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Andy Hedley-Smith, MAF International’s head of security in MAF plane, PNG (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)
Conflict, Security, Peace and ReconciliationHigh FliersMAF Operations

Meet MAF’s Andy Hedley-Smith who is no stranger to danger

26th June 2024

Andy Hedley-Smith, MAF International’s head of security in MAF plane, PNG (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)

Andy Hedley-Smith, MAF International’s head of security in PNG (credit: A.H.-S.)

Keeping people safe is a motto that Andy Hedley-Smith – former senior police officer and close protection manager – lives and breathes. In the latest episode of the ‘Flying for Life’ podcast, Josh Carter asks MAF International’s head of security how MAF operates in the face of insecurity.

Andy Hedley-Smith – MAF Interternational’s head of security, crisis management and risk – is no stranger to danger. For nearly 40 years, Andy’s career has revolved around assessing, mitigating and neutralising threats.

Andy has worked all over the world including some very dangerous countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. For the last seven years, he’s worked for MAF, which operates in over 25 countries, many of which are affected by conflict or insecurity.

Whether it’s gang warfare in Haiti, terrorist attacks in Mozambique, navigating the fuel crisis in PNG or fall out from the war in Sudan, MAF is always aware of potential risks and how they could be a threat to staff, passengers or operations.

In the latest episode of the Flying for Life podcast-‘Flying in the face of insecurity’ (Ep. 7), Josh chats to Andy about his former fascinating career in close protection, and how it’s prepared him for his current role at MAF.

From local bobby to international protection officer

Andy in the DRC in 2013 protecting then Foreign Secretary Lord William Hague (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)

Andy in the DRC, 2013, protecting then Foreign Sec Lord Hague (credit: A.H.-S.)

Andy worked his way up in Kent Police from a bobby on the beat in 1985 to a chief inspector in 2002, investigating a range of crime and managing firearms.

In 2006, he became District Commander in Thanet, Kent, overseeing a team of 200 police officers.

In 2008, he moved to the Metropolitan Police in London where he worked in close protection for eight years keeping various British VIPs safe.

As a senior close protection officer and manager, Andy led the protection teams for British prime ministers, cabinet ministers and former prime ministers including the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Sir Tony Blair, Sir John Major and Lord David Cameron. Andy’s work included leading protection operations for their international travel.

He also worked with Royalty Protection, protecting members of the British Royal Family including the late Queen and the late Queen Mother.

It was during this period that Andy gained an extensive understanding of terrorist methodology from around the globe.

In 2012, Andy was responsible for the entire security detail for the 2012 London Olympics including the opening and closing ceremonies, which involved 127 VIPs. At the time, this was the UK’s biggest ever security operation.

Expect the unexpected!

In 2013, Andy led protection operations for former prime minister Sir Tony Blair to visit America. Andy accompanied Mr Blair to Los Angeles and recalls when some fans got a bit too close for comfort:

‘Mr Blair was speaking to 2,500 Mexicans in a big arena and it was amazing how many of them wanted to shake his hand. We tried to form a bubble around him because we didn’t know who amongst such a friendly group might want to do him harm.

‘Protection officers ensure that the principals don’t come to any harm. They have to get physically involved sometimes and with Mr Blair, we had to make sure that he wasn’t getting swamped by people, because that’s when someone could have easily injured him.’

Andy Hedley-Smith
MAF International’s head of security & former close protection manager

In 2015, when Andy led protection operations in Abuja, Nigeria, for then foreign secretary Lord Philip Hammond’s visit, events took a bizarre turn:

‘We took him to Abuja for the inauguration of President Buhari – a big event in Eagle Square and there were huge crowds of people thronging the streets celebrating their new president.

‘We were trying to leave the main arena and we had the foreign secretary sat in the embassy vehicle – a big Range Rover – and as we’re trying to get out of there, we were just swamped by crowds of people.

‘The other officer and I literally had to get out of the vehicle and run alongside it. People were climbing all over the vehicle, and you never know what their intent is, so we literally had to drag people off.

‘As we did that, I lifted my gaze to see the crowd thinning. Then I saw the biggest pair of jaws I’d ever seen in my life – it was a hyena! I thought that’s weird – I’m in the middle of town and there’s a hyena with a baboon next to it on chains! I since found out that they belonged to a witch doctor who also had a snake around his neck.

‘I never saw the snake because I was more focused on making sure that I didn’t get bitten by the hyena. Those jaws were absolutely massive and those animals weren’t particularly pleased, which would explain why the crowd had disappeared! We managed to get the VIP out and we got into the back-up vehicle behind him and quickly followed them out.’

A man with a plan

After 30 years in the police force, Andy joined MAF International in 2017 as head of security, crisis management and risk.

From past experience, he has learned that access to local intelligence and always having a back-up plan is critical to everyone’s safety. Andy explains:

‘A protection officer is there to make sure that the VIP – aka the principal – is kept safe. If anything happens, then yes, we have to intervene, which could mean standing between the VIP and the threat.

‘Our job is to get the VIP out of the dangerous situation, but more importantly, it’s trying to stop it from happening in the first place.

‘We did a lot of work with intelligence services to try and understand what was happening in the country to try and prevent bad things from happening.’

Andy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2015 (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)

Andy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2015 (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)

Andy recalls one operation in Afghanistan when local intel directly saved lives:

‘When we were in Afghanistan, it wasn’t under Taliban rule like it is now. The Taliban was the terrorist organisation that we were up against.

‘When we went into the capital Kabul, we had intelligence that there were some suicide bombers looking for a target in the south of the city where the minister wanted to go.

‘Obviously, we couldn’t take them there safely because we knew that suicide bombers were prowling the streets, so we ended up taking the minister to the north of the city instead.

‘That’s how a protection officer looks to manage the risk to enable the principal to still carry out the work of the British government, but doing it in a safe and secure manner.

‘This has effectively prepared me for what I do now. What I’m trying to do at MAF is to keep our pilots operating in a safe and secure manner as much as possible.’

Andy at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011 (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)

Andy at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011 (credit: A.H.-S.)

Andy endeavours to achieve this goal by gleaning as much security intel as possible just like he did as a protection officer:

‘We try to work out what’s happening globally, not just locally and nationally. PNG has been having fuel problems for the past two years, and we remember that it’s been just over two years since Russia invaded Ukraine.

‘Things that happen on the world stage also impact our programmes on a daily basis. We try and work out the next thing that’s going to happen, so we do our planning and preparations for that, but there’s a limit to how much you can do.

‘You can’t guarantee security, but what we can do is operate in a way that is consistent with our calling – we demonstrate our duty of care to people.’

Delivering an award-winning service

Andy walks a fine line between keeping MAF staff safe in volatile countries, yet enabling them to serve the world’s most isolated and vulnerable people. It’s not an easy call says Andy:

‘All of our programmes have an evacuation plan built into them, so we are ready to do it if we need to, but it’s a decision that we won’t take lightly.

‘Obviously, we are there to serve the local communities and if we have to evacuate our staff, then we can’t be there to serve. However, we’re also ready to evacuate if we need to and we will. It’s making that judgement call.’

In 2022, Andy was recognised for his service during the coronavirus pandemic for keeping MAF staff safe and informing the charity’s response.

He was awarded MAF’s Larry Heintz Safety Award for showing leadership during the crisis, advising MAF’s Crisis Management Team and helping to develop MAF’s Covid-19 Management Plan.

Andy receives MAF’s Larry Heintz award in 2022 for his services during Covid-19 (credit: Andy Hedley-Smith)

Andy receives MAF’s Larry Heintz 2022 award for services during Covid (credit: A. H.-S.)

Learn more about how Andy keeps MAF staff safe in Papua New Guinea in the latest episode of the Flying for Life podcast – ‘Flying in the face of insecurity’ (Ep. 7).