraft. [Figure 2]

Radar Beacon Transponder
Figure 2. A plan position indicator (PPI) for ATC primary radar locates target aircraft on a scaled field

A secondary surveillance radar (SSR) is used by ATC to verify the aircraft’s position and to add the third dimension of altitude to its location. SSD radar transmits coded pulse trains that are received by the transponder on board the aircraft. Mode 3/A pulses, as they are known, aid in confirming the location of the aircraft. When verbal communication is established with ATC, a pilot is instructed to select one of 4,096 discrete codes on the transponder. These are digital octal codes. The ground station transmits a pulse of energy at 1030 MHz and the transponder transmits a reply with the assigned code attached at 1090 MHz. This confirms the aircraft’s location typically by altering its target symbol on the radar screen. As the screen may be filled with many confirmed aircraft, ATC can also ask the pilot to ident. By pressing the IDENT button on the transponder, it transmits in such a way that the aircraft’s target symbol is highlighted on the PPI to be distinguishable.

To gain altitude clarification, the transponder control must be placed in the ALT or Mode C position. The signal transmitted back to ATC in response to pulse interrogation is then modified with a code that places the pressure altitude of the aircraft next to the target symbol on the radar screen. The transponder gets the pressure altitude of the aircraft from an altitude encoder that is electrically connected to the transponder. Typical aircraft transponder antennas are illustrated in Figure 3.

Radar Beacon Transponder
Figure 3. Aircraft radar beacon transponder antennas transmit and receive UHF and SHF radio waves

The ATC/aircraft transponder system described is known as Air Traffic Control Radar Beacon System (ATCRBS). To increase safety, Mode S altitude response has been developed. With Mode S, each aircraft is pre-assigned a unique identity code that displays along with its pressure altitude on ATC radar when the transponder responds to SSR interrogation. Since no other aircraft respond with this code, the chance of two pilots selecting the same response code on the transponder is eliminated. A modern flight data processor computer (FDP) assigns the beacon code and searches flight plan data for useful information to be displayed on screen next to the target in a data block for each aircraft. [Figure 4]

Figure 4. 
Air traffic control radar technology and an onboard radar beacon transponder work together to convey and display air traffic information on a PPI radar screen. A modern approach ATC PPI is shown. Targets representing aircraft are shown as little aircraft on the screen. The nose of the aircraft indicates the direction of travel. Most targets shown above are airliners. The data block for each target includes the following information either transmitted by the transponder or matched and loaded from flight plans by a flight data processor computer: call sign, altitude/speed, origination/destination, and aircraft type/ETA (ZULU time). A “C” after the altitude indicates the information came from a Mode C equipped transponder. The absence of a C indicates Mode S is in use. An arrow up indicates the aircraft is climbing. An arrow down indicates a descent. White targets are arrivals, light blue targets are departures, all other colors are for arrivals and departures to different airports in the area

Mode S is sometimes referred to as mode select. It is a data packet protocol that is also used in onboard collision avoidance systems. When used by ATC, Mode S interrogates one aircraft at a time. Transponder workload is reduced by not having to respond to all interrogations in an airspace. Additionally, location information is more accurate with Mode S. A single reply in which the phase of the transponder reply is used to calculate position, called monopulse, is sufficient to locate the aircraft. Mode S also contains capacity for a wider variety of information exchange that is untapped potential for the future. At the same time, compatibility with older radar and transponder technology has been maintained.

Transponder Tests and Inspections

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 91, section 91.413 states that all transponders on aircraft flown into controlled airspace are required to be inspected and tested in accordance with 14 CFR part 43, Appendix F, every 24 calendar months. Installation or maintenance that may introduce a transponder error is also cause for inspection and test in accordance with Appendix F. Only an appropriately rated repair station, the aircraft manufacturer (if it installed transponder), and holders of a continuous airworthy program are approved to conduct the procedures. As with many radioelectronic devices, test equipment exists to test airworthy operation of a transponder. [Figure 5]

Radar Beacon Transponder
Figure 5. A handheld transponder test unit

Operating a transponder in a hangar or on the ramp does not immunize it from interrogation and reply. Transmission of certain codes reserved for emergencies or military activity must be avoided. The procedure to select a code during ground operation is to do so with the transponder in the OFF or STANDBY mode to avoid inadvertent transmission. Code 0000 is reserved for military use and is a transmittable code. Code 7500 is used in a hijack situation and 7600 and 7700 are also reserved for emergency use. Even the inadvertent transmission of code 1200 reserved for VFR flight not under ATC direction could result in evasion action. All signals received from a radar beacon transponder are taken seriously by ATC.

Altitude Encoders

Altitude encoders convert the aircraft’s pressure altitude into a code sent by the transponder to ATC. Increments of 100 feet are usually reported. Encoders have varied over the years. Some are built into the altimeter instrument used in the instrument panel and connected by wires to the transponder. Others are mounted out of sight on an avionics rack or similar out of the way place. These are known as blind encoders. On transport category aircraft, the altitude encoder may be a large black box with a static line connection to an internal aneroid. Modern general aviation encoders are smaller and more lightweight, but still often feature an internal aneroid and static line connection. Some encoders use microtransistors and are completely solid-state including the pressure sensing device from which the altitude is derived. No static port connection is required. Data exchange with GPS and other systems is becoming common. [Figure 6]

Radar Beacon Transponder
Figure 6. Modern altitude encoders for general aviation aircraft

When a transponder selector is set on ALT, the digital pulse message sent in response to the secondary surveillance radar interrogation becomes the digital representation of the pressure altitude of the aircraft. There are 1280 altitude codes, one for each 100 feet of altitude between 1200 feet mean sea level (MSL) and 126,700 feet MSL. Each altitude increment is assigned a code. While these would be 1280 of the same codes used for location and IDENT, the Mode C (or S) interrogation deactivates the 4096 location codes and causes the encoder to become active. The correct altitude code is sent to the transponder that replies to the interrogation. The SSR receiver recognized this as a response to a Mode C (or S) interrogation and interprets the code as altitude code.