Monday, August 24, 2009

Camp Bastion Airfield in Helmand is now the fifth-busiest UK-operated airport.

It may have been set up just three years ago, by two men, on a gravel dirt track - but new movements figures show that Camp Bastion Airfield in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province is now the fifth-busiest UK-operated airport.

Although initially designed to handle no more than three aircraft movements per week, the facility has grown to such an extent that it now handles more traffic than Luton, Edinburgh or Birmingham airports, and is busier than the Leeds-Bradford and Coventry airports put together.

The contrast between today and April 2006 is stark. On 10 April 2006 a two man control team from the RAF Tactical Air Traffic Control Unit activated the dirt track landing strip, and 90 minutes later the first aeroplane landed. What they didn’t realise was that it was to be the first of hundreds of thousands of aircraft movements to come.

Today, combat operation, medical evacuations and logistics sustainment flights all operate from what has become a vital military hub, and the air traffic controllers based at Camp Bastion are integral to the support of the Army’s operations in southern Afghanistan.

The incredible expansion has taken place mainly in the past year, under the leadership of the Royal Air Force’s 904 Expeditionary Air Wing. In late 2007 a concrete runway became operational enabling the number of movements to rise to 5,000 per month by the end of 2008. But the most rapid increase has taken place this year, as the massive in-flow of coalition aircraft to southern Afghanistan has meant an enormous rise in the intensity and complexity of air operations at Bastion.

Squadron Leader Steve Smith, Senior Air Traffic Control Officer at Camp Bastion, explained:

“You won’t find any last minute deals or duty free shops at Bastion but we’re still busier than most consumer airports. That’s a pretty impressive claim for a former dirt track! And it’s not just traditional aeroplanes that fly in and out of Bastion, we’ve got helicopters and unmanned aircrafts as well."

“Now the air traffic control team are handling on average 400 aircraft movements per day or 12,000 a month, ranking it just below Stansted Airport in terms of aircraft movement. Unlike UK airfields, Bastion Air Traffic Control have the challenge of dealing with large numbers of jets, helicopters and drones, all operating from different locations – a challenge unique to Camp Bastion.”

In order to manage the increases in the complexity and intensity of air operations at Bastion, the UK has deployed a range of Air Traffic Control equipment and personnel to ensure the airfield can operate effectively in all weather conditions. Recent improvements have seen the deployment of a brand new, state of the art, Mobile Visual Control Room, an airfield approach radar system and additional personnel.

All this new technology has been integrated, under the lead of Squadron Leader Smith, with the United States Marine Corps (USMC) precision approach radar which is also located on the airfield at Camp Bastion and is used to guide aircraft on to the runway in poor weather conditions.

In addition to incorporating the USMC equipment in to the RAF air space management system, two US marines have been trained through the RAF Air Traffic Control training system in Afghanistan and have been awarded with a certificate of competency - the RAF ‘Blue Book’ - the first time this has been done with coalition forces during operations.

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