Straight Up Helicopters
London Portrait Magazine 12-1983
We see Helicopters over London every day yet few of us have ever been up in one. The Greater London Council may try to curb their use on environmental grounds but the operators claim this is a political attack on anti-elitist grounds. CHRISTOPHER LONG went along and up to see who uses helicopters, and came back with a down-to-earth report on a fast-growing industry.
Within seconds we were 1,000 ft above Chelsea, heading for Westminster and the City of London. Beside me was Carl Beaman, managing director of CB Helicopters based at the Battersea Heliport, just across the river from Chelsea's World's End and West Brompton. The trip was to last about fifteen minutes and in that time we followed the designated flight-path down the Thames to the Pool of London and back up to Fulham and Wandsworth.
Before we took off, the Air Traffic Control officer, Philip Cater, had warned us that visibility was slightly restricted by hazy low cloud that blanketed London in uncomfortable humidity.
The Bell Jet-Ranger lifted off the riverside pad and kept high enough not to disturb the residents of the city below us and low enough that all the familiar land-marks were visible the Royal Hospital, Battersea Park, the Houses of Parliament, Lambeth Palace, the Inns of Court and HMS Bristol lying just beyond the Tower and its famous bridge.
Carl Beaman was demonstrating that helicopters are not the irritating nuisance that the GLC would have us believe. He was amazed by an article published in The Standard a week earlier (based on a nine months' old press release) in which the GLC had said that it intended to curb the use of helicopters in Central London.
In Carl Beaman's view this was just another attempt by the beleaguered GLC to have a bash at an industry which seemed to them to smack of elitism and privilege.
"The fact is that pleasure trips like the one we're having now constitute about 1.5 per cent of our business," he told me over the headphones and intercom system that linked us with our pilot, Capt. John Turner.
"The vast bulk of our business is flying businessmen to destinations all round the country, and occasionally to Europe. We have a quick flurry of business for the Derby each year and that, along with racing at Brands Hatch and similar events makes up about 15 per cent of our flying hours.
"Eighty-five per cent of the time we're carrying people who calculate that the time and effort saved by helicopter travel is worth the additional expense if it means they've got more time to keep British industry ticking over profitably."
Carl Beaman's company is in the best tradition of calculated business gambles and private enterprise. When he left the Fleet Air Arm in 1969 he couldn't face the prospect of joining all his contemporaries who were heading for the Far East and the North Sea as privately employed pilots.
With his wife Annette he saw the potential in taking over management of other people's helicopters and flying them at a profit to owner and manager alike. The first step on his way to turning CB Helicopters into a £500,000 turnover limited company was when Roger Daltry lead singer with The Who offered Carl his own Bell Jet-Ranger.
It was Daltry's helicopter that we were flying in as we passed Central London's only other heliport, a large floating barge near the City water-front, 1,000 feet below us.
"It suited Daltry because he wasn't able to maximise the potential of his helicopter on his own. He knows that our pilots are all highly trained ex-servicemen who would fly it safely and properly. He takes a percentage of the business we do with his machine and we, in turn, maintain it and make it available to him when he needs it. Our private customers range from members of the Royal Family to politicians and entertainers."
Plus, of course, the large numbers of businessmen who simply ring in, book a machine, drive into the small and unostentatious Westland Heliport in Battersea where they are whisked in minutes to locations all over Great Britain.
So, what about the GLC's current inquiries into restrictions on helicopter travel?
"Well, it's ridiculous. If you knew just how stringently the Board of Trade check us all for safety you'd understand what I mean," says Mr Beaman. "For example our flight paths are all scheduled so that we can force-land without danger almost anywhere. If the engine was to cut out now..."
... I held my breath...
"... we would simply 'parachute' down onto the Thames or wasteland without you even knowing anything was wrong. There are flotation bags on the under-carriage which would keep us afloat and we have regular emergency exercises with our own rescue boat at the heliport each week.
"In fact helicopters are extremely safe. When you do hear of accidents it's always because of the environmental conditions they're working in. The North Sea and low-level crop-spraying are the hazards not the helicopter itself.
"As far as noise is concerned, the major culprits are private owners and cowboys who fly too low or outside the flight-paths and earn the whole industry a bad name.
"The police, for example, have to fly low sometimes but we're the ones who get the blame! Most people are quite unaware that we have as many as 80 to 150 take-offs and landings on a busy day at the height of the season at Battersea alone. I honestly don't think we disturb anyone very much at all."
Which is probably a very good thing, if it's true. A report recently suggested that a new town like Milton Keynes could attract as many as 30 helicopter 'movements' per day by the end of the '80s. Today it's about 30 movements a month.
Hit by the recession in the '70s and early '80s, along with everyone else, it is now believed that the great boom in helicopter travel has yet to come.
"As inflation goes on, the effective price of helicopter travel will fall as the market expands," Carl Beaman believes. "What will happen is that people will really begin to think about helicopters as a realistic alternative to trains, blocked motorways and airports miles from city centres. It's not ever going to be cheap, but for some people in certain circumstances it's the obvious, safe, quick and highly personalised option."
On the other hand not everyone will be in the position of a foreign princess who hired a helicopter to fly her spectacles only her spectacles to Norwich to be repaired. They were then flown back to her in time to join her on her flight abroad. That in fact is the sort of story that fuels the anti-elitist lobby.
And so, as we headed back towards the eight large yellow rings which are where the pilots sit their craft beside the muddy brown waters of the Thames, I had to ask: How much?
A business trip to Birmingham and back in daylight hours would cost about £500 plus landing charges and VAT. If I took three colleagues with me it would work out at about £150 each, return.
A return trip to Paris, staying the night, would be more expensive: about £1,200 plus charges for up to 4 passengers.
And a day at the Derby with champagne, strawberries, cars and all the frills works out about £120 plus VAT for each passenger.
As we touched down on the pad, receptionist Liz Dorling was there to help us down and welcome us back. Carl's wife Annette was busy on the phone making bookings for the afternoon while two others from the eight-man CB team tinkered with the rescue-boat's engine...
"Just in case, you know...," they said.
Commercial operators such as CB aren't the only helicopter users over London. Apart from executive charter firms, any pilot can bring his machine into Central London with permission from Air Traffic Control and can, again with permission, land at either Battersea or the Trigg Lane heli-barge in the city. Naturally such privately owned pads charge landing fees (Westland own the Battersea site for example) and all air movements are logged.
A few office blocks and large buildings have helicopter pads on their roofs but these are very seldom used, if at all. In fact only twin-engined, twin-prop machines are allowed to over-fly 'Forbidden Zones' such as the City which means only they can legally land on city buildings.
However, technically it is legal for helicopters to take off and land on private ground anywhere in London outside forbidden zones provided they do not exceed a permitted number of days per year. In practice the restrictions on non-statutory helicopter use in Central London means that residents are probably not unduly disturbed by commercial and private operators.
Minimum flight altitudes of 1,000 feet, plus forbidden zones and carefully chosen flight paths, mean that most of the 11,000 take-offs and landings in London are kept clear of most residential areas.
On the other hand there are other helicopter operators who have greater freedom in the skies over London. They include the Queen and members of the Royal Family who are frequent users of helicopters. The Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and Prince Andrew are accomplished pilots who regularly fly themselves, or are flown to engagements all over the country.
The two bright orange Westland Wessex helicopters of the Queen's Flight are familiar to people living near Buckingham Palace or Kensington Palace where they pick up their passengers on heli-pads in the gardens. Wessexes are regarded as ideal in terms of their safety record and security advantages.
The Metropolitan Police have two Bell helicopters used for a variety of purposes over London. They monitor traffic hold-ups, can be used as air-borne mobile control craft over demonstrations or in conjunction with ground support in the search for suspects or roof-top incidents and can search for buried murder victims with heat sensitive equipment.
The Ministry of Defence says it has no regular helicopter units or bases in Central London. In the course of routine operations they often fly over London and very occasionally into barracks such as Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Wellington.
The Civil Aviation Authority keep records of all helicopter flights in and out of Central London. In 1982 they recorded 9,034 take-offs and landings at Battersea of which 144 were for pleasure, 923 were military and 2,949 were private non-commercial users.
Battersea carried 6,478 passengers, only 68 of whom were international arrivals or departures. The heli-barge at Trigg Lane in the City had 2,084 take-offs and landings in 1982 and carried 1,101 passengers all domestic.
Obviously, there are great financial as well as practical advantages in owning a helicopter. As Christopher Tennant of Lynton Aviation explains, the capital cost can often form part of a re-directed tax bill. Classified as a piece of capital equipment, a helicopter can be used to offset capital allowances and written down by up to 100 per cent in the first year of ownership. Consequently, the net capital cost to high-earning individuals and to many companies with large tax bills can be very little.
The snag is the very high cost of maintaining the machine in airworthy condition. The more a helicopter is used in each year the cheaper each flying hour becomes. Lynton Aviation, who sell, lease, charter and manage helicopters world-wide, stress the importance of offering an ownership package in addition to selling the machine. This includes advice on the tax implications as well as the lease-back of hours to operators who will offset the annual running costs.
Christopher Tennant points out that helicopter prices vary widely according to the equipment they carry and foreign exchange rates at the time of purchase but at an exchange rate of $1.50 per £1 he can offer you a Bell Jetranger 1979 mid-time for £140,000 (4 passengers, 125 mph); a new Bell Jetranger for £270,000 (4 passengers, 125 mph): a new Bell Longranger for £400,000 (6 passengers, 130 mph): or a Sikorsky S76 for £1,800,000 (12 passengers, 170 mph).
These figures are for aircraft suitably equipped to give the necessary flexibility to be used for 'hire and reward' which, when you've counted all the noughts, seems very prudent!
© (1983) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.