Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lanseria comes of age

The FIFA World Cup games have brought pressures on Lanseria Airport (FALA). From a free-wheeling scene of legitimate civil aviation, gray government and military operations to outright smuggling, Lanseria has turned into a full service, first-class international field used by African heads of state, celebrities like John Travolta flying a classic Boeing 707, to American Vice President Joe Biden in Air Force 2(now a Boeing 757).

Visits by foreign dignitaries are really demanding on any nation's resources and patience. Air Force 2 could have landed at Johannesburg’s O.R Tambo International airport (FAJS)or the South African military base at Waterkloof (FAWK), near Pretoria. But the route planners, whoever they are for the American Vice president, decided Biden would fly into to Lanseria. Lanseria management, which asserts the airfield is “secure”, got a taste of what US authorities regard as secure. Toes were stepped on.

In the weeks before Biden’s arrival at least three different US Air Force C-17’s flew in.’s green and white 737’s had been the biggest aircraft regularly seen on Lanseria's terminal apron. Now they were dwarfed by the gray Cargomasters. Tractors and other vehicles drove in and out of the plane’s belly unloading timber, generators, cargo and people. After one landing, the four-engine jet took off for a 54 mile flight to Pilanesburg (FAPN) – the airport for the Sun City resort with its gambling casino and entertainment complex. Vice President Biden was expected to attend the USA – England at soccer game and, presumably, the Cargomaster delivered logistic and support material for the Vice presidential visit at the stadium nearby at Rustenburg. It delivered its cargo and returned to Lanseria in a few hours. Two short hops for a monster four-engine jet aircraft.

When Biden himself arrived in country, Lanseria airspace was closed to all other traffic. Normally, closed airspace is reserved for heads-of-state only. Nonetheless, as a courtesy to the American’s, ATC closed Lanseria airspace for the arrival. Any other arriving aircraft were diverted or ordered to hold well away from the area. Lanseria's perimeter road was closed and patrolled specially for the arrival. The balcony at the airport’s restaurant, which overlooks the ramp and runway, was closed to diners. Uniformed and plain-clothes South African police and American Secret Service personnel occupied the balcony. The terminal lobby was crowded but many were wearing Lanseria ID badges and yellow reflective jackets. Others wore dark suits, dark glasses, with an earpiece snaking under their jackets – all the earmarks of Secret Service personnel. Embarking passengers were heavily outnumbered. Just as well, no other private or commercial planes were boarding or pushing back.

Looking west from the terminal to the Air traffic Control Tower, people stood on the Tower roof. This was a new twist. Tower personnel sometimes stand on the outside walkway when having a smoke break or taking a private phone call but not on the roof. Inside the tower were more of the dark-suited Secret Service personnel. That was a concession to the USA. The US insisted on snipers on top of the tower and marksmen were there. But they were South African special forces people, not Americans. That was a concession to the South Africans. Also present were a group of US Navy Seals in full combat regalia. ‘Trust but verify’ is the old Reagan phrase that comes to mind in this scene. Also in tower was an Austrian military guy. He was there on account of his prior experience policing the 2006 FIFA games in Germany. His job was to help distinguish the good guys from the bad if they threatened anything on and above the airfield. There were no incidents of any kind during Biden’s visit.

Lanseria’s regular security management, which took back seat when the Americans came in, had their noses bent out of shape. Conceding authority and having their own rules ignored is not their cup of tea. Later, they called the Americans “rude”. Really, it was just a US demonstration of how command & control is done -- a simple show of raw power.

Lanseria had come from a freewheeling airfield to one able to assure the US government and FIFA that security would be at the highest level. General aviation pilots should feel comfortable at lanseria.