As thousands are set to celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday this weekend, we’ve been busy behind the scenes preparing for a very special part of the celebrations – the flypast.
Every year NATS is involved in coordinating with the RAF for the flypast, and this year I have the privilege to help organise NATS’ role in this activity representing air traffic control at London Heathrow Airport.
The flypast is set to follow the Trooping the Colour ceremony. At midday tomorrow (Saturday 11 June) an array of approximately 30 aircraft, including a Chinook helicopter, a Spitfire and Hurricane pair, Tornadoes, Typhoons and, of course, the Red Arrows, will zoom over The Mall and Buckingham Palace.
While the three-minute flypast may seem a short period of time, a huge amount of preparation takes place months in advance to ensure we can safely integrate the flypast aircraft with our operations in the busy London airspace.
For the flypast to take place safely we have to stop arrivals and departures at Heathrow. As the airport operates at 98 per-cent capacity, allowing for a pause in commercial air traffic requires meticulous planning.
Prior to the start of the airshow season, my colleagues in Terminal Control at Swanwick (who control the lower airspace over London) and I meet to assess the planned flypasts and airshows that will affect the London airspace. Together we analyse the flight paths and vertical levels to design the associated procedures. During HM The Queen’s birthday flypast, the most challenging aspect from an air traffic management perspective comes after the aircraft have overflown Buckingham Palace as they continue heading towards Heathrow before being safely dispersed. Safety is our main priority at all times so, due to the proximity of the fast moving aircraft in the flypast we pause operations at Heathrow for a short time.
The weather plays an important factor too. Prevailing winds dictate the direction in which aircraft land at and depart from the airport and, if there is low cloud the flypast may be cut short, with fewer aircraft taking part.
We will stop arrivals and departures for a period of time before and after the flypast at Heathrow. If, at Heathrow, we’re operating in a westerly direction, there will be a gap in arrivals for approximately 10 minutes. But if we’re operating in an easterly direction, there will be a gap in arrivals and departures for approximately 15 minutes. We have to plan differently for each direction. On westerly operations, the aircraft are going with the flow of the flypast, whereas on easterly operations aircraft will route directly towards the flypast tracks, which means we need to increase the separation distance between the aircraft in the flypast and any Heathrow arrivals and departures.
We also work with Heathrow Airport to coordinate the runway inspections to take place when the arrivals and departures are stopped. This ensures that we maximise any capacity lost due to the flypast.
Temporary airspace restrictions are also put in place to ensure the safe management of aircraft in the flypast and those in the surrounding airspace. A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) has been issued giving details of this restricted airspace. (Do note: if you’re a general aviation pilot wishing to fly in or around the area, please make sure you’re familiar with the details in the NOTAM.)
This flypast is one of many aerial activities that will be taking place this summer that NATS helps to coordinate, others include Farnborough International Airshow and the Red Bull Air Race at Ascot.
I’m sure the Queen’s birthday flypast and the rest of the celebrations will be an event enjoyed by all. We’re especially delighted with the part we play to make this happen.
[Featured image by the The MoD via Flickr]
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