AWACS aircraft orbitted overhead, scanning the sky for unusual activity. Banks of radar controllers monitored the frequencies, checking that all known traffic remained on their assigned track. Helicopter gunships and tornado fighter aircraft stood ready to take to the air at a moments notice should any anomoly occur. Banks of surface-to-air missiles were deployed around the city to respond even more quickly.
No, not Afghanistan, but London 2012 Olympics. The security services had locked down London airspace as part of delivering a safe and secure event. The CAA had done their best to keep the GA fleet flying (the Greeks simply put a 45 mile exclusion zone around their event), and instigated procedures involving pre-authorisation and a team of 24×7 military controllers known as Atlas.
Just to ensure there wasn’t any misunderstanding about the seriousness of the extra controls and avoid any malarky, any GA pilot contravening the tight controls would have their licence immediately suspended pending investigations.
With the restrictions due to expire in a few days, I thought this was an ideal time really to make a short flight into the restricted airspace in place for the Olympic Games. There wouldn’t be another chance in my lifetime to repeat the exercise.
Planning and authorisation
I’d planned a short evening flight with a couple of passengers and was looking for a potential destination that was open in the evening. Few airfields are these days, and White Waltham is one of them – open until 8pm or sunset daily, whichever is earlier. At short notice, my passengers were unable to make it, but I thought I’d still try to fit this in. After a change of aircraft – VICC was just back from a service – I quickly completed the flight planning mid afternoon.
I’d been to a presentation and read up about the Olympic airspace operations, and also submitted a test flight plan on an earlier trial day. So I knew the procedures quite well. Using SkyDemon, it was about 4:28pm when I submitted my flight plan for a 6:30 departure – just outside the 2 hour minimum notice required – and about 4:50 when the approval came through by text message. My return flight was also approved a few minutes later. So on arrival at Kemble, I only had to complete a little paperwork and was ready to go. You can arrive at the restricted zone boundary up to 30 minutes before your planned time, so my departure of 6:10 was within limits.
It was just as well I had chosen a different aircraft to fly out in – the one I had originally booked had only just left on a lesson and wouldn’t return until after my flight plan slot had expired. Unfortunately, the Atlas controllers wouldn’t allow any changes to your approved flight plan – you have to cancel and submit a new one, meaning another 2 hour delay. To be fair to the other pilot/instructor, the club booking system would have shown I had swapped aircraft and that the original one was free.
Which runway to choose for departure
The wind was light and almost 90 degrees across the main runway, so either end could be used. After completing my power checks on D-Apron, I heard one other pilot announce his plans to depart on 08, so I started taxing towards that end of the airfield. He then changed and announced taxiing to use 26 grass, so I did a quick 180 and returned back towards the 26 hard. The inbound aircraft took their cue from this and also approached for 26, announcing downwind. This gave me enough time to nip in and take off quickly while both runways were empty. Unlike many other airfields, the circuit is to the south of the runway for both directions, meaning that aircraft would be head-on if both runways were in use simultaneously. So its important that all traffic do this, and this seemed to be working well even though ATC was closed and all aircraft were self-announcing.
The Atlas flight plan itself isn’t activated or closed like normal ones – it is just a mechanism to allow the flight to be approved and the details recorded. Kemble were closed when I took off, and Brize LARS would also have been shut. So it was only when reaching Swindon that I contacted Farnborough West. After negotiating a Basic service with a dedicated squawk, they asked me for my authorisation number in order to co-ordinate approval with Atlas (the controllers operating the restricted zone). There was some confusion and I had to provide this two or three times – the controller confessed he couldn’t quite read his colleague’s writing – but was accepted and another Atlas squawk given.
As I continued towards the zone, I was then passed to an Atlas controller on another frequency who simply wanted me continue as planned and report the field in sight. Only having been to White Waltham once before, I wanted to be positive about that before declaring it, so I was perhaps only 4-5 miles away when I said so. I was then told to switch to Waltham Radio and given another squawk specific to the airfield. The approach and landing were straightforward, although (being concious of the noise abatement procedures), I turned onto final a bit wide for 29 so wasn’t properly settled on the approach as early as normal. They say that grass can flatter your landings and this one seemed quite acceptable.
A quiet and relaxing airfield
The airfield was clearly not nearly as busy on such a nice summer’s evening as they would normally be, but the bar was open and several people were outside sitting at the tables enjoying a relaxing drink. The beer did look good, but I settled for a soft drink and planned my departure. My biggest concern was thinking that I might have filed my return flight plan for a different day or time, and if it wasn’t correct I would be staying overnight there.
The £12 landing fee seemed quite reasonable for a location so close in to London. The office was welcoming and helpful about the procedures. I was only the third visiting aircraft that day and it was clear the instructors were not as busy as usual for the time of year. I did see one student returning from an evening lesson, but it sounds like there would normally be much more activity.
A quiet departure
The airfield had been allocated a specific Atlas frequency to call up after take-off, and with the airfield squawk set, I switched to them as quickly as I could. Announcing myself with my authorisation number and service required (Basic), I was quickly granted permission to enter restricted airspace (something that wasn’t explicitly said when inbound) and had transitted through within a few minutes. The frequency was very quiet.
A handover was co-ordinated to Benson, who’s controllers continued a watch on me with a Basic service until just past Fairford. It was amusing to hear a helicopter pilot ask for “Flight Following” – a scheme that is found in the US rather than the UK – and quickly corrected to a Basic service. With Kemble airfield in sight, I self-announced my arrival, finding it busier than Waltham with some 3-4 aircraft approaching or in the circuit even though it was after 8pm. No problem with a left base join for 26 and we were down and packed away before dark.
The club fleet looks smart
The club warriors have had a lot of maintenance and improvements recently, and looked nice in their new matching covers. By contrast, a closer look at the Arrow revealed its missing its propellor which had recently failed a maintenance inspection.
PIC time today: 1:35
Total PIC: 117:20
Total Time: 210:25