The white Airbus A340-313X, named after Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the carriage of Germany’s senior government officials, banked overhead the Woodley navigational beacon for the final approach to Heathrow Airport. Lufthansa had originally used the airliner on long haul civilian flights before their Technik Division had redesigned it into a VIP configuration, which included offices and sleeping rooms, state of the art communications and a Flight Guard anti-missile system.
It was a day of perfect, clear visibility that stretched as far as the eye could see. A rare phenomenon in the British Isles. Inside the luxurious cabin, Chancellor Lohmann looked down out of the window and saw the cities and towns of the green Thames Valley unravelling below. She pondered her forthcoming meeting with Carol Dowding, reassured that the British prime minister, as indeed herself, was committed to preserving the peace in Europe that was now being threatened. Werner Spies, her vice chancellor and foreign minister, a friend and a solid supporter of her policies for many years should have accompanied her on the trip. However, it had surprised her when he had declined to travel with her to England on the grounds of ill health. Looking back now, she felt that his excuse had a hollow ring to it.
In the main control tower standing some eighty metres above the runways and taxiways of Heathrow Airport, senior approach controller Tony Lowe was busy checking the plots on his radar screen in front of him. With thirteen hundred airliners landing every day at Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, air traffic controllers such as Lowe were the elite of their profession. He continually checked the plots of aircraft on finals to make sure there was sufficient wake separation. Responsible for ensuring that 09L, the runway in use that day was clear before issuing clearance to the flight arrivals heading in to land, he instructed those that had landed to contact ground control on its frequency.
Over the airwaves came a German accented voice in his headset calling him for landing instructions.
‘Tower Good Afternoon. German Air Force 16+01. 10 miles, established on 09 left.’
‘Good Afternoon, German Air Force 16+01 continue approach.’ replied Lowe, recognising the call sign of the German government’s VIP airliner.
‘Affirmative.’ replied the German pilot.
Lowe continued handling the incoming traffic and satisfied that the last arrival had vacated the runway, he radioed the German pilot.
‘German Air Force 16+01. Cleared to land 09L. Wind 020 degrees, 9 knots.’
The pilot read back the landing confirmation in verbatim. Lowe watched the VIP Airbus’s transponder plot on his screen as it approached the airport.
In the cockpit of the Airbus, the co-pilot tensed as he saw a small, flickering return on the high-resolution radar screen of the anti-missile system in front of him. Leaning forward, he wound the dwell knob down on the radar unit until it appeared as a bright dot. It must be a bird, he thought to himself. He warned the aircraft commander that the contact appeared to be on a collision course and peered out of the windscreen, when a flash of sunlight reflected off a small object in front. It took a second for him to realise that the feathers of birds do not reflect sunlight and he lost another couple of seconds pointing it out to the other pilot until realisation dawned.
‘I think it’s a drone.’ he shouted. Pressing the radio transmit switch he called the Tower.
‘German Air Force 16+01. We have a small unidentified flying object in our landing path. We may have to abort the landing.’
In the tower, courses of action flashed through Lowe’s mind. The controller cursed, for he knew that the unidentified object was probably a drone, as incidents involving them were on the increase. He called the pilot back,
‘German Air Force 16+01. I understand you may have to abort your landing. Please state your intentions?’
‘16+01. Permission to climb and go-around?’
‘16+01. Affirmative.’ replied Lowe.
The aircraft commander thrust forward the throttles of the jet’s engines, overriding the autopilot by moving the control stick and put the large jet into a hard climb as the co-pilot flicked the switches arming the Airbus’s anti-missile defence system.
Lowe looked at his screen, although he knew the drone was far too small to show. He waited for the pilot’s next call, realising they would be busy with the emergency, and thought of the hobbyists, photographers and wannabe pilots who flew these things and did not appreciate the massive threat to the safety of aircraft they posed. Lowe knew that it all depended on where the drone hit the aircraft and the amount of damage caused, although the Airbus 340 was a very large aircraft and even a direct hit on an engine would be survivable, as it could fly on the other three. However, Lowe did not want to envisage any of this happening on his watch to a VIP aircraft.
In the cockpit of the climbing Airbus, the pilots lost sight of the object but it still appeared on the radar screen to be on a collision course. Surely, this could not be intentional, as who in their right mind would want to endanger the lives of those aboard an airliner, thought the co-pilot, who clicked his transmit switch,
‘Tower. 16+01. We are still on collision course.’
Lowe replied giving them clearance to continue to climb and turn to the south away from the danger, at the same time hitting the panic button on his desk, which alerted his supervisor and fellow controllers to the emergency. A well-practised operation swung into action as another controller seated nearby took over Lowe’s other approach traffic, leaving him free to concentrate on the German Airbus. A supervisor alerted the airport emergency services and then gave instructions over the phone to the control room of the Thames Valley police, alerting them of the emergency.
The object was now just seconds away from impact and as the aircraft commander banked the Airbus, the co-pilot glimpsed the thin red glow of a laser emitting from the object that had now come back into his sight.
‘Shit!’ he screamed, thinking maybe it wasn’t a drone and more likely a missile and stabbed the switch that fired the anti-missile system sending out streams of fiery trails of decoy flares and clouds of wafer thin aluminium chaff designed to confuse any incoming homing devices. In the luxurious passenger cabin, the German Chancellor, unaware of the drama unfolding in the cockpit, clutched the armrests of her seat as the airliner banked near to vertical. However, it was too late, as the drone was tracking the continuous signal transmitted from the small black box fitted inside the nacelle of the outboard engine of the port wing. The small drone struck the spinning turbofan and two pounds of C4 high explosive, together with its lithium battery exploded throwing shards of jagged metal and broken turbine blades thudding into the wing and fuselage. The secondary explosion of the fuel tank in the wing severed the spar and the mortally wounded Airbus plunged downwards. Breaking up, most of it fell into the King George VI reservoir lying just a short distance from the airport. As its radar return faded into oblivion on the screen, Tony Lowe took off his headset, groaned and slumped forward, burying his face in his arms on to his desk.
On top of the high flat roof of the Holiday Inn Hotel alongside the A4 trunk road leading into London, a man wearing the overalls of the hotel’s maintenance staff stood in the shadows of the emergency generator shed. As the flash of the explosion lit up the sky to the west, he tore the head-up display goggles from his forehead and threw them, together with the remote control transmitter he had been using, into a large tool bag on the floor. The Samsung smart phone showing the Flight Tracker app of flights over southeast England on its display went in as well. His heart pumping with adrenalin he picked up the bag and opened the door, rushing down the stairs two at a time and out into the car park. Removing his overalls, he flung them and the tool bag into the boot of his rental car as the wails of sirens reached a crescendo. A convoy of emergency vehicles thundered past on the road with the sounds of more sirens resonating in the distance. He breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated himself on the success of the mission, as he pulled out of the hotel entrance on to the A4. With the help of his British colleagues, all had gone well and he would soon be on his return flight to Germany.