Silencing the Skies for The Queen's Funeral
An interview with Ady Dolan - Air Traffic Controller (Heathrow)
As the world mourned the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, plans for the first state funeral of a British monarch in more than 70 years were being put into action.
As a mark of respect, the industry agreed that aircraft would not overfly the state funeral, the part of the procession from Central London to Windsor Castle that would be close to Heathrow Airport and Windsor, and the private ceremony - a period of over 9 hours.
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What followed were 10 days of incredibly intense preparation, as teams from across the UK air traffic service, NATS, Heathrow and the airlines worked against the clock to create a minute-by-minute plan. The aim was to deliver a respectful silence while keeping the airport open and disruption for passengers to an absolute minimum. What then transpired is a story of incredibly capable people working together to deliver a complex play with pride and precision.
Queen Elizabeth II reigned for 70 years from 1952 to 2022.
A one-shot thing
Under normal circumstances London’s airspace is very busy with five major airports all within 30 miles of each other. Heathrow’s flight paths would usually take traffic directly over the centre of London, so understanding how the operation would need to adapt to the needs of what would be a historic, international occasion was a huge undertaking. There was also only one chance to get it right.
The airspace above London is amongst the busiest and most complex in the world.
Experienced Heathrow controller, Ady Dolan, working alongside people from across the rest of NATS, representatives from Heathrow and the major airlines, was drafted in to help develop a plan.
“I think we all recognised the importance of what we were doing. This was someone who had served the country for 70 years and Heathrow was where she first arrived in the UK as Queen in 1952. As an industry, we wanted to deliver a level of silence that would allow people to reflect. That was our contribution. The challenge was doing that while also finding a way to keep the airport open and people moving.”
As an industry, we wanted to deliver a level of silence that would allow people to reflect.
Plans for the death of The Queen - known as Operation London Bridge – were well established. What was needed now was a detailed understanding of the impact operationally and how the airport and air traffic teams would need to adapt.
“As soon as the death of Her Majesty was announced, we knew we would have roughly 10 days before the funeral to work with the airlines and airport to finalise the details, agree changes to the schedule and understand how it would all work in reality.”
The first part of the plan actually came after only five days when The Queen’s coffin was moved from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall for the period of lying in state.
Heathrow is situated due west of Central London. Working on ‘easterlies’ that day - with the wind blowing from the East - would usually see departing aircraft flying over London, but the need to avoid Westminster saw the NATS team effectively having to ‘turn off’ certain departure routes.
“Aircraft noise in that context, when the usual soundscape of London is totally silent would have been so piercing it would have been very conspicuous. We were aiming for absolute silence.” Working with NATS Swanwick - which manages traffic in the wider London airspace – the team created a ‘bubble’ without any air traffic 2.5 nautical miles over the Abbey.
The aim was to remove all aircraft noise and ensure silence in the skies above proceedings
So conscious was the team of gauging the success off their plan, they commandeered the help of a BBC outside broadcast team in one of the few vehicles able to get close to events. Sound readings taken from the roof of the truck confirmed that pin drop silence had been achieved.
With the first major hurdle successfully cleared, teams from across NATS, Heathrow and the airlines turned their attention back to the emerging plans for the day of the funeral itself and how the flying schedule could be amended to work around it.
“No one involved wanted the events of the day to result in thousands of people having their travel plans ruined. We needed to find a balance.”
What followed were long days of proposal, refinement and review. Thankfully the team had use of a unique tool - developed jointly by NATS, Frequentis and Heathrow - called Demand Capacity Balancer, or DCB, to understand how different scenarios would play out. What’s known as a ‘digital twin’, DCB works by crunching a huge amount of operational data in order to model possible outcomes to an incredible level of precision. Airports can then try all kinds of permutations before settling on the best possible strategy.
The DCB tool was used to evaluate scenarios and plan accordingly.
“We had a plan, but of course given the nature for the event, the scrutiny at this stage was very intense. What DCB gave us was real, concrete evidence to present to people. This was the plan. It was the best plan and it would give us what we wanted – silence at the right times, but with minimal disruption to anyone travelling.” By shuffling the schedule, moving some flights earlier and later and the airlines bringing in larger aircraft, the team were able to minimise the amount of flights that needed to be cancelled and deliver as close to a full schedule as anyone dared hope.
“I believe a lot of airports without DCB might have concluded that the only option was to shut, or see a huge swathe of cancellations. That was absolutely not an acceptable outcome from our perspective. I think the plan we came up with was the perfect balance.”
Come the day of the funeral and everything was in place. Air traffic control teams from across NATS had been briefed. “We literally had a step-by-step plan, down to when individual controllers would be in specific seats and what role they would have at a given time.”
The procession route.
The main thrust of the plan was to alternate use of Heathrow’s two runways for arrivals for as long as possible, with a couple of short stoppages on departures for the national silence and as the procession passed by the runways, and then a stop on departures as the procession reached Windsor.
Departures would then be able to restart but taken off their usual routes to avoid overflying the castle itself. This all took an incredible amount of precision and coordination. The plan rested on making use of every available moment to keep traffic moving whilst protecting the funeral and procession.
An overview of the airspace operation on the day.
“The procedures for managing departures and arrivals on the day were broken down into six timed phases, which were further detailed with minute-to-minute plans based on specific moments during the day and waypoints as the procession travelled to Windsor.”
The team were so conscious of the need for pinpoint timing that live updates were relayed by the helicopter pilot covering the event for the world’s media. Event planning even went so far as to calculate the time delay on the BBC’s on-demand iPlayer service, with a screen set up in the tower for a dedicated London Bridge Coordinator to monitor.
The funeral procession included around 3,000 military personnel, stretching for over a mile.
In the end, despite a couple of curve balls during the day, including some delays to the procession itself (“We’d calculated everything based on the procession moving at 12mph, so had to do some quick maths when they sped up to make up time!’) it all came together beautifully with the final departure clear of Windsor airspace just as the procession reached the Long Walk which runs up to the gates of the castle.
Without a doubt it was the single most complex operation I’ve ever been involved in, but also the most fulfilling
Ady has been a controller at Heathrow for over 20 years. He’s helped write procedures for huge London flypasts, worked with the US secret service to make arrangements for Presidential visits, and given Concorde her final goodbye. Where does he rank the events of 19 September 2022?
“Without a doubt it was the single most complex operation I’ve ever been involved in, but also the most fulfilling. Right from the start everyone involved was united in the desire to get this right. We were desperate for it to work.”
Ady discusses the operation in the latest episode of Altitude
And was it all worth it?
The team achieved everything they set out to do. “I don’t think anyone who was following events that day would have heard a single jet engine and I hope we did Her Majesty proud. That’s testament to the incredible teamwork that our industry can regularly deliver when required.”
“I love this job and you don’t do it for accolades, but we did get a very nice thank you from the Royal Household. That’s a special one.”