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

Bomber Command Memorial Unveiled

Under sunshine uncharacteristic of the British summer so far, the Bomber Command Memorial was dedicated in London’s Green Park on June 28. Around 7,000 veterans from the Commonwealth, Eastern Europe, USA and Caribbean and their families attended the ceremony. This included thirty-two New Zealand veterans, flown to the UK on a 40 Squadron RNZAF Boeing 757.

The memorial commemorates the 55,573 members of Bomber Command killed on operations during World War II. Around 6,000 New Zealanders served with Bomber Command, and 1,851 did not return home, a loss rate of thirty per cent. Canada’s losses were around fifty-eight per cent of the personnel sent. Speaking at the dedication, Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff pointed out that the wartime casualties were greater than the strength of today’s RAF. He singled out the stories of Canadian Andrew Mynarski, who was posthumously awarded the VC for attempting to save a fellow crewmember and Briton James Flint, whose George Cross came about in similar circumstances, but who was able to attend the dedication.

Queen Elizabeth II unveiled the centerpiece of the Memorial, a sculpture of a typical seven-man heavy bomber crew, depicted as if having just returned from a raid over Occupied Europe. Princes Phillip, Charles, Andrew and Edward were also in their roles as honorary RAF Marshals and Air Commodores, but there were thankfully no politicians or celebrities. One of the latter who did much to make the memorial possible was sadly missed, however. Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb, president of the Heritage Foundation which had raised much of the £6 million cost of the Memorial, died on May 20.

The Memorial was a long time coming. Although Sir Winston Churchill’s quote of September 1940: “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide our means of victory” is inscribed on the west side of the Memorial, the destruction of Dresden, attacked on his direct order, and other German cities dampened his enthusiasm for bombing. Bomber Command was not mentioned in Churchill’s 1945 victory speech and he refused Bomber Command chief Sir Arthur Harris’ request for a campaign medal. It has taken nearly 70 years to get a national memorial built, by which time the surviving veterans have mostly entered their 90s.

One of the younger ones, Aucklander Ron Mayhill, 88, who served with 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal said: ”I think we now have a broader and more balanced view of what we did. We were there to win the war and I think Bomber Command did more than its fair share”.

The Memorial itself, in sight of the New Zealand War Memorial on Hyde Park Corner, was designed by architect Liam O’Connor in classical style and is largely made of Portland stone. The 9 ft high bronze figures that comprise the centerpiece were sculpted by Phillip Jackson and are accurate down to the last detail of parachute buckle and microphone lead, although they wear no badges of rank.

Aluminium from Halifax LW682 of 426 Squadron RCAF which was shot down over Holland in 1944 forms part of the roof, which is braced inside in a pattern inspired by the Geodetic construction of the Vickers Wellington. Above the heads of the figures it is open to the sky. On the park side of the memorial is a bronze wreath sculpted by an Australian veteran, Colin Dudley DFC, who was a Halifax navigator on No. 578 Squadron.

One of many real wreaths laid at the feet of the statue commemorated brothers John and George Mee from Becks, Central Otago, both Lancaster pilots who died over Germany in March and April 1944 aged 25 and 26, respectively. A note with it read in part: “As with their comrades they did not seek glory, they asked for no collateral for their lives, they demanded no privileges, no power or influence as they flew steadily into the valley of death”.

Five Tornado GR.4s, today’s counterpart of the World War II ‘heavy’ made a flyover, followed by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, marked as ‘Phantom of the Ruhr’ of 100 Squadron. Aboard was Ron Clark, 90, pilot of the original Phantom, who last flew a Lancaster on VJ Day, 1945. Today he was in charge of the release of poppies over the ceremony, one for every Bomber Command airman lost. Arriving in the London control zone, the Lanc’s navigator Squadron Leader Russ Russell checked in with London ATC: "10 POB (people on board) with 55,573 souls."

Photo: MoD Crown Copyright

This also appears in the July 2012 issue of NZ Aviation News: