The eye on the North Sea - North Sea Aerial Survey in Belgium

A small plane flies above the North Sea, the pilots and operators are scanning the sea surface to find possible polluters. It’s possibly one of the almost 3000 control flights the Britten Norman Islander flew since 1991. Nowadays the Islander got rid of its military jacket and changed it for a new white and red livery. As of June 2006 the aircraft for the aerial survey of the Belgian territory of the North Sea is in the hands of the Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models (MUMM) ( Oscar Oscar - Mike Mike Mike (OO-MMM), formerly known as  Belgian Army BN2A-21 Islander B02/OT-ALB,  has been registered to Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) ( Acquisition and refurbishment costs amounted 260.000 euro.


MUMM BN2A-21 Islander OO-MMM landing at Ostend airport

In December 1990, MUMM signed an agreement with the Brasschaat based School Light Aviation of the Belgian Army, which places a Britten Norman Islander aircraft (type BN-2B-21) at its disposal. An excellent cooperation took place between these two State organisations during the following 14 years. At the end of December 2004 the Belgian Army decided to bring an end to the exploitation of these aircraft. All the Islanders were put up for sale, including two (former B-2 and B-9) which were to be acquired by the RBINS.

The Aircraft

Islander OO-MMM at Ostend airport

OO-MMM is built in Belgium in 1976 and was operated until 31 December 2004 by the Belgian Army as B-2. Refurbishment was done by Fly BN - subsidiary of Britten-Norman - located at Bembridge (Isle of Wight, UK), in order to enable a recertification for the delivery of airworthiness by the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority. From now on the maintenance, repair and overhaul activities will be executed by General Air Service- Antwerp, a subsidiary of the ABELAG Group. The home base will be Deurne and not Ostend or Koksijde as first presumed, this because of the easy transfer between the offices in Brussels and the airfield near Antwerp.

 Bonn Agreement

Since 1991, MUMM has been monitoring from the air the areas of the sea Belgium is responsible for through its BELMEC team (BELgian Marine Environmental Control). This surveillance of the North Sea is undertaken in the context of the Bonn Agreement ( Each country organises its own surveillance programme in accordance with the guidelines laid down in this Agreement. The majority of the flight hours are devoted to anti-pollution surveillance. Around forty flight hours are carried out with the Fishery Control Service in order to monitor compliance with the legislation on professional and sport fishery in areas under Belgian responsibility. In parallel, advantage is taken of the pollution surveillance missions to control other activities such as maritime traffic, in cooperation with the maritime services of the Federal Police, sand and gravel extraction, dredging sludge dumping at sea and recreation, building activities, but also including the observation of various marine phenomena: sand bank dynamics, the behaviour of marine mammals, the seasonal proliferation of algae.

Independently of the mission, the detection and identification of any kind of pollution remains the first priority. All the information thus gathered contributes to the preparation of an inventory of the pressures exerted on the ecosystem of the North Sea.

The crew consists of a pilot and a co-pilot from a pool of four experienced and dedicates pilots from the Air Component from the Belgian Army. On each control flight one or two trained operator(s) from a pool of six members of MUMM’s personnel operate the dedicated instrument and collecting all visual information.

Operator Machteld Price sits in her office, from here she and her colleagues will look out for possible polluters with the SLAR radar.



Thanks to the Side Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), most visible aspect of which being the 3 metre long black “tubes” along the fuselage, the aircraft 'sees' hydrocarbon pollution 20 kilometres on either side of its trajectory. This SLAR is made by Ericsson Radio Syteme AB, Sweden.


The antennas are placed on both sides of the fuselage; these 3 meters black tubes provide the aircraft to 'see' hydrocarbon pollution 20 kilometres on either side of its trajectory.

Detailed view of the SLAR control panel

When a vessel is caught in the act, the aircraft undertakes an approach manoeuvre in order to identify the polluter. The action consists of positioning the aircraft at a sufficient distance to the vessel, during the day as well as at night, in order to be able to read the name and homeport written on its hull. The operator then attempts to communicate with the polluting vessel and questions the duty officer or the captain himself, following a clearly defined procedure. All conversations are recorded, providing additional documentation to complement the pictures taken. The vessel often stops polluting upon the approach of the surveillance aircraft. Since the survey flights started the team recorded 611 offences. Thirty one ships were prosecuted by Belgian and international law. The fact that potential polluters are discouraged by the flights is reflected in a noticeable reduction in recorded pollution cases over the last few years.

The civil registration of the survey Islander has not been picked randomly: the triple M stands for the historic motto off the MUMM: the 'M' from monitoring, the surveillance of the eco-system and quality of the milieu., 'M' as in modelling, to simulate the processes and predict en evolution of the environmental system of North Sea. "M" as in Management, to help managing the sea and its environment. The triple M also points out to the law from 1999 to protect the marine environment.


Minister Marc Verwilghen and the crew of OO-MMM at Ostend airport.

Text and pictures by

© Tom Brinckman  (June 2006)


additional pic by Tom Houquet (Spotting Group Koksijde)

Last updated 17/12/11 11:40   Daniel Brackx