Choppers increase airport risk

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A local protest group, concerned at the risk posed if an aircraft using Lydd Airport crashed into the nearby Dungeness nuclear power station, claims the risk has increased by between five and seven times since planning permission was first considered.

One factor is that the number of allowable helicopter movements at Lydd Airport has recently been changed to ensure that Bristow Helicopters Ltd search and rescue (SAR) operation will continue once the runway is extended.

Bristow took over the SAR service from the UK military and was forced to relocate to Lydd in August 2015 following the closure of Manston Airport.

Helicopter flights are currently unrestricted but, once the runway is extended, helicopter flights were originally to be restricted by planning conditions to 1,200 movements per annum.

This has been changed to: The annual number of helicopter movements shall not exceed 1,200 movements per annum in any calendar year, excluding the Air Show and any Search And Rescue flights (operational and training).

The above change looks innocuous, but is significant. First the large SAR helicopter flights are in addition to the 1,200 (possibly smaller) helicopter movements per annum. Secondly there is no limit to the number of SAR flights, including training flights.

Bristow has provided some background information about likely movements. Based on the ten year average of distress call-outs there is likely to be an additional 304 SAR movements (arrivals and departures) ie 152 call-outs per year, plus two routine training sorties per day (two arrivals and two departures).

This gives another 1,460 training movements annually and a total of 1,764 additional helicopter movements associated with the search and rescue operation (assuming training takes place every day, 365 days a year, and call-out levels stay the same).

An earlier campaign image published by the Lydd Airport Action Group
An earlier campaign image published by the Lydd Airport Action Group

Assuming this figure remains static, and the other limit is fulfilled, there could be nearly 3,000 annual helicopter movements per annum at Lydd as opposed to the 1,200 limit set in the original planning condition. These flights will run alongside the maximum permissible 40,000 annual fixed wing flights.

However, Lydd Airport has announced that the runway extension completion will be delayed until the end of 2017. But preliminary work to secure the planning application will take place this year to ensure the application does not lapse (the runway extension permission lapses after 3 years – the terminal after 10 years).

A more realistic assessment of the time it will take to bed down the conditions imposed on the airport, particularly the environmental conditions, is a reason for the delay.

Lack of demand from airlines, the impact of declining oil revenues on businessman Sheikh Fahad Al-Athel (who owns the airport) and his investment priorities, as well as a desire to wait for the UK government’s decision on a new runway in the Southeast are also likely to be contributing factors.

The danger of increased air traffic near Dungeness nuclear power station has been repeatedly stressed by the Lydd Airport Action Group

They say: ” The net result (of this recent change) is that under the current decision, it will be permissible to have up to 40,000 annual movements of fixed winged aircraft and at least 3,000 helicopter flights with a MTOW (Maximum Take-Off Weight) greater than 5.7 tonnes – and possibly more movements, should the SAR service be expanded.

“This is a marked contrast to the regulator’s recommendation associated with the previous planning proposal – one which was essentially adopted as a condition attached to the 1992 decision.

“Then 56,000 total movements were allowed but, of this total, no more than 6,000 annual movements were permitted of aircraft with a MTOW greater than 5.7 tonnes, and no more than 600 annual movements by helicopters.

“Thus, despite almost a 30% decline in total permitted movements between the two proposals, the number of aircraft with the critical mass to cause a nuclear accident could be almost seven times higher than in 1992, and the number of helicopter movements five times higher”.

[Source: Lydd Airport Action Group]

Photo: Bristow Helecopters

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