In the unlikely event of an air attack on London during the Olympic Games, a taskforce of Army helicopters based on a helicopter assault ship moored in the Thames will be deployed to intercept.
Soldiers from 661 Squadron Army Air Corps are currently training aboard HMS Ocean, on Exercise Olympic Guardian, ahead of their aviation reaction role providing air security for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The Squadron, together with the Royal Navy helicopter pilots based aboard the ship, will be responsible for the safety and security of the Games by making sure there are no unauthorised aircraft in the prohibited air space above the Olympic venues and the wider London area.
“We will be the only ones based on HMS Ocean, which will be moored in the Thames, using Lynx helicopters for this role, but the airborne task itself is split between us and others in the reaction force such as the Typhoons, and the Pumas in north London, as well as the ground force,” explains Officer Commanding 661 Squadron, Major Simon Gough.
“There is a well-publicised prohibited zone over London, and we are responsible for making sure that people who aren’t meant to be in it, aren’t there, and escort them from the area.”
'Different operating environment'
Although the ship will be moored in the Thames, rather than sailing out at sea, the unique landing site is a new challenge for the pilots and their support crew who are not long back from active duty in Afghanistan – with some only returning from operations in February.
“It’s very different to what we are used to,” admits Major Gough. “But the guys are taking it in their stride.
“The Army are land-lovers clearly, so this is a very different operating environment not only in terms of where we are living on the ship but also in the flying aspect where there are different procedures and obviously you are flying off a 22 thousand tonne aircraft carrier that is moving.
“We are used to operating from green field sites on hardened surfaces in secure locations that aren’t moving! Obviously the ship will be moored during the games, but this training is giving us a much wider experience, and integrating us with the ship - and the guys on Ocean have been very welcoming. It's an aircraft carrier so it is used to dealing with air crew and helicopters, and they are used to having air groups on board, so they are very well set up for what we do.”
Return to Afghanistan
The eight-day exercise started in Portland, on the south west coast, with the ship sailing round to London and up the Thames today, May 4. During the journey the pilots have been flying a series of morning, afternoon and night flights to hone their skills.
“This exercise is a key milestone in our training,” says Major Gough. “We’ve obviously undergone very stringent training to date, but Exercise Olympic Guardian is the test of that to ensure that what we are doing is correct, and that it is what’s expected of us by both the military and the government during the Games. It’s an incredible once in a lifetime experience and something we all feel privileged to be part of.”
After the Olympics, the soldiers of 661 Squadron will return to their respective bases in the UK and Germany where they will begin their training to return to Afghanistan at the end of next year.