THE BEAST FROM THE EAST ARRIVES AT PRESTWICK AIRPORT

It’s been a very strange year for many reasons and like many, our big plans for 2020 were either cancelled or put on hold, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic. This included all of our aviation and military radio monitoring plans as well including Exercise Joint Warrior 20-1, due to be on the largest maritime exercises for several years, and of course the airshow season.

Unfortunately, this all happened to coincide with our joint working with Air Antennas working on developing a number of products including the Black Knight Air Antenna and the MilAir Mag mobile antenna.

When rumours began to emerge of the world’s largest aircraft, the Antonov AN225, arriving at Prestwick, it was too good an opportunity to miss. While we accept its not strictly a military aircraft, we couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement especially given the fact Prestwick Airport is our local airfield and also there is only one AN225 in the world.

In the initial stages it was very much rumour only but we started to make plans accordingly. As the days passed the rumours started to appear more concrete and we made the active decision to plan for a full deployment not only to test out the Black Knight and the MilAir Mag antenna, but also to try out our newly acquired vehicle, purchased specifically with mobile military radio monitoring in mind.

While in normal circumstances Saturday night for many would involve visiting friends or relatives or enjoying a couple of drinks down the local pub, we were busy working away in the office ensuring all of our radio and camera equipment was fully charged and ready for the following day. Given our area of interest, it’s not quite as simple as just making sure the camera is charged. There’s radios to sort out, frequencies to program, antenna choices to consider, mobile computing considerations and of course the all essential sustenance for a day spent at the airport.

As we woke up early on Sunday morning a quick check of the mobile phone confirmed the flight plan had been filed for the AN225 from Bangor, Maine to Prestwick Airport with an arrival time expected around 1500 hours. There was no time to waste.

We are glad we made the decision to arrive early as even before 10am there was a line of cars parked all along the road from one of the usual spotting haunts. We managed to find a space just in time within easy walking distance should the weather turn or we need to venture back to the car.

With around five hours before the anticipated arrival however, it was the ideal time to setup the command post in the rear of the vehicle for our first road test (excuse the pun). We deployed the Antenna Air MilAir mag onto the roof of the car and connected it to the UBCD3600XLT. We also set up the UBC3500XLT connected to the a small, low cost discrete antenna mounted on the windscreen which we acquired from Amazon.

Both radios had the same database programmed and it quickly became clear the MilAir Magnetic antenna was pulling in signals from much further afield than the low-cost windscreen antenna.

The dedicated iPad mount for ADS-B coverage worked exceptionally well with the iPad tethered to an iPhone. One of the main reasons for our recent choice of vehicle was the rear seating arrangement including inflight style tables. The ability to operate radios and work comfortably on the MacBook in the comfort of the rear of the vehicle is a welcome change to previous years of trying to do this from the front seat.

After spending a bit of time monitoring in the rear of the vehicle and being more than happy with our new setup, it became quite apparent the place was getting busier by the minute. With camera bag, radios and camping chair in hand it was out of the vehicle and off to find out spot on ‘the mound’ to setup camp for the rest of the day.

Despite still being in the midst of a pandemic the crowd gathering, even at this early stage, was quite significant with a notable amount of accents from around the UK. Amongst those accents however were some good friends who we haven’t seen for a while and it was great to catch up with them while keeping physical distancing in mind.

There was still a bit of time before anything was due to arrive so we took the opportunity to conduct the first proper field deployment of the Air Antenna Black Knight. When we first began working in partnership with Tom at Air Antenna, the Black Knight concept was very much about having an extremely powerful military radio monitoring antenna that was highly portable, quick to deploy and equally as quick to put away. It would be able to fit into a camera bag when attending airshows or visiting the local airfield – and it does all of this to perfection.

Within seconds our Black Knight was inflated and with the help of a small camera tripod, was standing tall fighting against quite a hefty cross wind and pulling in signals from far and wide connected to the UBCD3600 attached to our folding camping chair. It’s fair to say we got some interesting looks erecting the Black Knight antenna and the looks continued throughout the afternoon as curious people eyed up our mobile radio setup.

Throughout the entire afternoon, the Black Knight continued to perform exceptionally well alongside the UBCD3600. While a small standard antenna would have been sufficient for listening to Prestwick Airport and local radio frequencies, a larger antenna is always preferred to get much greater range, especially when waiting on inbound aircraft.

Amongst the crowds was none other than the man behind Air Antennas – Tom – who had stopped by to see how the Black Knight was performing and also catch a glimpse of the world’s largest aircraft.

After several hours sitting in the sun, catching up with friends and scanning the airwaves, the crowds of aviation enthusiasts from far and wide were treated to not one, but two, arrivals in quick succession.

First to touch down was a Qatar Emiri Air Force C-17 Globemaster followed closely behind by literally the world’s largest aircraft – the mighty Antonov AN225 Mriya. The gigantic aircraft dates back to the 1980s when it was designed and built in the Ukrainian SSR within the Soviet Union. Powered by six turbofan engines the AN225 is the heaviest aircraft ever built and also has the longest wingspan of any aircraft in operational service.

Wearing the civil registration UR-82060 there is literally only one aircraft of this type in the world. The origins of the aircraft date back the Soviet Union’s space programme and designed to carry the Russian space shuttle (Buran) and the Energia rocket boosters.

These days the aircraft operates a range of contracted flights and has recently been involved in the global fight against COVID-19.

Watching this aircraft arriving at Prestwick was nothing short of incredible and we are extremely happy that we were able to witness this historic arrival at our local airfield. We have tracked the aircraft multiple times and watched the massive following this aircraft has around the world, but this was the first time we had ever seen it in the flesh – and we weren’t disappointed.

It was a strange feeling as the combination of sunny albeit windy weather, large crowds and friends from south of the border made the afternoon feel almost like an airshow in may respects. With the assistance of modern technology, we were also able to quickly download some photos onto our iPad via inbuilt WiFi on our camera and do some quick edits to post on our social media feeds.

Unfortunately a common problem with large crowds is the mobile phone signal often suffers and Sunday afternoon was no exception. Despite having a good 4G signal showing on our iPhone absolutely nothing was working due to the high demand on the 4G network. We did eventually manage to get one photo posted in relative real time but the rest had to wait until slightly later on.

Looking around the airfield, it was obvious the aircraft had attracted a massive crowed – one which at the very least equals previous visits from Air Force One. Every inch of the airport perimeter was surrounded by photographers, aviation enthusiasts and a families who were all making the most of the special occasion.

The downside to such a crowd however is the unavoidable chaos of everyone trying to leave with the roads around South Ayrshire being gridlocked for hours following the arrival and quick turnaround of the aircraft. Sitting in wall-to-wall traffic, it was almost reminiscent of trying to leave one of the big airshows.

But it wasn’t all about the AN225 though. The weekend trip to Prestwick Airport was also our first opportunity to test out our new mobile setup and also field test the Air Antenna MilAir Mag and Black Knight antennas. We are happy to report that all of these were hugely successful and we look forward to the next opportunity to get back out into the field in the very near future.

The MilAir Mag and Black Knight Air Antenna are available from https://www.airantennas.com/

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