Furious passengers demand to know WHY they were left stranded for hours after RAF caused chaos by ordering air traffic control to shutdown Heathrow airspace

Furious passengers demand to know WHY they were left stranded for hours after RAF caused chaos by ordering air traffic control to shutdown Heathrow airspace

  • At least four British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic aircraft are diverted
  • Several other flights delayed as a result of planes being ‘stacked’ above airport
  • Comes after the RAF demanded an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace near Heathrow
  • Long backlog of flights waiting to land led to several planes running low on fuel
  • Were you left stranded by disruption? Email james.wood@mailonline.co.uk

Published: 11:00 GMT, 17 January 2020 | Updated: 18:31 GMT, 17 January 2020

Angry passengers are demanding to know why they were left stranded for several hours after the RAF demanded air traffic controllers shut down Heathrow’s airspace for around 30 minutes. 

The RAF told civilian controllers they needed an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace, which forced several aircraft to divert and forced others to circle until Heathrow reopened. 

The military emergency concerned nearby RAF Northolt, which is home to the Royal Flight as well as some electronic surveillance aircraft.  

Some passengers believed the event was due to a security alert which required the RAF to have access to the airspace. 

However, the RAF has stressed there was no emergency. 

According to the RAF: ‘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.’ 

At least four Heathrow-bound British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic aircraft were 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.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed to MailOnline that the disruption was caused by one of its aircrafts from RAF Northolt needing extra time to finish its flight over civilian air space.  

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Passengers have been left stranded across the south of England after dozens of flights bound for Heathrow were diverted or delayed this morning after an RAF plane demanded an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace

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

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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

Flights arriving at Heathrow have been diverted after an RAF plane demanded an 'unplanned' use of airspace (stock)

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Flights arriving at Heathrow have been diverted after an RAF plane demanded an ‘unplanned’ use of airspace (stock)

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’.

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. 

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

‘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.’

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

Downing Street also confirmed it was not involved in today’s flight over Heathrow. 

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.’

The Ministry of Defence confirmed to MailOnline that the disruption was caused by one of its aircrafts from RAF Northolt (stock image) extending its sortie into civilian air space

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The Ministry of Defence confirmed to MailOnline that the disruption was caused by one of its aircrafts from RAF Northolt (stock image) extending its sortie into civilian air space 

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

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

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. 

Were you caught up in the disruption? 

Email james.wood@mailonline.co.uk

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.

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.’

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

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

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.’ 

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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