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The Flying Theatremonkey

June 5, 2019

No, nothing to do with “Wicked” (though it keeps Uncle Wilberforce – RAF, retired – in work), we are talking “bucket list” here. To explain:

I’m not much of a flyer. Partly, as Noel Coward said, “the noise, the people.” Mostly, with a background in charter flight operation, I know too much about what goes on – and the list of commercial airlines I trust is shorter than a “42nd Street” showgirl’s costume.

Still, for many years I’ve hankered to find out what it feels like to ride in a helicopter. With a milestone in view, I finally got around to researching the perfect flight over my beloved home city, London, and the West End Theatre district I adore.

It became apparent quickly that the choice is both broad… and limited. Broad in as much as there are quite a few companies offering the experience. Limited in that many don’t exactly provide much “bang for your buck,” and a few websites show photographs of aircraft that would have made Buddy Holly re-consider his travel options.

The choice seemed to be £300 for 15 minutes leaving from an undisclosed location near London, with about 5 minutes over the city, or trailing out to Biggin Hill and coming back in for less cash but even fewer minutes of air-time.

Eventually, though, I got lucky when an expired online offer site provided the name of a company quite local to me, vvb-aviation.com. An excited phone-call later, and a £149 ticket for a 30 minute experience was mine.

PRE-FLIGHT:

On the day, a lift to Elstree Aerodrome (only drawback – that isn’t on a bus route and they won’t swoop down to pick you up from your back garden, so don’t bother asking) and a smart reception hall with grinning staff awaited.

Quick fill in of the “disclaimer form” – basically “I promise not to be an idiot and won’t blame the company if I ignore their advice and act like one” stuff, and a short wait with 4 others before being shown through a door into a small aircraft hanger, and along the wall to another door and “pre-flight briefing.”

Unlike those shown on a plane, this 5 minute video covers even how to approach the helicopter. Forget the “Miss Saigon” bending double while charging towards the side of the craft (not through fear of the Viet-Cong, more knowing that Kim will sing again shortly after). That’s all “Hollywood.” Reality is that you don’t need to bend – the rotor is way above you – just don’t put your arms in the air if you still require them after the flight. Likewise, in order to (literally) keep your head, stay away from the helicopter’s tail rotor. Don’t worry, they won’t let you near it anyway.

Golden rule: approach from the front of the helicopter at all times, so that the pilot knows where you are. Obviously, if he sees you below him during the journey that’s your fault for not paying attention to how the door closes and locks.

Oh, and step on using the step indicated. Don’t step on the floats on the ground runners (the grey squishy things attached to the rails the helicopter lands on). If you do, that’s several hundred quid up someone’s jumper – yours.

The good news is that you can take both photos and video. It’s in the comprehensive PDF they send you beforehand, but I did check again that my elderly video camcorder was acceptable. Call me cautious if you like, but I wanted the film premiere to be on YouTube, not Coroner’s Court TV.

Sensibly, you can’t take pictures as you are lead out onto the actual airfield apron itself (friends and relatives can film you from the café overlooking the field, though). That ensures you are concentrating in a dangerous environment… and the sooner it applies to all public streets and the London Underground, the better. Again, the ground team guide you in a tight pack so nobody is at risk as you wend your way past light aircraft and onto a short narrow path to the actual helipad.

A tiny dot between the trees became a “turbine engine Bell 206 LongRanger” as VVB’s website has it. Not as noisy as you’d think, it landed smoothly and the delighted previous passengers disembarked. Our time had arrived.

As the team re-fuelled (helicopters run on “Jet 1” – a sort of kerosene mix, I wanted to check it wasn’t the bar’s keg beer going in accidentally), we were called forward according to group size for a solo or double photo in front of the helicopter. Ready framed and available to buy for just £10 on landing, great souvenir.

Back to the path, and finally the big moment. Called forward again – first, the person who paid extra to sit in the front seat (fair enough, bit more space maybe, but you still get views everywhere), then a young German couple… then myself.

The interior is a bit like a luxury limo, with seats facing forward and back. The seats are really low, as in the old Leyland Mini, but leather and thick, very comfy. Belts are as on a plane, with the option of a shoulder belt too. Best of all, a headset each, with microphone so that you can hear your pilot, air-traffic control and other passengers.

The MAIN EVENT:

Cleared, and welcomed by Captain Steve, almost time for take-off.

These helicopters fly at around 120 knots (138mph, according to Google), at 1150ft, about a hundred feet higher than “The Shard” building. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like it. The video can’t show (in the same way photographs in a theatre can’t show) distances very well. What looks far away on camera is in fact close enough to make out car makes and models, even read some signs.

The day was slightly grey, the very best, according to the team, as you fly below the clouds. Rainy and windy, they can’t fly; too sunny, London haze gets in the way. Remembering that there’s no need to try and dodge side-to-side to see both views, as you get the other side on the way back, first see Elstree (see the famous film studios), my own suburb and those I grew up knowing.

Follow the M1 motorway and North Circular Road over Wembley (spot the Stadium arch) towards Wood Green and Alexandra Palace “Ally Pally,” then Hackney and the Olympic Park – West Ham Stadium – and looming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf.

This isn’t just a total “joy-ride.” Being up there, there’s a whole new perspective on both history and geography of London. You can see how individual packets of land were developed, the styles, layouts and density changing with each era. It’s also true just how green London is, and how varied the landscape in hills and valleys with many more lakes and rivers than I’d expected.

Pilot Steve alternately spoke with various control towers and pointed out the sights. There’s thankfully no professional commentary, just friendly comments when he can, and cheerful replies to questions he’s heard a million times before.

Only thing he forgot to mention was, well… helicopters stop. As in (actual thought process recorded here):
“Whee, we’re flying. It’s not too fast or too high, and really smooth, it’s brilliant.”
“We’ve stopped.”
“Hang on. WE’VE STOPPED. Flying. Flying means forward. WE HAVE STOPPED.”
“!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“Oh, hang on, this is a helicopter.”
“Helicopters can ‘hover.’”
“I think this must be that.”
“Oooh, we are just ‘hanging around’ (some kind of lonely cloud)”
“Oh. Now I get why helicopter pilots want to be helicopter pilots. Hanging around just staring about at 1150ft is breathtaking.”

As Steve explained, we pass through 3 Air Traffic Control (ATC) airspaces. Elstree, Heathrow (who know we are there, but we don’t bother them, so they don’t bother us as they are busy) and “London Controlled Airspace.” That’s the bit in charge of who and what can fly over the capital area itself.
We had stopped as there was a plane taking off from London City Airport, and two other helicopters in our immediate vicinity. Enough to constitute a sky-high traffic-jam. Typical Whitsun bank holiday Sunday – everybody hits the, er, sky.

Fortunately, some good luck. Apparently, ATC have two choices. They can either make you wait or – if they know and trust your particular operator – they will allow your pilot to make his own decisions. It was a very good time indeed to find out that ATC have utmost confidence in VVB. TG.

So, on to the “11 O’Clock number” of the trip. Helicopters must follow the Thames, and we did so, from the O2 Arena, over Tower Bridge and the rest, passing the Strand – Novello, Aldywch, Duchess, Drury Lane, Vaudeville and Adelphi (Mr Lloyd Webber, do fix the gutters) and to the edge of Green Park, looking to and indeed over Buckingham Palace itself. Wow.

Second new flight sensation, as the helicopter banked hard to Port (you feel it, a little like a fairground funhouse floor) and around for the return along the Thames.

This time, the Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Globe and Bridge Theatres in view. Down along the Thames back to the Isle of Dogs, and home over Hackney, this time buzzing the plutocrats of Totteridge Lane (the rising hill and trees may cause turbulence, I didn’t notice) and shufty at their swimming pools – no privacy for the wealthy with a helicopter around – and the beautiful (must be protected) green belt. Through the trees ourselves and a home landing, soft and gentle as a butterfly on a leaf.

Worth the money? Too right. Magical experience? I’d do it again in a heart-beat. One ticked off the bucket list… now… wonder if Madonna is ready for our duet at the Palladium next year?

P.S. Forgot to mention: we picked up a hitch-hiker who made its presence known about the time we stopped for traffic. Either we found the brightest bee on the planet – or the laziest. Can’t decide.

Tempted? Vvb-aviation.com or 0208 953 0584 (10am to 4pm Monday to Friday) is the place. It could be you…

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