An uncontrolled gas leak from 25 March to 16 May 2012 led to evacuation of the Total Elgin wellhead and neighbouring drilling and production platforms in the UK North Sea. Initially the atmospheric flow rate of leaking gas and condensate was very poorly known, hampering environmental assessment and well control efforts. Six flights by the UK FAAM chemically instrumented BAe-146 research aircraft were used to quantify the flow rate. The flow rate was calculated by assuming the plume may be modelled by a Gaussian distribution with two different solution methods: Gaussian fitting in the vertical and fitting with a fully mixed layer. When both solution methods were used they compared within 6 % of each other, which was within combined errors. Data from the first flight on 30 March 2012 showed the flow rate to be 1.3 ± 0.2 kg CH4 s−1, decreasing to less than half that by the second flight on 17 April 2012. δ13CCH4 in the gas was found to be −43 ‰, implying that the gas source was unlikely to be from the main high pressure, high temperature Elgin gas field at 5.5 km depth, but more probably from the overlying Hod Formation at 4.2 km depth. This was deemed to be smaller and more manageable than the high pressure Elgin field and hence the response strategy was considerably simpler. The first flight was conducted within 5 days of the blowout and allowed a flow rate estimate within 48 h of sampling, with δ13CCH4 characterization soon thereafter, demonstrating the potential for a rapid-response capability that is widely applicable to future atmospheric emissions of environmental concern. Knowledge of the Elgin flow rate helped inform subsequent decision making. This study shows that leak assessment using appropriately designed airborne plume sampling strategies is well suited for circumstances where direct access is difficult or potentially dangerous. Measurements such as this also permit unbiased regulatory assessment of potential impact, independent of the emitting party, on timescales that can inform industry decision makers and assist rapid-response planning by government.