Avant Moi, Le Déluge

It won’t have escaped any reader’s attention that the first months of this year were wet.

Local councils struggled to cope with the devastation and at the national level the Environment Agency was overwhelmed by the number of crises across the country, with even sandbag stocks running low. By February the situation was close to a National Emergency with floodwaters spreading from rural Somerset to heavily populated areas in the Thames Valley and the South Coast. The government called on the Ministry of Defence to provide manpower to help the Civil Authorities build flood defences in vulnerable areas. On Wednesday 12th February V (Army Cooperation) Squadron was called on to identify manpower available at short notice to join the Defence-wide effort on the ground. By the end of the day, however, demands were coming in for Sentinel to employ its unique sensor capabilities to support civilian agencies at the national level.

By Thursday 13th February all was set for Sentinel to fly a mission. Engineers worked around the clock to ensure the aircraft was ready for its mission, whilst ground analysts experimented with old imagery in a bid to  convert skills used to monitor insurgent activity in Afghanistan and Mali and to find scuds in Libya into the means to identify flooded fields in Somerset. BBC Defence Correspondent, Jonathan Beale, arrived with his camera team and travelled as passengers on the mission, such was the level of national interest. By 1800hrs Sentinel was airborne. Led by the Air Mission Commander, Flight Lieutenant Jim Mackereth, in five hours the crew managed to image areas of Gloucestershire, the Somerset Levels, the Thames Valley, and the South Coast; the most flooded parts of the country. The pilots flew in tricky weather conditions, but the sensor could see through the clouds and rain and the mission was a success. Sergeant Kevin Crowhurst, an airborne imagery analyst on the mission, said:

“The flooding has had a devastating effect on large parts of the country, so the Squadron was delighted when asked to assist, and we have looked to provide as much information as possible to help bring some respite to the affected communities.”

Back on the ground, the analysts prepared for a busy night shift. They pored over maps of the worst affected areas, and continued to look at old imagery of flooding to hone their newly developed techniques. When the  aircraft landed, the crew rushed the data collected into their base at Waddington and handed it over to the Ground Mission Commander, Chief Petty Officer Chris Whyte. His team of four experienced analysts immediately set to work, analysing the huge areas imaged in painstaking detail. Imagery collected from the aircraft’s Synthetic Aperture Radar is quite different to regular electro-optical imagery and requires training and experience to analyse effectively. By 0700hrs on Friday 14th February the ground team had pieced together their assessment of flooded areas, and overlaid these onto maps. They produced a large product to satisfy the numerous agencies requesting support, as well as computer files that would enable them to apply the overlays to their own mapping.

No sooner had the first product been released than further requests were coming in for products depicting the flooding on actual SAR imagery for release to the media. Due to the security concerns inherent in Sentinel’s work, a lot of thought and effort was required to ensure that the products released to the media didn’t compromise the capabilities of the equipment and personnel. Sergeant Rich Buckley took over from Chief Petty Officer Whyte with a new team of ground analysts, whilst those who had been up all night took themselves off for some well-earned rest. After three hours’ labour Sergeant Buckley had completed a second product and it was sent to Waddington Media Officer.

Within hours of release orders came through to prepare for further missions. However, the bad weather which had elsewhere caused the heavy flooding was spreading across to Lincolnshire and seriously limiting  opportunities for safe flying. Preparations for a further mission became a labour of love for all involved, cancelling their original Valentine’s Day plans. The weekend’s weather forecast put these plans on hold. By the start of the new week it was clear that the worst of the crisis had abated. The Squadron decided to make full use of the training opportunity and again flew to collect imagery of the floods, hoping to capture the gradual ebbing of the flood waters. Without the pressure to produce a product immediately, the analysts spent several days refining their techniques and identifying lessons from this highly unusual task. A far more detailed product was  created over these days, and this product was also passed on to civilian agencies, helping them to track changes between the missions. It is hoped that whilst both products provided assistance in dealing with the floods on this occasion, they will also prove very useful in predicting and preparing for future flooding in the United Kingdom.

The support Sentinel provided to the national flood-relief efforts was deemed a great success. Not only was it able to inform the Environment Agency and local police forces about where best to focus their efforts, Sentinel products were also used to brief the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRA) when the Prime Minister convened an emergency committee of civilian and military personnel to face the crisis. The deployment of the aircraft again showed its great utility in a wide range of roles. A month after this incident, V(AC) Squadron learnt that it had been extended for a further three years to 2018. Doubtless Sentinel support to this operation, as with all others it has supported over recent years, was integral to the decision that this capability is simply too important to give up.

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