Marine UXO Project Manager Andrew Lonsdale

Meet Andrew Lonsdale MIExpE, he’s a former Royal Navy Petty Officer Clearance Diver who’d already achieved notoriety at SafeLane before he even joined full time! Read on to discover more.

Tell us a bit about your time in the Navy and what life was like before you joined SafeLane?

Well, my basic background would be that from the tender age of 16 and a half I joined the Royal Navy to become a clearance diver in 1987.

I transferred to be a clearance diver in ‘91 and then progressed through the ranks until I left in 2010 to pursue an entirely different career as a landscaper!

So, you went from sea beds to flowerbeds?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist it…)

Indeed!  I ran a successful business as a landscaper for nearly six years but I missed the ocean.  So I did some project management roles within the marine industry and then eventually dropped back into the unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) world in 2016.

Tell us about some of the commercial EOD marine projects you’ve worked on

Well, I worked for SafeLane a number of times as a contractor before joining full time earlier this year.  I was on the Salisbury plain project for you guys, and from there I then did the Nemo Link project for you and my final job for SafeLane (or Dynasafe Bactec as you were called then) was on the London City Airport project.

That was my sort of my biggest claim to fame for SafeLane!

There was a big WWII bomb found in the murky depths of a dock near London City Airport wasn’t there?

Exactly.  So I was approached by SafeLane to see whether I could stand in for one of the guys who needed to be away from the clearance project you were doing at London City Airport.

I stepped forward for a full rotation and went straight on to night shifts.  I think I was on my second shift in.  We were on a particular target location and it was probably about 11 in the evening.  So you have your divers on the target, they’re communicating and you’re listening and recording everything, but it was one of those sort of relaxed evenings where you’re listening but you’re also talking amongst your colleagues in the dive control room.

Then as things progressed it became quite evident there was an object of serious concern.  I ended up putting two further divers down on the object who were both ex-clearance divers like me, but unfortunately neither of them would commit to saying it was UXO.

You have to understand the visibility was almost zero.  So, from the limited information I had and the limited pictures I was able to take from the diver’s camera I classified it as a German SC 500 so – an air dropped bomb.

We then had the fun job of calling the Project Manager.  But in the back of my mind the only thing I thinking was if this is the wrong call the airport is going to be shutdown for the whole of Sunday’s operations costing God knows how many millions – all on my decision.

Obviously it did turn out to be what I said it was and yeah the Navy came in the following morning and assessed the situation and then the disposal operation was also dealt by the Navy.

How did it feel just starting on a job and having to make that call?

It was actually quite, quite nerve wracking because from my perspective although I was the subject matter expert and my spider senses are telling me it’s definitely a bomb as it had all the correct characteristics to say it was a bomb, but there’s this niggling voice saying what if you’ve made the wrong call?

It would have been bad for SafeLane, bad for the client – but you know, that could be a career stop as well for me!  So it was one of those quite nervous decisions – you know what you’re saying is correct but there’s this infinitesimal chance it could not be UXO, because there are items out there which look very similar but are not related in any way shape or form.

Ultimately, all the key identification features were there though.

What identification features were on the London City Airport bomb?

Well, on the back of the item it had what we call the bolt holes for the tail fins, it was the right shape, all the dimensions fitted with what it was, it had a tapered nose – I could see what I believed to be the transverse fuse on the side where you would expect to locate the fuse pocket.

All the key features were there for basic UXO identification but there’s always that what if because you don’t have a full visual – but then that’s what you train and train for years and years in the Navy.

So between London City in 2018 and joining us full time in 2021, what have you been up to?

I disappeared off your scene for a little while as I was working with another competitor company – we won’t mention them!

And then I decided to step back from contracts because my wife and I began fostering children.

I was then approached by you guys for a permanent role and here I am.

Is fostering children as rewarding as one might imagine?

It is far, far harder than you can imagine, and no amount of training can prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster.

My children are fully grown, and my wife and I decided to move to Cornwall, she took early retirement from her job and we just felt we wanted to do something rewarding – and make a difference to children’s lives if we could.

We have a lovely cottage, a bit of land, lots of space really to give to children who need some care.

Our first placement was a respite case, which was fine.  Then we were offered the chance to take on three siblings.

It’s not quite like they tell you!  It’s a lot, lot harder because some of these little people come with a lot of baggage and that’s one of the things they don’t prepare you for really and so it’s been an emotional rollercoaster with what we’ve had to deal with.

To cut a long story short, with support from our social worker we’re now in a situation of looking after the two little girls from the sibling group.  We’re actually seeing the fun side of fostering now – it’s still not without challenges but we can actually sort of have a laugh about it all now whereas before we couldn’t, it was almost like being in survival mode it was really difficult.

It was a war zone for a few months but now we can actually see the benefits of what we are doing it’s meaningful.

Talking of war zones, didn’t you once accidentally end up behind enemy lines?

Oh yes!  So, it was 2003 and we were mobilised with one of the fleet diving units for Op TELIC in Iraq.  We were briefed on all the types of conditions and operations we were going to be involved in from day one – like beach landing clearance.  I was there as IED cover as well as dive support, so from day one when we were mobilised we flew off in helicopters to various locations.

One of the places I went was to a barge system which had lots of hidden mines in it which were very cleverly disguised.

Then after we did some of these operations for a couple of days the next phase commenced and we mobilised all our kit onto American helicopters as we were going to be working on a vessel for them.

They flew us off into a place called Umm Qasr which is a commercial port in Iraq – they kicked us and all our kit off the helicopters and just flew off into the sunset!  We were just standing there in the middle of this absolutely foreign location – essentially behind enemy lines with just the kit we had on our back.

It felt like a one-way ticket – so it was a bit of a sobering moment!

But you survived, thankfully – any other hairy moments?

I did a long-term project out in Malaysia, we were there for 18 months and found about 800 items of UXO – it was horrendously contaminated.

And I did have quite a thrill working for you on the Nemo Link – my first dive and I was dropped in on a target proud of the seabed off Ramsgate in about 10 metres of water and basically swam right into a German parachute mine.

A bit more exciting than your average day at the office!  But it’s nice to be on dry land most of the time now I’m working as a Project Manager at SafeLane.  I’m really looking forward to mentoring team members and supporting the Marine Department’s growth ambitions.