Guarding the skies over the Olympics

The RAF Boulmer Ops Room.
The RAF Boulmer Ops Room.

RAF Boulmer is taking the London Olympics under its wing by protecting it from airborne terrorists.

The base’s air traffic monitoring team already safeguard a million square miles, but over the summer they will keep one of the busiest areas of sky in the world under the microscope.

It is an onerous job despite technology. In the underground operations room at RAF Boulmer in Lesbury the young people at the computer screens are serious and focused.

They change roles every couple of hours to stay fresh.

Nearly every screen is covered with little symbolss, each representing an aircraft in flight and each with a line showing direction of travel – very close, it is hoped, to the filed flight plan.

If one line strays too far from the other, there could be huge consequences.

Wing Commander Martin Ogden, who is heading the Olympics task, has spent two-and-a-half years working with colleagues and ministers from across Government on placing a shield over the Games.

That will be enforced by his team at Lesbury.

If an aircraft with evil intent gets through, having been ordered to do so by the very top of Government, RAF Boulmer will make the call to destroy it.

Working with civilian air traffic control and RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, they will enforce the prohibited and restricted zones in force from July 14. The prohibited zone over the Olympic Park bars nearly all flights except those to the major airports.

If the alarm is raised about an airliner, two Eurofighter Typhoons intercept it.

One brings up the rear while the other flies to the airliner’s left, on the captain’s side, pulls ahead and waggles its wings – the international signal meaning ‘follow me’.

If the potential renegade is a light aircraft, it’s more difficult as they are low and slow, but the Typhoon is exceedingly fast.

If possible, it will intercept and be backed up by a sniper-carrying Puma from a TA centre in Ilford or Lynx helicopter from HMS Ocean at Greenwich.

The crew will hold up a placard reading: Follow Me.

Typhoons from Coningsby in Lincolnshire take 10 minutes to reach the restricted zone and another 10 to cross it so some have been stationed at Northolt, near Heathrow.

What qualities do these monitors and controllers need? “Confidence,” Wg Cdr Ogden says. “You need confidence to tell a pilot what to do. It’s not easy.”

You must be able to think in three dimensions and do complex maths quickly in your head.

If you have two fighters converging at eight miles-a-minute, you must be able to divert one at the right moment, in the right direction without disrupting the other aircraft.

And that’s just two planes – they are dealing with many at a time.