Choreographing Olympic Airspace

Flying into London for the Olympics? Get in line.

NATS, the United Kingdom's provider of air traffic services, handles roughly two million flights annually. Those numbers will dramatically increase during the Olympic Games. Photo: NATS.

Seven years ago, when London was chosen to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, officials knew it would stress the city’s busy airspace. In March, the United Kingdom’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS) told Parliament that airspace congestion at London’s Heathrow airport was already at 98 percent capacity, so that by mid-July, any disruption to the overburdened system of NATS-controlled airspace—from increased traffic, weather delays, or terrorist attacks—would require even more help. To help offset the volume, the Royal Air Force established an Olympics airspace management “cell” named Atlas Control within the largest NATS control center at Swanwick, to handle flights in the temporary restricted zones.

The temporary Atlas control center is staffed with more than 100 airmen from the Royal Air Force. Half will work as air traffic controllers; the rest will handle flight plans. All are veterans of Air Traffic Services Outside Controlled Airspace (ATSOCAS), a service that does everything from giving pilots weather updates to rerouting aircraft.

During the first weekend of airspace security restrictions, which began July 14, a large number of flight plans were filed with minor errors that stumped the computerized system. To help process paperwork, another 10 staff were assigned to the control center.

The Olympics are expected to bring 700 more commercial airliners carrying 500,000 athletes and fans; an extra 3,000 business aviation flights; and at least 150 heads of State in VIP aircraft. Airlines lobbied NATS for priority to land or cross the airspace, but NATS is required to treat all users equally.

Earlier estimates of air traffic were based on patterns seen during the Beijing Olympics, Paul Beauchamp of the NATs press office told us July 20. But London’s flight restrictions are not as severe as they were in China, where private airplanes were essentially prohibited. “No one is saying that general aviation pilots are excluded,” said Beauchamp, “just that they need to tell Atlas Control who they are, and where they are going. It’s not about closing down airspace, but creating a known environment.” Since flight plans can be filed as little as two hours before takeoff, patterns are tough to predict. “The closer we get to the Opening Ceremony on July 27, the more plans we’ll get,” said Beauchamp. “Then surge just before the Men’s 100-meter final. Then again for the Closing Ceremony.”

Airspace restrictions over greater London. Red indicates the prohibited zone. Photo: NATS

Any aircraft coming closer than three nautical miles to a restricted zone, and more critically the prohibited zone at the center of the Games, needs an approved flight plan, and is required to establish two-way radio contact before leaving the ground. Pilots don’t need a flight plan, and don’t have to speak to Atlas or even carry a transponder to reveal their location if they remain more than three nautical miles away.

Some 1,500 helicopter flights will carry media and broadcast crews, security teams, and Olympic staff to the city center each day. Flying at low level, each helicopter needs to dodge balloons carrying television and security cameras that are linked to the ground by tethers stretching from 142 feet to 381 feet.

After the Olympics end, the control center will manage the somewhat eased restrictions for the Paralympic Games, through the closing of the Olympic Village on September 12. Delegations from Brazil (site of the 2014 World Cup) and Russia (which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics) have visited Atlas to help prepare for their events.

Some air traffic planners worry less about security threats than a natural disruption, whether from England’s notorious rain and fog, or an event as unlikely as a volcano. Partly at the urging of British authorities, Airbus accelerated its tests of an Airborne Volcanic Object Infrared Detector (AVOID) to alert Atlas to any such geologic disruption.






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