Last week, work arranged for a bunch of us from Control to go to Heathrow Airport to meet the Heathrow Nee Naws and have a behind-the-scenes tour. As a big fan of the TV programme Airline and a total spotter, I jumped at the chance. It was a really, really interesting day.
We started off with a drive around the perimeter road, watching planes take off and land every few seconds. We pulled up at one of the RVPs – the places emergencies services meet up at if there’s a serious incident. There was a clear view of the runway from the RVP.
“A couple of years ago, we were sent here for an ‘aircrash immiment’,” one of the paramedics told us. “Half of the undercarriage of the plane had come down and a crash landing was inevitable. We watched the plane circle round the airport again and again as the airport made preparations to minimise the impact. After what seemed like hours, the plane was told to land. The pilot somehow managed to land the plane on two wheels, and it was only as it drew to a halt that the fuselage scraped along the ground. There was an enormous noise and sparks everywhere. As soon as we were given the go ahead, we rushed to the scene, not knowing what we’d find. We’d been anticipating deaths, but the worst injury was a broken ankle. We took our patient to hospital, and as soon as I’d booked him in, I walked outside A+E and burst into tears.”
Next we went inside the airport and had a drive round the airfield, getting a good look at all the planes and posh lounges for rich people (Jordan?) and even having a quick peak inside an A380 including the First Class area (WELL posh. I think I might upgrade my tickets for my forthcoming trip to Oz). We went to the spot where there had recently been a freak accident where an airport worker had driven into a big yellow pole and become impaled on it.
Then we went up the Air Traffic Control tower. There was an incredible view and we were all allowed to take photos. Air Traffic Controllers, I suppose, are a bit like Allocators in that they have to know where all their planes are and instruct them on where to go. They work shifts like us and have lots of complicated screens with pictures of cartoon aeroplanes on, just like we have screens of cartoon ambulances. But of course, if we were to send an ambulance to the wrong place, all that would happen is a slight delay in reaching the patient. If an air traffic controller were to make the same mistake, they’d end up blowing up 300 people! What a responsibility!
I noticed they have a large red button connected to a telephone marked “CRASH” but I resisted the temptation to press it and exclaim “So what does this do??”
Our next stop was the posh new terminal 5 where we got to see a shiny blue clock and sniffer dogs. Not being allowed in the duty free shops was quite torturous, though. We also got to see A505, which is the dedicated airport ambulance and one of the bicycle ambulances (also known as CRU, cycle response unit). I was amazed at the amount of kit they can actually fit on the back of one of these things – the only things they don’t have that a normal ambulance does is the paediatric advanced life support kit, the maternity kit and the cardiac monitor. They are really heavy and as the responder has to cycle really slowly through the airport to avoid hitting people, they have to be really good cyclists.
Our final stop was the Star Centre, which is the central control room for Heathrow. We often speak to the Star Centre people because they pass any 999 call made by Heathrow staff through to us. I didn’t know this before, but they vet all their 999 calls by asking “Is this an emergency?” and apparently they get rid of quite a few. I wish our call takers were allowed to say that too! I was amused to see they have a big board full of colour coded statistics relating to queues hanging over their heads which looked identical to the one we have about ambulance response times. It seems damned statistics are everywhere, whatever job you do.
The Star Centre people let us listen to the tape recording of the call made to them by air traffic control after the plane crash in January 2008. I was amazed at the calm voice of the controller, clearly giving details of the accident. Of course, I suppose it’s no different from the calm way ambulance crews pass us a blue call for a horrible injury, or the calm way call takers give resuscitation instructions – they are following protocol the way they are trained to. I think it’s just the gut reaction the words “Plane Crash” provoke in me. I still have a bit of paranoia that one day I will be allocating on the West Desk when a plane crashes – but at least after today I am much more familiar with the way the airport works and will be able to cope a lot better.