Jan 18, 2020
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German military plane was in air at time RAF demanded airspace be closed causing delays

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A German military plane flying from RAF Northolt may have been the reason why Heathrow’s airspace was closed for around 30 minutes on Friday, leaving passengers stranded for several hours. 

The RAF had told civilian controllers they needed an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace at around 9am yesterday, forcing several aircraft to divert and others to circle until Heathrow reopened.  

And flight data shows that a plane belonging to the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, took off from the military airport – which is less than 10 miles from Heathrow – at around the same time. 

The plane, German Air Force 612 (GAF612), is thought to have been a Bombardier Global 5000, which the Luftwaffe is known to use.

Records from flight tracker website FlightAware show it took off from Northolt at 8.55am yesterday morning and flew to Hamburg, landing at 10.03am UK time.

A German military plane flying from RAF Northolt may have been the reason why Heathrow's airspace was closed for around 30 minutes on Friday, as flight records, pictured above, showed the plane took off from the military airport at around the same time as the delay

A German military plane flying from RAF Northolt may have been the reason why Heathrow’s airspace was closed for around 30 minutes on Friday, as flight records, pictured above, showed the plane took off from the military airport at around the same time as the delay

The next flight to take off from RAF Northolt did not depart until 11.13am, with the plane immediately before flight GAF612 leaving at 8.31am. 

None of the other planes shown as leaving the airport that morning were military aircraft, although records do not list the departures of RAF planes.  

Heathrow’s closure led to at least four British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic aircraft being forced to land at other airports such as Gatwick, Stansted and Luton.

The hour-long backlog of flights waiting to land led to several planes running low on fuel, forcing them to seek clearance to divert to nearby airports. 

Passengers of one Virgin Atlantic flight revealed how their pilot announced over the tannoy that they only had ‘five to ten minutes’ of fuel left and had to land at Gatwick.

However, the RAF stressed on Friday that there was no emergency and said the delay was caused by ‘one of our assets’ flying from Northolt. 

A spokesman said: ‘RAF can confirm that a flight was completed this morning by one of our assets from RAF Northolt, this flight was coordinated with Heathrow ATC but had to extend by a few minutes. The minor delays caused to civilian air traffic are regretted.’ 

But they refused to comment when asked by MailOnline on Saturday if the German military plane had caused the delay.

The RAF had told civilian controllers they needed an 'unplanned' use of airspace at around 9am yesterday, forcing several aircraft to divert and others to circle until Heathrow reopened

The RAF had told civilian controllers they needed an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace at around 9am yesterday, forcing several aircraft to divert and others to circle until Heathrow reopened 

The closure of Heathrow led to passengers being left stranded for several hours. 

British TV producer Anne Henry told The Mirror how her Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles was diverted to Gatwick due to a lack of fuel.

She told Mirror Online: ‘It was quite alarming when the captain announced after circling Heathrow for a while, “Ladies and gentlemen we have about five to ten minutes” fuel left so we may need to divert to Gatwick’.

‘We’ve been on the ground for about an hour but we’re not allowed to get off.

Flight data shows that a plane belonging to the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, took off from the military airport - which is less than 10 miles from Heathrow - at around the same time. The plane is thought to have been a Bombardier Global 5000

Flight data shows that a plane belonging to the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, took off from the military airport – which is less than 10 miles from Heathrow – at around the same time. The plane is thought to have been a Bombardier Global 5000

‘The official line from the pilot on the tannoy has been “security incident”. Tough for the crew as they’ve only had one or two hours of sleep and have to keep going.’

RAF Northolt is home to 32 Squadron, which is at times tasked with flying VIPs such as the royal family and politicians in Leonardo AW109SP GrandNew helicopters.

Other aircraft based at the RAF base includes the BAE146 CCMK2 and CMK3.

Northolt’s website states that the CCMK2’s primary role is ‘the transport of senior government ministers and MOD personnel and, most famously, senior members of the Royal Family.’

Passengers took to Twitter to vent their fury at the delays caused by the closure

Passengers took to Twitter to vent their fury at the delays caused by the closure 

Flight data shows how the hour-long backlog of flights led to several planes running low on fuel, forcing them to seek clearance to divert to nearby airports

Flight data shows how the hour-long backlog of flights led to several planes running low on fuel, forcing them to seek clearance to divert to nearby airports

However, military sources confirmed to MailOnline that yesterday’s incident did not have any royal connection. 

Downing Street also confirmed it was not involved in the flight over Heathrow. 

Why were planes diverted away from Heathrow? 

Here MailOnline looks at the possible reasons behind the Heathrow delays:

1. Was RAF Northolt tasked with flying a VIP and did the plane get into difficulty?  

RAF Northolt is home to 32 Squadron, which is at times tasked with flying VIPs such as the royal family and politicians in Leonardo AW109SP GrandNew helicopters.

Both the RAF and Downing Street have told MailOnline they were not involved in today’s operation however.

2. Could a mysterious privatised spy plane unit be behind the delays? 

Gareth Corfield, defence writer for The Register, told MailOnline that a privitised spy plane unit based at Northolt – which runs Islander planes – could be behind the incident. 

He said that if an Islander got into difficulties south of Heathrow and wanted to get back it might have caused the delays as it is a slow plane.

3. Was there slow communication between Air Traffic Control, the RAF and other parties?

As the RAF aircraft demanded an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace it would have to inform NATS, the company which provides air traffic services to UK airports. 

Air Traffic Control would then have to inform other parties including Heathrow Airport. If this communication had been slow it might have led to delays in the area. 

4. Did a training exercise run overtime causing the RAF to request an extension to the airtime required? 

Aviation expert Julian Bray told MailOnline that the incident might have been an exercise that went on for slightly too long. He added that Whitehall related exercises would take place in that area.

He noted that the weather yesterday and overnight might have meant the exercise had to be delayed into the morning. 

5. Was the airspace closed due to a national security emergency? 

 While this is possible, the MoD refuse to discuss such issues as a matter of policy. 

A NATS spokesperson said: ‘The events of this morning will be subject to internal review as well as review with operationally relevant external stakeholders.’ 

Gareth Corfield, defence writer for The Register, told MailOnline: ‘From what I gathered, they shut the main Heathrow approach path for about 20 minutes.

‘You don’t do that unless there’s something seriously bad going on, because the cost of putting planes back into the holding stack is £10,000s a minute and that comes out of the Government’s pocket.’

One explanation he had was that one of the RAF aircraft had ‘got into serious difficulty’, adding: ‘Obviously the locals around Northolt are not going to be happy as they trust the Air Force not to drop planes on their head.’

Mr Corfield added: ‘The other theory, there’s a whole bunch of military aircraft, it could have been one of the Queen’s Flight losing one of the engines.’

Speaking about other possibilities, Mr Corfield said: ‘There is the privatised spy plane unit based at Northolt. They run planes called the Islander.

‘If an Islander got into difficulties south of Heathrow and wanted to get back to Northolt, it’s a slow aircraft, so that could be another explanation.’

He added: ‘There’s something very unusual happening there.’

It was revealed in late 2018 that the Piper PA-31 Navajo was being used for Islander spy plane operations and the work had been privatised to fast-growing aviation group 2Excel.

The planes continue to operate from RAF Northolt by 2Excel’s Scimitar business unit, according to reports. 

Aviation expert Julian Bray told MailOnline that the flight would have likely been a ‘high-security’ operation and that it would have had an escort.

He said: ‘Northolt would usually transport VIPs and for some reason they decided to fly through Heathrow this time and not around it. 

‘I’ve heard that it might have been an exercise that went on for slightly too long. Whitehall related exercises would take place in that area.

‘These kinds of exercises are going on all the time but obviously come to attention when they result in delays like today’. 

He added that as the weather had been particularly bad yesterday and overnight it might have meant a delay was required. 

The closure of airspace – which began at around 9am on Friday – lasted for approximately 20 minutes.

Those caught up in the delays took to Twitter to complain of diverted flights and how the information was relayed to passengers (above and below)

Those caught up in the delays took to Twitter to complain of diverted flights and how the information was relayed to passengers (above and below)

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23529004 7898773 image a 58 1579276863189

Other passengers claimed that pilots had also informed them over the tannoy that the situation had been caused by a security incident.

A Heathrow spokesman told MailOnline that the incident was not security related, but refused to elaborate further.

He added: ‘Arrivals were paused briefly this morning due to an RAF request for an operational flight within part of Heathrow’s airspace.

‘Arrivals are now operating as normal.’

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson added: ‘The RAF can confirm that a flight was completed this morning by one of our assets from RAF Northolt.

‘This flight was coordinated with Heathrow ATC but had to extend by a few minutes to complete its sortie. The minor delays caused to civilian air traffic are regretted.’ 

Passengers took to social media in the aftermath of the incident as they appealed for more information.

One wrote: ‘I’m on one of the few planes that were now cleared for landing’.

‘Our pilot just informed us that they’re restricting arrivals to allow a plane with a security incident on board to land.’ 

Gareth Corfield, defence writer for The Register, told MailOnline that a privatised plane based at RAF Northolt may have gotten into difficulties and could have been the reason for the delays (pictured, the Piper PA-31 Navajo used by MI5 to gather information on UK suspects)

Gareth Corfield, defence writer for The Register, told MailOnline that a privatised plane based at RAF Northolt may have gotten into difficulties and could have been the reason for the delays (pictured, the Piper PA-31 Navajo used by MI5 to gather information on UK suspects)

Another passenger added: ‘Captain said Heathrow is closed for arrivals for a ‘security incident’ but nothing in the news. What’s going on?’

A third said: ‘Still on the ground and waiting for info.. Seems like there is two options right now, refuel and get back to Heathrow or bus to London.’

In a statement, Virgin Atlantic said: ‘Our VS8 flight from Los Angeles to Heathrow has diverted to Gatwick due to a brief closure of airspace over London Heathrow.

‘The safety of our customers and crew is always our top priority, we’re now doing all we can to get our customers to their final destination as quickly as possible.

‘We’d like to apologise to our customers for the disruption to their journey and thank them for their patience.’

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