From Helmand to Heathrow: Navy helicopters join aerial shield for Olympics
Royal Navy, July 13, 2012 - Navy Sea Kings today flew into London as the military ring of steel for the Olympics tightened a fortnight before the Games begin.
The helicopters from 854 Naval Air Squadron, normally based at Culdrose in Cornwall, will spend the next seven weeks flying from RAF Northolt in West London as part of the aerial shield drawn around the capital for the summer’s sporting events.
The two eye-in-the-sky Sea Kings arrived at the air base – it will also be home to RAF Typhoon fighters and Puma helicopters armed with snipers – as the nation’s biggest warship made her way up the Thames for her key role in the massive security operation surrounding the Games.
Once HMS Ocean arrives at Greenwich this evening, she will serve as the launchpad for military helicopters, among them Fleet Air Arm Lynx, assigned to the aerial shield.
In all, some 17,000 military personnel are committed to the Olympic and Paralympic events – 2,600 each from the Navy and RAF, 11,800 from the Army.
And of those 17,000 personnel, 1,600 are involved in ensuring the skies of London are safe, among them the 53 air and ground crew from 854 NAS and their Sea King Mk7 Airborne Surveillance and Control, fresh from front-line duties in Afghanistan.
There, the Sea Kings – known throughout the Navy as ‘baggers’ thanks to the distinctive bag containing their state-of-the-art radar – tracked movements on the ground, allowing ground forces to close in and seize weapons, bomb-making equipment and insurgents.
Over London, however, the aircraft return to their traditional ‘early warning’ role – tracking aircraft flying around the capital.
From midnight, restrictions come into place over London –a prohibited zone across the centre of the capital from Maidenhead in the west to east of London City airport, and a broader restricted zone covering the M25 and Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton airports.
Those restrictions mean that the Sea Kings are at 30 minutes’ notice to scramble until mid-September, called upon if civilian or military radar tracking the skies over the capital need assistance. The baggers will also be airborne for some of the key events of the Games.
Having spent 15 months in Helmand from the end of 2010 until April, the Olympic mission is a welcome return to the squadron’s original mission.
“This is what we’re designed to do – tracking low-flying aircraft or missiles, incursions into the airspace. It’s different from what we did in Afghanistan – but it’s just one of the things the Sea King can do and it’s the same, well-honed team doing that job,” explained Lt Cdr John Ling, Commanding Officer of 854 NAS.
“Traditionally the UK is where we come to relax. But this is an operational deployment – and it’s great to able to be part of it. It’s not something that’s happened before. I’ve been in the Service 17 years. This is unique.”
Typically at the peak of the day, there are around 1,000 aircraft flying into, out of, over or around London’s airspace.
The restrictions over the next seven weeks mean that only authorised aircraft – everything from commercial liners to business jets, helicopters, balloons, even model aircraft – will be allowed over the capital.
“That means that if there’s something we don’t know about, we’re automatically interested in it,” said Lt Cdr Ling.
It will be down to helicopters to intercept and investigate slower-flying aircraft, the Typhoons will deal with larger contacts.
They will use all manner of efforts to coerce a suspicious aircraft away from the area – from holding up signs and radio calls to flashing lights and firing flares – but Air Vice Marshal Stuart Atha, in charge of the nation’s air defence, said lethal force would be used “as a last resort”.
Beyond the importance of providing one section of the aerial shield, the Culdrose airmen are looking forward to the Olympic experience.
“You don’t often get the chance to fly over London, to see the sights. It’s good to be able to see some landmarks as opposed to the sand of Afghanistan,” said pilot Lt ‘MV’ Hammond.
Lt Cdr Ling added: “It’s a privilege to be part of the Olympics – it’s a once-in-a-generation event. To be here in London for the occasion is special, and I hope my men and women will have the chance to experience some of the atmosphere.”
The detachment will remain at Northolt until mid September, after which it will return to Cornwall to prepare to join HMS Illustrious for the flagship deployment of the year, Cougar 12, to the Mediterranean in October. 854 is already gearing up for a return to Afghanistan, where its sister squadron 857 is in action, in 2013.
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854 NAS 854 squadron Fleet Air Arm ( Royal Navy )