Welcome to the adventures of Jim The Eagle

Hello, I am a freelance writer and photographer who specialises in aviation, defence and transport subjects. Occasionally I get out of the house to actually see something, but not all of what I do makes it in to print. When it does, it can be a bit on the dry side. I got into this game because I love flying and hanging out with military equipment. The people you meet are fun, too, so here is somewhere to put those bits of writing that don't have a home.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Olympic Guardian – Air Policing the London 2012 Games

(Written in May 2012, published in  NZ Aviation News: http://aviationnews.co.nz/july1203.html

RAF fighters at Northolt, again

 In London, with the Olympic Games fast approaching, the Royal Air Force and other UK armed forces have been preparing their response to aerial threats with a series of exercises and deployments around the capital.

Since 2001, air defence against potential 9/11-type threats has been de rigueur at major sporting and political events. The first to see fighter patrols seems to have been the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and since then, the host nation has protected the airspace of every Olympics, World Cup, Euro soccer tournament, G8 meeting and World Economic Forum, adding hugely to the security bill.
One of the few events to have no air defence was the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

With the Olympics less than 100 days away and even the contestants in the recent Mayoral election agreeing that London was the biggest terrorist target in the world, Olympics or not, it was inevitable that the UK military would be a large part of the security plan.

The air defence plan also needed final testing over the actual area of the games. Following exercises at RAF Waddington and Linton-on-Ouse dubbed ‘Taurus Mountain’, all the elements came together in early May under the banner of Exercise ‘Olympic Guardian’. The most visible (and audible) element of this was the temporary deployment of four Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 fighters to RAF Northolt in suburban northwest London and the erection of temporary ‘Rubb’ hangars for them. Temporary arrestor gear also needed to be installed as the 1687m-long runway is considered marginal for fast jets. Some video of them using it is here:    

Northolt is famous for its role in the Battle of Britain and for the Polish-manned squadrons that flew in 1940-42, but it seems to not have operated combat aircraft since September 1944 when 140 Squadron’s Mosquitoes moved to Normandy. From then on it was largely a base for transport and communications aircraft, including the Royal Flight. Today it is home to No. 32 Squadron with BAe 125s and 146s and AgustaWestland AW109s for VIP transport, as well as the secretive Station Flight, whose Britten-Norman Islanders are often seen orbiting London, purportedly intercepting cell phone calls and observing with various electro-optical devices as part of regular non-Olympic anti-terrorism efforts.

A media facility for the arrival of the first fighters to be based at Northolt for 68 years allowed some questions to be asked about the air policing of the Olympics themselves. The Typhoons will be kept on a high state of ground readiness or Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) rather than a continuous CAP (combat air patrol), although that posture may be adapted during the games in light of the threat assessment. The only flights are likely to be aircraft swap-overs, so any Typhoon flights are likely to be “real events of some level” said Air Vice-Marshall Stu Atha, the man in charge of the air security, who also joked: “I never thought I’d be representing the Royal Air Force at the Olympics”.

The noise issue was acknowledged, but short take-offs would help reduce the footprint. The noise was said to be comparable with a Gulfstream V, which is debatable to say the least, your correspondent feels, and he could certainly hear them take off from his house, nearly 10 km away as the Eurofighter flies.

Olympic Guardian was designed to test the integration of layered air defence elements, consisting of much more than just a section of fighters. The normal civil and military radars will be backed up by a mobile Type 101 radar unit and a trailer-based control centre somewhere in London, as well as E-3D Sentry AWACS and Sea King Mk 7 airborne radars. For anything that evades these, teams of three personnel with binoculars will be deployed around the capital, shades of the Royal Observer Corps, which was disbanded in 1995. 

Sea King Mk 7

Although plans to base one or more Type 45 destroyers on the Thames and in the English Channel seem to have been quietly dropped since they were proposed last year, perhaps because their Sea Viper missiles are not yet considered operationally ready, two sorts of surface-air-missiles were displayed to the press at Shooter’s Hill overlooking Greenwich, site of the equestrian events. The Rapier is a trailer-mounted radar-guided system with a range of about 5km, and batteries may be deployed along a north-south line crossing the Olympic Park in London’s east end. The more portable Starstreak HVM (high velocity missile) might wind up on water towers and blocks of flats across east London, including the 17-storey Fred Wigg Tower in Waltham Forest, which has a wide view over the Olympic Park and much of east London. Unsurprisingly, residents are a touch concerned about becoming a SAM site, and some only found out about this possibility during Olympic Guardian when uniformed men with boxes were encountered on the stairs.

The perceived militarisation of the games and the growing security bill, estimated now at £1 billion has caused predictable grumbles, but in the modern era If all the above fails, we can’t rely on Team GB’s clay pigeon shooters as the final line of defence.

Everyone from the Defence Secretary on down says there are “No specific threats” to the games. AVM Atha told reporters that no single measure has utility against all potential threats and that the measures planned were against the worst-case scenario, not necessarily the most likely. Potential threats fall into two categories, “regulated” and “unregulated”. The first include airliners and general aviation aircraft, and the latter radio control aircraft, improvised unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and who knows what else. An army Lieutenant Colonel at a meeting to assure residents of one potential missile battery told them that the threat could come from lash-up unmanned vehicles carrying poison, launched at the stadium from within the same inner suburbs. Another artillery officer stressed that the missile deployment was only a test and that any decision to actually base them during the games was yet to be taken.

A Lynx launches from Ocean
Not to be left out, the Royal Navy also played its part when the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean sailed to Greenwich, squeezing through the Thames Barrier flood defences with little room to spare. On board were landing craft, speedboats and helicopters, which conducted exercises up and down the river against simulated wayward boats and aircraft. Aboard were four Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters carrying snipers tasked with targeting low slow flyers, and four Royal Navy Lynx with Royal Marine snipers looking for suspicious river traffic.

One landing craft was spotted carrying an LRAD or long-range acoustic device, also called a ‘pain ray’, although the MoD says they will only use it for its loud hailer capabilities.

The exercise concluded after 10 days and everything flew, sailed or drove away until July, except the hangars and arrestor gear at Northolt. The Defence Secretary said the idea was that the military would now “fade into the background” and “not dominate the games”.

When the games themselves roll around, GA pilots better familarise themselves with the changed airspace. The advice leaflet being distributed to aero clubs says: “Deviation from R112 – the Restricted Zone Rules, or Violation of P111 – the Prohibited Zone will result in Interception.”

Wayward light aircraft may be intercepted by Typhoons, which will rock wings and break left to right in front, firing flares if necessary. Crew in Puma and Lynx helicopters will hold up a ‘Follow Me’ sign, fire flares or shine lasers to get the pilot’s attention (something which is usually frowned upon in aviation). The appropriate response in every instance is to rock your wings, follow the interceptor and turn away from London. Radio failure procedures are to stay out of the Restricted Zone. What happens if a pilot still bimbles on his merry way is not spelled out, but can be imagined.

Presumably they don't mean on Twitter
The standard QRA loadout for a Typhoon is four radar-guided AMRAAM missiles, four infrared ASRAAMs and a 27mm Mauser cannon. The cannon, which contrary to legend, is actually fitted to British Eurofighters, has not actually been cleared for use in the air-to-air role by the RAF yet.  The Northolt detachment commander Squadron Leader Gordy Lovett said the Typhoon force hoped to do some air-to-air firing before the games.

The Pumas, based in a tiny Territorial Army centre to the east of the Olympic stadium will carry RAF Regiment snipers. Royal Marine snipers will be on the Lynxes flying off HMS Ocean, backed up with 0.50-calibre machine-guns.

The shotgun on right should deter any Jihadi R/C modellers
Since 2001, no-one has shot down an intruder over an event, and these measures can be seen more as an (expensive) deterrent than likely to be used for real, but it doesn’t mean potential threats are not taken seriously. Something of a stir was caused in April when one of two Typhoons sent to investigate a helicopter somewhere near Bath went supersonic, rattling windows across the West Midlands and southwest England and convincing many there had been an earthquake (rare, but not unknown in the UK). The miscreant was a civilian Gazelle returning from a day at the races whose pilot had inadvertently squawked the code for a hijack.

In July and August undoubtedly the RAF will scramble at least once to steer away someone who can’t read a NOTAM. The chances of any of the massed firepower arrayed around being used for real over London are extraordinarily remote.

Nonetheless, as one of the lucky ones to secure tickets for an athletics session I hope that all that crosses the sky that August evening is Valerie Adams’ shot put on its way to a gold medal.

11 Squadron Typhoon

Note: Since the above was written, the Games have begun, the Typhoons, helicopters, missiles and HMS Ocean have returned to London under the banner 'Op Olympics'. Another media event was held and I also visited Ocean herself at Greenwich. The skies have been mostly quiet, although the Typhoons have launched a couple of times, once to check out a BBJ owned by a US basketball team somewhere off the south coast that probably had the wrong radio switches selected.

Note 2: Valerie Adams won the Silver medal on the night, and the only other things airborne were pole vaulters and a TV helicopter. A week later, she was awarded the Gold when the Belarussian competitor was disqualified for a failed drugs test

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