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Top Gear runs Heathrow Airport for a day

  1. I’ve lost a Jumbo Jet in my blind spot. About 350 tonnes of roaring aeroplane has disappeared somewhere over my right shoulder, leaving nothing but a wing tip in the corner of my eye. I’ve occasionally lost scooters back there. The odd hatchback has gone missing. But a fully fuelled 747, travelling at 160mph down the middle of the runway at Britain’s biggest airport? You might think this sounds impossible. But when you’re driving around one of the world’s busiest airfields full of buses, tugs and catering lorries, one of the hardest things to see is, in fact, an aeroplane.

    Pictures: Rowan Horncastle

  2. When the people at Heathrow invited us to join the airside operations team for a day, they didn’t tell us this. Instead, we were given a few simple instructions. Firstly, I’d have to pass a driving test in order to earn a special licence. Secondly, we’d have to provide a suitable vehicle. It must be bright yellow. It should have flashing orange lights on the top. It must hold a valid MOT certificate and be less than 10 years old. And ideally it’d be quick enough to get out of trouble should it need to give way to a double-decker Airbus in search of somewhere to land.

  3. The Lamborghini Aventador was obviously the first thing that sprung to mind. It’s possible to have one in the correct colour - Giallo Orion, if you’re feeling a bit Italian - and, luckily, a suitably painted car had just arrived in the UK. Lights and stripes were only a phone call away. And, with 690bhp, it has just enough enthusiasm to move briskly across a runway. There’s even enough storage for a pair of those bright ping-pong bats they wave at pilots looking for somewhere to park. There’s just one problem. With a substantial V12 in the middle, plus bodywork designed using only a set square, it’s not the easiest thing to see out of.

  4. No matter. I have a radio, hooked up to air-traffic controllers in their tower. They are the eyes of this place, and nothing moves without their say so. “Speedbird five-seven to tango foxtrot sierra,” someone says. “Proceed to bravo four, clear, link seven to right swinger two. Dogger out.” Something like that, anyway. Slightly confused, I find second gear with the cold metal paddle and remove myself from the taxiway - obviously being careful not to exceed the 40mph speed limit - just as the Jumbo emerges from its hiding place and soars off into the soggy London sky.

  5. Thankfully, I’m not alone. Alongside me is a chap called Nigel. He’s been driving here for 20 years and has the permits to go wherever he’s needed. If I crossed the black ‘n’ white stripes separating roadway from runway without him, I could be arrested and banged up for five years. About 25,000 people are licensed to drive airside, and Nigel keeps an eye on them from one of his more regular leader vehicles - a Mitsubishi L200 pickup or Land Rover Disco wearing the same colours as our Lambo. They’re like the highway patrol here, smoothing traffic, scanning runways for debris and sometimes escorting planes. He even used to marshal Concorde with his ping-pong paddles. His eardrums have seen better days.

  6. But his biggest job is to deal with emergencies. This is done in partnership with the police - Heathrow has its own force, who kindly escorted us onto the premises this morning and will make sure we bugger off later - and a resident fire service. There’s a full-time station right in the middle of the airfield and another at the far end, both on permanent standby to deal with the slightest wisp of smoke. Their latest weapon? The Panther: a six-wheel, 36-tonne, million-pound fire-fighting machine built to tackle the worst-case scenario: if a jet liner aborts a take-off, it may swoop around and land ‘heavy’ - full of fuel, in other words. This can burst even the biggest tyres designed for landing with a lot less weight on their shoulders, so you can imagine what might happen next.

  7. Like the Lambo, the Panther has 700bhp. Unlike the Lambo, it has two tanks: one for water (11,200 litres), one for foam (1,400 litres). At maximum pressure, it can empty both of these in two minutes, through a network of hoses and cannons with a 90-metre range. This is the equivalent of filling your bathtub in one second, from the other end of your street. There are three Panthers here, along with some other pumps, and a ladder unit with a 49-metre-high platform. These are regularly exercised on the Green Goddess, a replica plane used to recreate raging engine or undercarriage fires (sometimes the watch commander ignites it as a little surprise for his crew, to see how fast they react). We’re shown it close-up. It could make toast from a mile off.

  8. This might sound like fun. But just three days after we leave, a British Airways flight reports a problem and lands a few minutes after take-off. As soon as it screeches on the runway, the Panthers are speeding alongside, heat-seeking cameras searching for hotspots. The chief talks directly to the pilot, who angles his aircraft so the wind blows smoke away from passengers, who escape down evacuation chutes. One runway is shut for an hour, and about 200 flights are cancelled that afternoon. With around 1,200 flights every day - that’s a take-off or landing every 45 seconds - it shows that these guys can’t let their guard down for a moment.

  9. Such incidents are very rare. The vast majority of planes make it safely to their gates, nuzzling into the terminal belly like suckling pigs. Here they take on fuel, food and passengers. And, on days like today, Bugatti Veyrons too. There’s a white one being loaded into the hold of an Emirates Airbus A380 and - going by the exclusive numberplate - it belongs to a senior sheikh, who probably flew it over to save on taxi fares or something. I park beside it, among the baggage carts, refuellers, pushback tugs and sewage bowsers, which will now be known as the poo patrol. This is just one of 215 stands across the airport, most of which are in constant use; 70 of them have their own airbridge.

  10. It’s quite incredible that this place runs as efficiently as it does. We’re talking about an area twice the size of Gibraltar, handling 190,000 passengers per day. It’s not an airport, it’s a city. That’s why all the roads connecting the terminals and runways work much like normal highways. You’ll recognise most of the signs. There’s even an average speed camera through the tunnel to T5. Drive too fast, or forget your seatbelt, and you’ll risk the wrath of Rachel - the lady who dishes out the penalty points around here. Like a regular driving licence, it’s 12-points-and-you’re-out. At first, it’s a bit bewildering and the traffic is relentless, as all sorts of carts and trollies scurry to meet a flight. But after a while, it makes sense. The golden rule? Give way to planes. Even if it’s surprisingly tricky to see them. Viewing the world from inside an Aventador is like viewing it through a medieval battle helmet…

  11. We approach a taxiway crossing, marked with a chequered pattern like a start-finish line. Time to switch on our LED roof beacon, which - with 18 different flash patterns - is also ideal for parties.* Look left. Look right. Wait for the 14:20 from Riyadh. Turns out it’s a brand-new Boeing Dreamliner, back in service after a few teething problems. Like the Lambo, it’s made from lots of carbon fibre. I imagine the similarities stop there. There’s nothing quite like this big-hearted Lambo, with its mighty lungs and deep voice. It might not be the sharpest of supercars, but once you get slapped in the back by a brutal gearshift, you soon learn to respect it. For pure theatre, not much comes close. Especially if you’re used to seeing Mitsubishi pickups doing the same job.

  12. At this point, we should reassure a particular national newspaper, which angrily speculated that Heathrow had actually bought this £253,200 Lambo. Wouldn’t it be hideously expensive to insure, they asked. And obviously the airport bosses only want a third runway to use as a race track. But rest assured: no passengers/taxpayers/orphans coughed up for this one. We were just here to lend a hand. And it turns out we were quite useful, after spotting and removing some debris that could otherwise have lodged itself in an aircraft tyre, or worse. A pilot friend informs me this is one of the biggest concerns at take-off.

  13. Because, when you’re sat way up there in the cockpit, it’s almost impossible to see bits of rubbish down on the ground. It’s not easy to see things driving about, either. So whether you’re in a Lambo or a catering van, you move around an aircraft like a dinghy moves around a cruise ship - one that may drop right out of the sky and onto your roof. Sometimes they loom out of the fog, giant fuselages towering above you like shadowy hulls. Once docked, you may approach with caution, but, even then, you must stick to the correct areas, or risk a minor squashing. Up to 20 vehicles do this for each flight: gathering around a plane like a well-choreographed school of fish, taking their cue from air-traffic control and a department that assigns each flight a parking place.

  14. At the end of the day, and after some more patrolling, I pull up at the Royal Suite, a little private terminal for kings, queens and dignitaries. Turns out they were expecting me: the red carpet is already laid out. Usually it stretches to the steps of a private jet or Air Force One, but today it meets the open scissor door of an Italian supercar. I clamber out, stroll regally down the carpet and up the steps in search of Her Majesty’s conveniences. But when I reach the door, a white figure emerges from inside and snatches the keys from my fist. He looks quizzically at the carpet, sidesteps onto the tarmac and strides towards the car. The Stig. S’pose he has to go somewhere between telly shows. Probably chases the crows around at night. So, please do us a favour. Keep an eye out for him the next time you fly here. Report sightings immediately. Our friends at Lamborghini would very much like their car back…

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