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London’s Olympic Guardian Angels

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | November 14, 2012
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Three Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit EC145s flying over London’s Tower Bridge adorned with the rings of the Olympic Games.

When London won the right to host the 2012 summer Olympics in Singapore on July 6, 2005, coming from behind to “win by a nose at the post” from what had been considered the favorite bid city, the French capital Paris, most of the country was overjoyed.

But with celebrations getting into full swing in cities across the nation, security planners must have been plunged deep into thought trying to come to terms with the immense challenge of keeping such a world event safe. The potential threat was massively underlined only one day later on July 7 when a series of coordinated suicide attacks (known as the 7/7 bombings) caused mayhem during the morning rush hour. Four bombers detonated devices on three underground trains and a double-decker bus, resulting in 52 civilians being killed and over 700 more injured.


While the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) was the entity responsible for overseeing the planning and development of the 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, overall security planning lay with the National Olympic Security Coordinator (NOSC), an assistant commissioner who was responsible for overseeing the planning, development and implementation of policing for the Games and for cross-agency (including military) coordination.

The scale of security needed for the summer Olympic Games was going to be huge and was outlined by the NOSC, Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison:

• 14,700 athletes from 205 countries will compete over 28 days of competition

• Approximately eight million tickets will be sold for the Olympic Games, with another two million for the Paralympic Games

• 11 forces will police Olympic venues or villages

• Around 12,000 officers will be on duty across the venues on peak days

• 26 Olympic sports will take place in 34 venues

• 20 Paralympic sports will take place in 21 venues

• 800,000 people are expected to use public transport to travel to the Games on the busiest day, more than the entire population of Leeds 

• 20,000 members of the world’s media are accredited with access to the Games. A further 20,000 non-accredited media are anticipated.

A Royal Air Force 230 Squadron Puma HC1 helicopter based at RAF Benson, Oxfordshire is pictured over the 2012 Olympic Stadium during a training flight in London.

One of the first measures taken was to draw up two airspace restriction zones covering central London. One was a prohibited zone and covered the airspace surrounding the major sites involved in hosting Olympic events, while a wider restricted zone covered a large area of airspace that stretched south of Gatwich airport, north of Luton and Stansted airports and out beyond Heathrow in the west and over the Thames Estuary between Kent and Essex.

Pre-planning Police MRO

However, way before any of the security measures were put into place, one company was addressing challenges that it foresaw in simply allowing a selection of those forces to reach the starting line.

Eurocopter UK was responsible for supporting 20 police air support unit EC135 and EC145 helicopters from different police forces during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as the Royal Air Force Puma helicopters that were on-call for use principally by the special forces during events.

In addition, a company called Arena TV provided aerial coverage of not only the Olympic Games but also the procession of the Olympic torch around the UK. They had five AS355s that would also be extensively used throughout the tournament and would eventually fly more than 600 hours during the period.

Eurocopter UK’s managing director Markus Steinke told Rotor & Wing that the preparations for the Olympics represented a “major effort in pre-planning with Eurocopter taking concerted action with police forces before the Olympics.”

Steinke said that Eurocopter was able to call on its experience in supporting other major tournaments worldwide such as soccer’s FIFA World Cup in 2006. The process to prepare the UK’s police helicopter fleet for intensive operations during the Games began one year before with the company contacting individual police air support units to alert them to the fact that this would be a busy period for all concerned.

As the EC135 and EC145 helicopters conform to a different maintenance regime an intensive maintenance planning and logistics structure had to be devised. Some of the EC135 schedules were brought forward. This allowed Eurocopter’s MRO facility to pre-book some emergency slots within its job schedules for unforeseen aircraft MRO needs during the Olympics.

Eurocopter UK also worked with its suppliers to create a stockpile of the most frequently required items, from rotor blades and mission equipment down to the smallest items. “We doubled our stock for the Olympics—and that also included having replacement engines on standby,” revealed Steinke.

It was also deemed necessary to increase a number of critical resources including the aircraft-on-ground hotline and technical services, the implementation of a 24/7 maintenance duty roster, the management of vendor support for systems ranging from engines to mission equipment, and the deployment of a fleet 20 GPS-tracked mobile vehicles. These vans, only introduced at the beginning of the year, were fully equipped and were ready to be despatched to customer sites or police helicopters that may have performed emergency landings away from their home base or any airfield.

The pre-planning paid off handsomely. Steinke states that there was only one significant “intervention” to repair a helicopter, three logistics requests and two requests from customers for technical support throughout the Olympics and Paralympics.

Steinke was justifiably pleased as the result of his company’s pre-planning and preparations: “It has been demonstrated that Eurocopter is the UK’s backbone for national security (in terms of providing the police helicopters with dedicated MRO support).”

Military Muscle

The military’s air contribution towards securing the Olympic Games and Paralympics included fast-jet interceptors and helicopters. Aircraft of both types were moved into the London area to give them the shortest possible reaction time to any airborne threat.

RAF Typhoon fighters and Royal Navy S-61 Sea Kings were based at RAF Northolt in the west of London (a base more used to the Royal Flight and private jet traffic). Being situated inside London’s orbital motorway, the M25, this meant that reaction time was down to minutes. 

EC145 trio over London.

A pair of Mk 2 Puma helicopters complete with onboard sniper teams were located at Ilford in east London. The snipers provided a final resort if unidentified light aircraft could not be turned back and were heading to one of the Olympic venues.

A helicopter intercept procedure was established for light aircraft or other unidentified helicopters heading into the restricted zone. The military helicopter would join the left hand side of the incoming aircraft and rock his aircraft. The military aircraft might also display a “Follow Me” sign that had to be obeyed. The military crew could also get the pilot’s attention by use of a green laser or firing a flare. If none of these had the desired effect of halting the rogue aircraft, stronger and more kinetic measures were available.

Army Air Corps Lynx and three Royal Navy Mk 8 Lynx helicopters relocated from their bases to the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, which berthed on the River Thames near Greenwich for the duration of both Games. This 21,000-ton dedicated helicopter carrier has six helicopter operating spots on its flight deck. Incidentally, due to the proximity of the ship to the Olympic site it was also used as a floating accommodation base for more than 400 soldiers who were drafted in to boost security at the eleventh hour when security company G4S revealed that it could not recruit and train the 10,400 private security staff it had contracted to provide. This meant that many additional servicemen had to be drafted in late in the day to bolster security at a variety of sites. Around 18,000 service personnel of all types were eventually called upon, some have to give up promised leave after just returning from tours in Afghanistan.

The RN Lynx detachment from 815 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) comprised 60 aircrew, engineers and support staff who were all relocated from their home base at the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at Yeovilton. According to the RN Lynx detachment commander Lt. Commander Nigel Cunningham, who was responsible for coordinating with the Police and LOCOG; the London Organizing committee responsible for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Lynx were kept at a high state of readiness from July 13 until both Games were over.

Aside from maintaining aviation safety, daily tasking revolved around constant updates with briefs and planning, ready to react to any emergency that occurred. “Operating in this unusual battlespace has brought with it a series of demanding and challenging problems,” said Cunningham, adding that the ship was berthed close to the Olympic equestrian event area. This required the varying of launching and recovery of helicopters in order to prevent excessive helicopter noise from adversely affecting the horses in competition nearby.

One of her primary tasks of HMS Ocean was to coordinate the flying operations above London. By the end of the deployment her flight team had logged a total of 1,680 hours of flying aircrew and snipers in their embarked Lynx helicopters. In a public relations mode to local residents and the general public, the ship was opened for visits for three days with more than 11,000 visitors taking up the opportunity to visit the carrier.

Around 50 personnel from 854 NAS with a pair of Sea King Mk7 helicopters fitted with the Searchwater 2000 radar would add airborne surveillance and control to the Olympic security picture, and were based at RAF Northolt. The Mk7’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) was most recently deployed into Afghanistan where it was used to monitor insurgents in Helmand Province. Usually it is used to detect and protect naval ships at sea from maritime and air threats.

Away from the capital city, Merlin MH1s of 814 NAS were based on the 21,000-ton HMS Bulwalk providing security for the Olympic sailing events in Weymouth Bay. During the AW101 Merlin’s operated from the ship supported by 150 personnel.

The offshore RN helicopters supported the Dorset Police through their maritime patrol capability. A harbor revision order that lasted daily between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. was devised to ensure that boats did not interfere with the Olympic competitors in the area that they were using. In this scenario, the military’s role was to support the authority of the police by their presence and by their ability to gather information. The aircraft’s L-3 Wescam MX-15 electro-optical camera could identify and send real-time footage via downlink to situational controllers.

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