UK Aviation Events

MAY 03 2012
Military Aviation >> Exercise Olympic Guardian at RAF Northolt

With less than three months to go until the opening ceremony of this summer’s Olympic Games, the UK’s armed forces yesterday prepared to embark on a series of exercises in conjunction with the police and other key departments to test their readiness to ensure the safety and security of participants and visitors to the Olympics, as well as residents of the UK’s capital city.

In addition to the 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) commitment that the Royal Air Force already provides across the UK with Eurofighter Typhoon, the Olympic Air Security Plan will see a small number of these aircraft, and Royal Navy Sea King ASaC.7s, forward deployed to RAF Northolt. Additionally RAF Pumas and Lynx of both the Army Air Corps and the Royal Navy will be positioned at several sites around London. Furthermore, E-3D Sentries will provide airborne surveillance, command and control systems from further afield, VC10 tankers will be on hand for air-to-air refuelling if required, while Rapier and Starstreak air defence platforms, mobile radar Type 101, air observers and the ‘Control and Reporting Centre’ will be employed on the ground.

Exercise Olympic Guardian brings all these assets together for the first time and crucially within the same area of operation that will be relevant come the last Friday in July.

To coincide with the arrival of the Typhoons ahead of Exercise Olympic Guardian, RAF Northolt hosted a media call to explain why the exercises were required and what they intended to achieve.

Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, Air Component Commander for Olympics Air Security, laid the foundations during his opening brief:

“There is no specific threat to the Olympic Games. What we’ve put together is a range of measures that would allow us to respond, in a timely and appropriate manner, to a range of potential threats. At the heart of it is what we do 24 hours a day. The Royal Air Force air defence responsibility is our primus inter pares role; defending the skies over the United Kingdom.

“For the purpose of the Olympics – this once in a generation event – we have put a particular focus on the London and the Home Counties area. We’ve enhanced the normal posture, which is based on the Typhoon, with other capabilities."

As well as providing the opportunity for the assets to collaborate, there are a few other benefits of holding such a rehearsal too, AVM Atha continues:

“What I would hope is that part of what we’re doing today will have an affect on the mind, if you like; those who have maligned intent – I would hope when they see how we’re preparing, they might be deterred from making any threats to the Games. Similarly, I hope we can do it in a way that will reassure the public – we understand that concerns are out there, and this week and next week is an important period for us to be able to answer questions, to inform. We need to be aware of those concerns and, if we can, assuage them, else we might need to change our plans accordingly. While it won’t be the first time that Typhoon has flown over London, it is unusual, and if we’re intimidating the public rather than reassuring them, then we’re not achieving the effect that we require.

"Many of you senior commentators in defence will realise that we’re revealing a lot more about this plan than perhaps we have done before. The aim of that is to reassure and assuage concerns, and, to deter. We need a credible plan, and I believe that is what we’ve put together."

The plan that’s been put in place came about after much analysis of the handling of security for other high profile events around the globe. Indeed, insofar as security for this summer’s Games is concerned, it’s not just about platforms. One of the really important areas is the airspace. With the event taking place in the heart of London, the disruption to scheduled services that go in to Heathrow, in particular, but also London City and Gatwick, needed to be minimised. So, a plan has been drawn up that will split the airspace in two. AVM Atha explained:

“The outer ring, which is approximately a 30-mile radius, is what we call the ‘restricted area’. Anybody within that will have notified us and we will be aware. Most of that will be the General Aviation community with light aircraft. The message to them is this: ‘You will be able to fly as normal but you will need to tell us’, in order to help us identify the unknown and the unusual.

“In the heart of this is the prohibited area, which surrounds the main venues at London and indeed Heathrow and London City. The aim is to provide the balance between maintaining the operational capability whilst minimising the inconvenience that our activity causes.”

While no specific threat is anticipated, every eventuality must be considered. A light aircraft venturing, perhaps innocently, into the restricted zone without filing a flight plan is probably not going to be best dealt with by Typhoon, hence the variety of assets that are set to be utilised:

“I would reiterate - this plan has many parts. It is layered in both our ability to detect from airborne radars, ground based radars, through to visual observers, and our ability to respond, whether that is with Typhoon aircraft intercepting, the helicopter interdicting, or that inner-protection provided by our ground based defence. This week we will be testing our integrated capability to the full and evaluating its capability against what we’re going to be tasked for. Yes, in many ways it will be focused on a worst case scenario, and what we would hope is that we’ve demonstrated that we’re ready, but we will be in the background. Much of what the air component does is above and beyond, and that’s what I intend to be the case.

“We will be deploying helicopters into London – two thirds of them will be on board HMS Ocean, where the Army Air Corps Lynx will operate alongside the Royal Navy Lynx, in order to help us deal with threats that might be at the slower end of the range. They will have an air-to-air sniper capability but, more likely, they’ll be using visual boards to try and identify and understand the intent of the aircraft they’re intercepting. We will also have Royal Air Force Pumas deployed at the Territorial Army site in Ilford.

“So you can see, it’s quite an array of capabilities; no single one of those capabilities has utility against all the potential threats we face.”

While the Typhoon aircraft for Exercise Olympic Guardian were all drawn from RAF Coningsby, the aircrew and groundcrews will be drawn from both Coningsby and Leuchars, indeed, the Scottish station is set to be heavily involved.

3(F) Squadron’s Squadron Leader Gordon Lovett is the Aircrew Lead for the Typhoon detachment to Northolt. He explained the rationale behind the decision

“You know, it’s taking people away from their homes, so we just want to spin everybody through on a rota.”

Northolt’s proximity to Heathrow makes it quite a difficult airfield to operate into, so plenty of training time has been allocated to ensure that aircrew are comfortable with their temporary new home:

“We’ve spent quite a lot of time on simulator training, making sure everyone can operate safely. We’ve had air traffic controllers up at RAF Coningsby to interface with them and let them see how we operate, and we’ve been down to Swanwick to see the controllers down there and how they operate. That’s where we’ve come up with all our deconfliction plans, how we’re going to operate, use radios, radar etc.

“Because this is a short airfield for us and of unique nature where we'll effectively be climbing out of Heathrow’s approach, all of the guys flying during the Olympic mission are going to fly one sortie out of here. It’s not something we wanted to do purely synthetically, because there’d be the emotional part of it - the stress level thing – you just cannot get that in the simulator, which is why we want to get all of the guys down here, make sure they’re happy in a calm environment and not having to worry about operational issues. When they do fly an operational mission, they’re not worried about the airspace or the airline world.”

As things stand the plan is very much for Typhoon to maintain a QRA status rather than fly a continuous CAP (Combat Air Patrol), though, as AVM Atha explained to GAR, that plan will be under constant scrutiny and subject to change:

“There is a range of postures that we have, that will be determined by the threat and events on the ground – including being airborne. One of the advantages of being at Northolt is that we’re forward deployed and ready to respond in a matter of minutes to a threat wherever it is required. I don’t think, as it stands now, it would be necessary to have aircraft permanently airborne, but that is a position we will keep under review as we get closer to the Olympics. Predominantly, throughout the period of the Olympics, I expect we’ll be sitting on the ground, at a high state of readiness.”

Is there not then a danger that locals go into a state of panic, assuming that a serious situation is developing, when Typhoons do take-off?

“That may be the perception but even during the Olympics we will be swapping our aircraft and there will be routine movements, though we will keep them to the minimum. In the event that a threat manifests itself, we will react rapidly and quickly.”

And what of the noise and impact this will all have on those that live close to RAF Northolt? Group Captain Tim O’Brien is the Station Commander:

“With Northolt being in the middle of a very built-up area, there’s a big responsibility to us to make sure we engage – and we do – and historically we’ve got a very strong engagement strategy with the local populace. The point I’d make is the strength of pride that they feel, of being a part of it as well. There’s a real sense of cohesion with the local populace; they’re in this with us. Clearly that only comes with dialogue at a very localised level - ward, borough and district - so that everybody understands the importance of it.”

Speaking later to GAR, Gp Cpt O’Brien continued:

“There’s been nothing but enthusiasm, and it’s really heartening to see quite how excited they are as well and how they’ve embraced this opportunity; it’s a partnership, an absolute partnership.

“The heritage of the station, until you get here and immerse yourself in it, you just don’t realise the strength of it or the importance of it, be that the Battle of Britain or the phenomenal links we have with the Polish Air Force and the West London Polish community, all of these add to a real mix here, which is incredibly exciting.”

That history is something that Northolt is hugely proud of and, wherever possible, looking to preserve that heritage is something that recent Station Commanders have taken extremely seriously:

“Fundraising efforts are pretty much continuous. It’s sort of an amalgam now with Building 27 and the bunker at Uxbridge (HQ for No 11 Group during the Battle of Britain) [which falls under Northolt’s responsibility – Ed] and there’s also the potential of getting a Line Hut here. So, you could have the Group Headquarters, Sector Headquarters and the Line Hut. In terms of the heritage trail we think that would be really powerful, and we’re always looking out for opportunities to raise funds; it really captures the imagination and we never cease to be amazed by the amount of people that really want to get involved with it.”

With the forward deployment of Typhoon, Northolt has had to install temporary arrestor gear and temporary hangars among other less noticeable changes, but the station also doubles up as a reasonably busy commercial airport for business jet operations. What effect is the Olympics going to have on them?

“We will have to suppress civilian movements on occasions. We expect to get foreign heads of state through here - that will obviously focus our attentions as well - so it’s a case of prioritisation and balance. We’ve engaged widely with the commercial sector because, once this is over, we’ll need to maintain our commercial activity as well.”

AVM Atha explained how the departure profile for the Typhoon had been adapted to mitigate against the noise concerns of Northolt’s near neighbours:

“What we’re striking a balance between is the need to respond quickly – clearly that involves the use of reheat to get ourselves airborne – but actually to make sure we get the right balance in terms of getting ourselves up to a reasonable height that reduces it (noise). The departure profile uses Typhoon’s full envelope, which is as it should be. It’s actually achieved two aims - 1) it allows Typhoon to get to where it needs to be quickly and 2) allows us to reduce the noise footprint for those on the ground.”

Incidentally, Gp Cpt O’Brien made the point that it had been noted during Typhoon’s first visit, a week earlier, that the aircraft was not as noisy as the now retired Tornado F.3 and only comparable with the Gulfstream V.

It seems only fitting to give Air Commodore Gary Waterfall, Air Officer Combat ISTAR - speaking to GAR - the chance to close, reflecting on the last year or so of operations:

“We do QRA every day of the year and this is nothing new for us – defence of the homeland, defence of the airspace – but to do it in such a public manner and actually be part of the Olympics – something that happens once in a generation for us all – and the Royal Air Force and the whole of defence is part of that; making sure that, if you’re one of those lucky enough to have tickets, you enjoy a safe and very secure Games. This comes, what, nine months since we were on operations over Libya? Look at the aircraft behind us; I would have thought at least a couple of those aircraft [indeed, two did carry Op ELLAMY mission markings - Ed] were involved in operations over there, over the skies of Libya, performing a role which nobody really saw coming in the timescale available, and very rapidly we went from being air defence fighters to swing-role and into bombing, if necessary.

"Here we are, a few months later, with the same pilots – the same crews – who were doing that important international job, here, defending our skies, not only for the UK personnel but all the international visitors that are coming to the country; it’s going to be great – a real monumental sort of time and we’re all quite excited and proud to be part of it as well.”

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2012-05-08 - Ray Hankin
Having so far been underwhelmed by the Olympics hype, living in Hertford I now have the benefit of seeing Typhoons on passage to/from Northolt. In the congested airspace around here, into which the Typhoon hardly ventures, that's about the only Olympics plus point that I can think of.

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