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.

Published Jul 06, 2009 - 16 Comments and counting

16 Comments on “A Visit to Heathrow”
  1. D.d Says:

    I am pleased to hear they have up-graded the bicycles. We used to be regaled 25 years ago with stories about from a nurse working at Heathrow about dodging 'traffic' on runways with a wonky bike, trying to get to a casualty in some outlying workshop or other.
    One advantage is that she got standby tickets to Aus and other places – which she still has in retirement!

  2. Olisse Says:

    As an aspiring Air Traffic Controller I am very jealous that you got to go up into the Heathrow tower, I've been wishing for a similar invitation to the Barajas tower but as yet it hasn't been forthcoming!

  3. Martin Says:

    Very interesting. Thanks. :)

  4. Ben Says:

    Not at all jealous of your airport tour… Not… At… all….

  5. Chris Says:

    I expect the A380 you saw was an Emirates A380 rather than a Royal Jordanian. Very nice indeed, although First Class is outrageously expensive!

  6. Suzi Brent Says:

    Yep, it was an Emirates. How much is their first class then? Even their economy rates were too expensive for me, so I am going Singapore Air to Oz – they are supposed to be really good too but not quite as pricey.

  7. flobach Says:

    You're coming to Oz – cool! Do pop in if you happen to be in Western Australia :-)

    And I can assure you, Singapore Airlines is the Bees Knees of air travel, they haven't let me down in 15 years of flying, even if it was 'only' economy class.

  8. Adam Says:

    You should come to Tasmania as well

  9. Suzi Brent Says:

    Sadly I am not going to Tasmania or Western Australia – I've only got three weeks there so I had to choose carefully and decided to go to Sydney, Alice Springs and Uluru and then Port Douglas. If anyone's reading from these areas and would like to let me pop in to their ambulance/control room please let me know :-)

  10. hotels Heathrow Says:

    Jeez that must have been scary, I work in the Ramada not far from the airport and did hear nothing about it, I am glad to hear everyone is OK.

  11. Claire Says:

    Hello again :) We looked up the flights after the visit and it's about £2000 return to Dubai… Not cheap but alot cheaper than we expected!

  12. Tom Says:

    Very informative blog, along the lines of paramedic's diary, which is simply brilliant.

    I sometimes think that when I was operational, a lot of the control staff had a vested interest in the outcome of a 'blue and two', having dealt with family or friends on the blower, but I never thought to extend the courtesy of saying Mr/Mrs X is alright, and your advise/help/input helped us on the shout.

    Shame on me, but to you profound respect.

  13. Lex Says:

    Great Blog – i have read through the entire thing now [started yesterday at about nine, slept at 4am, uni got in the way a bit today, just finished] Please keep writing. I've laughed [and cried] my way through it, much more laughter though… Say, how to you contact someone in the control room to say thanks – I had a scary 999 call last week- I may just pass on my thanks if I can figure out how to, Lex

  14. Suzi Brent Says:

    I had a look too – it would have been £5,000 for my return flight to Sydney which isn't that bad considering it was nearly £1,000 for economy. Not that it really matters as I cannot afford £5,000 even if I work overtime every day between now and then!

  15. Simon Says:

    I have visited alice springs control room. An eye opener! lol the staff there are really nice, so i'm sure if you just turn up at the door, they'll let you have a look around. It is run by SJA. Also the flying doctors museum is well worth a visit!

  16. M. Alan Thomas II Says:

    Airline pilots are trained to land on the back two wheels should the front have problems–and it's almost always the front that has problems–and the planes are designed to handle this. Properly done, there's little chance of anything bad happening. Badly done, or a gust of wind at the wrong moment, or one of the other wheels fails halfway through, or . . . well, snapping a wing in half and igniting what's left of the fuel is among the possible outcomes. You definitely want emergency services already at the staging area if a rear-wheels landing doesn't work!

    On another topic, did they show you the airport fire trucks? I've never seen Heathrow's, but those things are monsters!

    Nee Naw
    Nee Naw was a blog about life in the London Ambulance Service control room. It was written by Suzi Brent from 2005 to 2010. The blog is no longer being updated, but the archives will remain here.
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