The Gatwick - Heathrow Airlink
Captain William "Bill" Ashpole
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Here we have Part 2 of an indepth history of the London Gatwick to Heathrow Airlink, operated by British Caledonian and British Airways Helicopters. Arguably one of the most contested operations from Gatwick, it was a firm favourite with passengers transferring between airports but seemingly universally hated by those under it's flightpath.
But here is the account by Captain Ashpole, Manager & Chief Pilot, who had a unique insight into the Airlink operation.
The amazing Sikorsky S61N!
It would be remiss in an article on this subject not to mention the aircraft; the amazing Sikorsky S61N! This helicopter became the DC-3 of the North Sea and even today  one can still see them flying in various roles including Search and Rescue. The military version until recently transported the President of the United States and the HRH Prince William recently completed a tour of duty on the British military version, the Sea King. Sea Kings, flown by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, are still a vital part of UK military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is a superb aircraft, very resilient, with a very useful payload in a spacious small airliner style passenger cabin; 26 seats in the case of Airlink but 30 in the S61NM used on the BAH Penzance/Isles of Scilly service.
Like others, I have flown the S61N between Shetland and Norway in forecast winds of 100 mph with reported wave heights of 50 feet, yet have felt every confidence in the machine to do its job. It was given a “light” icing clearance by the CAA - a rate of accretion of half an inch in 40 miles as detected on a thin metal rod in the airstream just outside the captain’s window. This proved very useful on Airlink as well as all other operations. The “leading edge” ethos prevalent in British Airways Helicopters ensured we got the best from the machine in terms of performance and safety. Its faults are few but the poorly designed pilot’s seat is one. Made to a military specification, with the expectation of very low utilisation, it became an instrument of torture when used on a commercial operation with many more hours being flown each month by individual pilots,. Back problems were prevalent as a certain chiropractor at Penzance, who had treated nearly all the pilots based there over the years, testified. I, and others, were regular sufferers, but when I ceased to fly the S61N backache became history.
The itinerary of a typical Airlink passenger might be from Lagos in Nigeria to Washington in the USA. On arrival at Gatwick from Lagos our passenger, typically male with-hold baggage of 44 kilogram, would clear customs and immigration and report to the Airlink check-in desk. Here he would show his ticket which would probably include the Airlink sector. His hold baggage would be accepted at the Airlink desk and he would wait in the Airlink lounge for the next helicopter to Heathrow. Upon arrival at Heathrow he would again be a reunited with his hold baggage and proceed to check-in for the British Airways flight to Washington. Thus from the time he checked in with British Caledonian Airways at Lagos to the time he arrived in Washington our passenger would know that he was “contained” within the airline system - a very important “comfort and security” consideration for international interline passengers.
The service began with G-LINK configured with 28 passenger seats. It soon became apparent that our typical passenger brought with him or her a considerable amount of baggage. The baggage handlers strived magnificently to squeeze it into the forwardhold, which included a vertical extension up to the cabin ceiling from the original hold in the hull, but this delayed departure and was sometimes impossible. It was decided to sacrifice two passenger seats in favour of a larger hold. Operating with 26 seats completely solved the problem.
........and with an S61 there is always time for a few favours - this time lifting cooling plant onto the terminal building
|An Airlink Safety Card
The BAH base at Gatwick, the Beehive and the hangar, were only a few hundred yards from Stand 1, used exclusively by G-LINK and immediately adjacent to the runway and the Airlink offices and crew rooms. First thing each morning and after the last flight in the evening, the helicopter would be positioned between the base and the stand. One morning, with a very low cloud base and visibility and with no aeroplane traffic, two of our intrepid pilots, who shall remain anonymous, took off and climbed a little too high. Losing sight of the surface they had no alternative but to continue climbing and request an ILS! So their positioning flight of 3 minutes took nearer 15 - the record for the longest positioning flight!
The roster provided for one crew of two pilots to operate the first five return flights and a second crew to operate the remaining five. Given low cloud and poor visibility, it would have been possible to carry out 10 ILS approaches during one shift - an exceptional task piloting an aircraft with no autopilot and just an AFCS (a stability augmentation system). No-one, to my knowledge, ever took the prize.
We had the occasional addition to the Gatwick/Heathrow/Gatwick run, Father Christmas transport being one such. Another interesting operation for which we were fully prepared but were never called upon to perform was requested by the London Flood Emergency Team.
It had been realised that whilst work was still in progress on the Thames Barrier, many of the team were based south of the Thames and in the event of serious flooding, they would not be able to travel to the London Flood HQ on the north side. An Airlink operations order was carried in the cockpit which detailed the procedure to be followed in the event of a callout, namely to fly to Kenley aerodrome to pick up the team then fly them to the White City Stadium. Another interesting diversion was the replacement of two air conditioning units on the roof of the South Terminal at Gatwick (described next to the photo of the operation).
CAA Licence Hearings
The weakness of Airlink was not in its conception, profitability or operation but in the politics of environmental protest. The first year of operation was proposed on a trial basis and was subject to a CAA route licence hearing. Normally only airlines are represented at such hearings but, in view of the considerable environmental interest which arose because of the relatively low altitudes flown by the helicopter, the CAA decided to permit the so-called environmental lobby to be present and make their representations. This fateful decision gave a number of frustrated people and organisations the platform that they needed to promote their views. Using this new forum to advantage they wasted no time in introducing all kinds of anti-aviation arguments many of which had little relevance to the helicopter service.
The CAA panel were charged by statute to consider environmental matters but to make their decision primarily upon the benefit to British commercial aviation. Having considered all the evidence, the CAA decided in favour of granting the application. The decision was referred to the Secretary of State, in accordance with procedure, and the route licence was granted for a period of 18 months. Further Airlink hearings were held by the CAA. On every application the CAA panel were convinced of the considerable interline benefit derived by British aviation. The Secretary of State endorsed their decision on every occasion except the penultimate when he directed that Airlink would cease 4 months after the completion of the M25 Motorway. One final hearing took place to contest this decision but with the same result.
During one exchange at the first hearing in London between Laurie Price, as the main economic witness for BCal, and Mr Seward QC representing Surrey County Council, Mr Seward started a long expose saying:
“Now tell me if a passenger turns up at 11 minutes past 8 for an 8:10 departure, he has to wait until 09:10, and if he turns up at 09:11 for a 09:10 departure he has to wait until 10:10 …” and so he went on and on. The reply from the BCAL witness was “well Mr Seward, you do seem to have chosen a most unfortunate passenger!”, which brought the house down, arousing much mirth, unusual for a CAA licence hearing and rather making the point. The CAA Panel were most appreciative having not taken kindly to the excessive use of legal bombast as CAA hearings were Quasi-Judicial and rather less formal than Courts of Law but nonetheless still very effective and challenging.
Another incident of relief to the proceedings at another hearing was occasioned by a Member of Parliament who was present to give voice to his objections to the service. Red-faced and rocking backwards and forwards on his chair whilst speaking he boomed “no one has needs so time critical that the saving of the few minutes afforded by the helicopter can be justified”. He completed giving his evidence and then said “well, must dash now, the House is sitting”. Followed by roars of laughter our QC, David Beety, remarked “well isn’t that interesting Mr X, it seems that only members of Parliament have time critical needs!”
David Beety confided in us concerning a technique which lawyers call “a fishing trip”. He employed it when dealing with an elderly man representing an environmental group along the route. The man stated that the helicopter service could not be justified as road traffic between the two airports did not cause the delays claimed by the operators. David then turned the conversation to other matters then asked about road congestion in the area represented by this individual. “Awful” said the man. “And how about traffic between your house and Heathrow?” asked David. “Absolutely terrible - it takes hours to get anywhere!” was the quick reply. Game, set and match!
Another interesting contribution to one of the hearings was made by Cunli Fatona, then a BCal Sales Manager from Nigeria. During cross-examination, possibly by Mr Seward, he said that many Nigerian passengers favoured the safety and security of an air transfer rather than a bus. Mr Seward was most indignant and said "but this is Britain" to which the reply was "well what about the IRA!" .Point made and won! It was just after a military coach had been blown up by the IRA on the M62. This episode was a powerful illustration that assumptions by British commentators on safety and security in England may well be irrelevant to airline passengers who are residents of other countries where travel by road can be hazardous. (I remember a visit to Lagos in Nigeria on airline business when, on the journey from the airport to the hotel, the taxi was stopped in a dimly lit side street by the police. I was asked to open my suitcaseand it became clear that the police sergeant was keen that I should give him a small electronic item. I was eventually permitted to go on my way unmolested!)
The Environmental Lobby
Within a few weeks following the inaugural flight, I was invited by Barney Barclay, Chief of Airside Safety & Operations of BAA Gatwick to attend a meeting of half a dozen of “his friends” living under or near the Airlink route. This meeting was reported in the local Press and I was met with a room packed with some 40 hostile residents! One of the main conclusions of this meeting was an undertaking to fly the helicopter within one quarter of a mile of the nominal track between the two airports and an assurance that the helicopter would be flown at the maximum altitude permitted by air traffic control. This undertaking was adhered to throughout the eight years of operation of Airlink making this service, arguably, the most precisely flown commercial operation in the history of aviation prior to the advent of GPS.
As the years rolled by environmental opposition became more organised. In spite of the tremendous efforts made by us to minimise environmental intrusion on the ground, the claims became more exaggerated and, sometimes quite ridiculous. Letters of complaint were received charging the operators with flying in formation (only one helicopter was ever employed); of flying late at night (whilst the helicopter was on maintenance in the hangar); of flying far off track (in spite of being under radar surveillance at all times by air traffic control); that passengers could be using binoculars to spy on residents using their swimming pools! One lady living near Heathrow even sent me her under slip which, she claimed, had been stained by oil dripping from the helicopter. I had it analysed to prove we were innocent. One day I received a call from the office of the managing director of BCal concerning a complaint from the Oxshott area. Airlink was charged with flying at a low level over a particularly wealthy resident who was very well connected. He knew it was the Airlink helicopter because he recognised the shape. A quick telephone call to air traffic control at Heathrow established that the offending helicopter was a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter which would have passed overhead Oxshott in accordance with the rules governing flight along the established London Control Zone helicopter route, a height lower than that that permitted for the Airlink operation.
The facts were that the helicopter was flown extremely precisely and safely and both the visual and aural intrusion to those on the ground was minimal. The noise signature of the S61 helicopter was modest in spite of its size and was scientifically measured to be equivalent to that of a car travelling at 30 mph. passing an observer 32 feet away. In the suburban locations overflown by Airlink, road traffic and aeroplane noise was far in excess of any disturbance caused by the helicopter. Within the Heathrow air traffic control zone Airlink accounted for only one in five helicopter movements. On one occasion the CAA Panel stood with complainers awaiting the overflight of this noisy beast! As the helicopter approached a lorry drove by completely drowning out the sound of the helicopter! On another occasion I was invited to the home of a couple resident near Gatwick to witness the “din”. As we waited I could hear the sound of shotguns nearby. “Oh, that’s our neighbour’s skeet shoot - we have one ourselves!” So it would appear that hours of volleys by shotguns were preferred to a few helicopter flights! - These were nice people but, I thought, somewhat hypocritical?
At the beginning of the service, GAL had appointed its own Manager Airlink whose role was to handle environmental complaints. David Shepherd performed this role on anexemplary fashion, liaising with me to establish the facts as regards individual flights subject to criticism. Once the service had been running for several months and the complaint situation was well in hand, David’s role was dis-established and he was given other assignments within GAL.
One map of the diversionary Airlink routes, though none would prove acceptable
Dealing with environmental complaints was an eye opener. The route had a 900 turn around “The Wells” - a large council housing estate near Epsom. I think we had perhaps two complaints from this estate during the eight years of operation. But other areas, in which there was more expensive housing, generated the majority of complaints. Some of this could be put down to a lower altitude being flown than near Epsom but many complaints had no relevance to this factor. We were told that certain very expensive properties overflown were owned by persons very influential in the opposition to the service. We were “threatened” by certain individuals that “they had friends in high places”….. The whole exercise was an interesting reflection on democracy in “our green and pleasant land”. One gentleman, who claimed influence at high level, spoke to us some months before the final decision to stop the service was made by the Secretary of State. He told us, in no uncertain terms, that he was completely confident that the Government would terminate the service!
In our efforts to fly in the most neighbourly manner possible I progressed a suggestion made during a discussion with a Mrs Attlee who was Chairman of FHANG (Federation of Heathrow Anti-Noise Groups). We discussed the advisability of splitting the intrusion of the helicopter by flying a two route system. The dilemma of doing so required the Wisdom of Solomon. Remaining with just one route meant dealing with existing objectors: a twin route system, although environmentally beneficial, would introduce a whole new set of complainants. We decided in favour of the “honest” solution - the one which would reduce environmental impact to the minimum for any individual overflown.
Captain Graeme Thompson of BCalH and I met with NATS and after considerable discussion, even argument, the managers present agreed the two routes. At the final licence hearing, we proposed this new twin route system which would give air traffic control the flexibility to permit the helicopter to remain at higher altitude for longer albeit that the maximum of 2,400 feet amsl could not be exceeded. This would have halved the intrusion for most of those living under the route. One feature of the twin route system was the need to cater for the few hours each year when Heathrow had arriving/departing aircraft pointing in the opposite direction those at Gatwick. The route for these dozen or so flights per year would have overflown the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley. I received objections from as far afield as New Zealand! Yet one tractor in the gardens would have drowned out the noise of the helicopter. However, I have discovered by experience that there is no point trying to reason with such.
There is an interesting conundrum when selecting a route. The obvious may be to draw a line over open countryside and avoid built-up areas - fewer people overflown but in areas with very low ambient noise levels thus an aircraft is more intrusive. There is also an argument that a relatively quiet aircraft flying over a busy urban area would not be heard above the day-to-day ambient noise of road traffic, etc. It was an interesting fact that I received a minimal number of complaints from a street to the south of Heathrow, a street directly under Helicopter Route 9 and flown at heights as low as 500 feet by all helicopter traffic including Airlink. On one occasion I was invited by Heathrow Airport Ltd to attend a meeting of residents who lived along and nearbythis street. Expecting a certain level of hostility, I was surprised to learn that those present believed they were attending a meeting to protest about aeroplane noise at Heathrow. They seem little concerned about the helicopter. At one point one gentleman queried the safety of helicopters on the premise that (he claimed) the Technical Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) had said that helicopters were unsafe. I refuted his argument assuring those present that they were safe and as a family man I would not spend hundreds of hours each year as a pilot if I had any doubts. He then asked whether I felt I was more of an expert on the subject that the BALPA official. I replied that I was confident that I was. Immediately, others in the audience shouted “of course he is!” One can find friends in strange places.
Incidentally, whilst on the subject of noise, I have always found it strange that in my early days training to be a pilot in the RAF, it was a golden rule never to fly near hospitals. Yet anyone who has had the misfortune to stay in a hospital knows full well that the environment on the ward is often extremely noisy, even at night, due to the apparent unawareness of the staff of the noise they are creating, including loud chatter!
The Airlink did pass over some influential and vocal people on its route to Heathrow