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Storming in to help How NATS supported RAF Gibraltar Airport in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma

Despite strong winds and grey skies, the 12th September 2017 started as a fairly normal day in Gibraltar…

Elsewhere in the world, families were waking up to find their homes and belongings destroyed, villages flooded and holidays ruined as Irma, a category 5 hurricane, had continued her descent along the Caribbean overnight – destroying one picturesque island at a time.

Credit: Met Office

The effect of extreme weather and natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, is always fairly unpredictable but thankfully, due to the Met Office’s impressive technology, the world was prepared for Irma’s landfall well in advance.

And while Irma didn’t directly affect UK airspace, there was a need for a rapid worldwide emergency response – for which NATS would do its utmost to support.

The Rock

Located adjacent to the border with Spain and with the sea at each end of the runway, RAF Gibraltar, which is operated by the Ministry of Defence, is a forward mounting base and always ready to support UK military operations when needed.

So when the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands were hit by Irma, the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Ocean (then in the Mediterranean), set sail for the Caribbean – stopping off at Gibraltar to pick up emergency supplies to help the beleaguered islanders.

A Chinook in front of The Rock

The forward mounting base capability of RAF Gibraltar was activated to make sure HMS Ocean could quickly take everything on board. Over 200 pallets of aid, items like bottled water, food, baby milk, bedding and clothing, made their way on board for those in need on British territories.

Credit: Royal Navy
“Watching everything happen from the control tower was extremely emotional for us all – it really hit home that so many people were in need of these basic essentials.”

- Trevor Hammond, Gibraltar control tower GM

Trevor Hammond

The NATS team, who operate the control tower next to the runway and manage all inbound and departing flights, showed tremendous flexibility to ensure that this most worthy of operations could be conducted successfully.

The view from the Visual Control Room (VCR)

One of the most crucial tasks was managing the influx of unplanned military aircraft while making sure commercial operations could still get off the ground and passengers could get where they needed to be. Gibraltar’s air traffic controllers are used to juggling civil and military aircraft at the same time, but never to this extent!

“The smooth coordination between civil and military aviation authorities has ensured the efficiency of Gibraltar’s airfield to receive aircraft, supplies and personnel at almost no notice.”

- Royal Navy

An ever changing flight programme, including multiple sorties by Chinook and Merlin helicopters, was managed seamlessly and, although busier than normal, the airport faced little disruption.

NATS controllers had to carefully co-ordinate arrivals, departures, taxiing aircraft, vehicles moving across the airfield carrying supplies and commercial flights with dedicated time slots.

And because of the unusual aspect of a major road which bisects the runway, the controllers also had to liaise with local authorities to close it every time an aircraft landed or departed – which ended up being quite a few times throughout the day!

“I am so proud of the Gibraltar Airport team, especially the controllers, for everything they did that day. It’s heart-warming to know that we did our bit to support a successful aid relief operation.”

- Trevor Hammond, Gibraltar control tower GM

The runway is bisected by Gibraltar's busiest road

Not only does NATS manage Gibraltar’s Air Traffic Control services, but they also offer medical support, wildlife control and Air Traffic Engineering services.

FACTS ABOUT GIBRALTAR AIRPORT

  • The air traffic control tower is 21m high
  • The runway is 1,800m long and bisected by Gibraltar’s busiest road
  • The current tower was opened in the 1950’s
  • 4 airlines operate in and out of Gibraltar Airport serving 7 routes
“Gibraltar is a great place to live and work with a fantastic lifestyle but when we are at work we are focused on delivering a safe and efficient service for our customers.”

- Trevor Hammond, Gibraltar control tower GM

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