Sunday, 1 May 2016

Flying the London Helicopter Routes

To small planes the whole of London, from Docklands in the east to beyond Heathrow in the west, is a no-go area. With Heathrow's airspace, and London City's, and restrictions over the centre of London, almost everything inside the M25, except for fringes to the north and south, is closed.

Helicopters, though, are a different story. Because of their ability to land engine-out in a very small space and without risking damage on the ground, they are permitted on a small number of carefully planned routes that provide an out along their entire length - mostly in open spaces, except for central London where it is the river. These routes allow you to fly all along the Thames, from Chiswick to Greenwich, as well as directly overhead Heathrow airport. Considering how protective the UK is, it is astonishing - but true - that you can fly over Heathrow in the tiniest of single-engine helicopters, the Robinson 22. But you can - there are even videos on Youtube.

I'd wanted to do this for a long time, and finally a trip to England provided the opportunity. I booked a Monday morning flight with EBG Helicopters at Redhill Aerodrome (EGKR), in one of their Robinson 44s, so my son could come along too. I'd previously flown there in their Guimbal Cabri G2 (G-ETWO - geddit?). That was a very interesting introduction to a new (to me) type, but we didn't go very far from the field.

I'd prepared for the flight by studying the helicopter route chart, available from Pooley's, and reading what I could find on the web, e.g. this. From the south, the most interesting routes are H9, which runs dead straight from the A3 to just south of Heathrow at Bedfont, and then north to the A40 at Northolt. That is followed by a stretch of H10, along the A40 then turning right onto the North Circular Road (A406) to the river. There is a lot of IFR - I Follow Roads (or Rivers) - involved in this. H10 joins up with H4 (via a short stretch of H3), snaking along above the Thames from Kew through the centre of London to the Isle of Dogs. South and east of there, you can do what you want, relatively speaking anyway. H7 provides an alternative route north from Redhill straight into H4 if you don't want to fly over Heathrow.

Over the weekend, the forecast was not good, and I was afraid I'd have to cancel. But the morning dawned with blue skies. It clouded over by the time of our flight but never worse than 2500 overcast, plenty for this trip.

The first challenge is finding the aerodrome. Redhill has to be the hardest to find in the whole world, despite being only a couple of miles from Gatwick and sandwiched in the corner of the M25 and the M23. I'd been there before so had a rough idea, but was still very grateful for the data roaming package on my phone as I followed a succession of single-track country lanes and narrow roads through housing estates.

Once you find it, Redhill is a very interesting place. It's home to many of London's helicopters, including the Surrey Police, an air ambulance, Sky's ENG ship, and a good selection of expensive-looking executive machines. It also has a couple of grass runways but I've never seen a fixed-wing operation there - I think the runways must be waterlogged a lot of the time.

Briefing for the flight was simple enough - no flight plan or other permission is required. A quick call to Heathrow's ATC confirmed that they were taking H9 transitions, and then we jumped into G-PAMY to start our adventure: me, my son Joe, and my instructor for the day. It would be crazy to try a flight like this for the first time without someone who has done it plenty of times before. I asked him to take care of the radio calls since there are plenty of unfamiliar visual reporting points, and I'm not 100% comfortable with the differences between UK and US radio practice.

After takeoff our first call, crossing the M25, was to Heathrow Special. This sounds an odd name, to me anyway. All non-airline flights in Heathrow's airspace are done under Special VFR (SVFR), which is essentially VFR flight under IFR-like control. I did this once before flying from White Waltham to Stapleford, though I never got anywhere close to the airport. Heathrow Special is a dedicated frequency for such flights. They cleared us as far as the Bedfont holding point, at "approved altitude".  Every segment has an approved maximum altitude on the chart, sometimes changing every couple of miles, and you are expected to have this information to hand.

Close to Bedfont we were handed off to Heathrow Tower - a first for me and, unless I do this again one day, the only time. They were very friendly and helpful, despite handling the two busiest runways in the world as well as a pesky helicopter. There had been some concern about how long we'd have to hold, one of the guys at Redhill mentioned holding for 20 minutes and then again for 15 minutes between the runways. We had plenty of fuel and the view is excellent, so it wouldn't have been a problem, but it didn't happen. We were instructed to wait for one landing aircraft, which we did hovering at 1000 feet just south of the 27L runway numbers. Joe got several excellent shots of the arriving Air Canada 767. Once it was on the ground we were cleared to proceed across both runways, having hovered for less than a minute. The view was absolutely spectacular, along the whole length of Heathrow. I'm using to flying past San Francisco, and have even landed at LAX, but this was really extraordinary. There was a long line of departing aircraft, with a BA Airbus 380 at the tail. In fact I counted 5 A380s on the ground - a significant proportion of the entire fleet.

Once north of the airport, we went back to talking to Heathrow Special as we admired the collection of bizjets at Northolt - no evidence there that it is still owned and operated by the RAF. Soon we reached the Thames at Kew. The river is surprisingly twisty and quite hard to follow accurately, even though I slowed down to 60 knots - partly for manoeuvrability but mainly to enjoy the view. And the view was fabulous. With Battersea heliport below to our right we could see right across London, with Chelsea and the Royal Albert Hall off to our left. (At home we joke that Albert is plane spotting from his memorial, writing down the tail numbers of the airliners on long final into Heathrow in his royal notebook - this was probably the first time he logged G-PAMY).

Further on we got a very special treat - our timing coincided exactly with the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, giving us a spectacle of the Household Cavalry as well as the massed tourists in front of the palace. From the same location we also got an excellent view of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and then Whitehall and Downing Street. I once had the good fortune to attend a meeting inside No 10 (the Cabinet Room, no less, though the occasion was much less exotic), but I'd certainly never seen it from this angle.

By now we were talking to City Airport tower, and they had us hold just short of Tower Bridge. We had a tailwind so hovering wasn't a great idea - instead we made a tight turn over the river and returned to Westminster Bridge, giving us a magnificent second showing of central London. Sadly we only got one turn around the hold, before City cleared us to proceed overhead Tower Bridge, following the twists of the river until the exit point of H4 at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs.

From here it was a simple straight flight back over Croydon to Redhill, with a glimpse along the way of the remains of Croydon Airport, London's main airport before the War. All that's left is the terminal, a pre-war airliner in front of it, and about 200 feet of the runway.

Back at Redhill I demonstrated an autorotation to Joe - the common belief is that helicopters drop out of the sky if the engine fails, but in fact a power-off landing in a helicopter is much safer than in a plane since you only need a very small space to touch down. The aircraft descends quickly, but under complete control, and at about 40 feet above the ground you flare to slow down and stop the descent, then drop gently to the ground, cushioning the final drop with the remaining energy in the rotor.

From there it was a short hover in a challenging crosswind back to EBG's base, and we said goodbye to G-PAMY. Though not to Redhill, since we stayed for lunch at the excellent airfield cafe. The food is very good, but the best part is the toilets - or rather the walk to get there, which takes you around three sides of a hangar filled with unusual and vintage aircraft, including the only remaining specimen of the 1932 Spartan Arrow.

It was a wonderful trip, so good in fact that I'm awfully tempted to do it again when I'm in England again! There are lots more pictures from the trip here.

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