A helicopter tour from Surrey to London – countryside to city in minutes
PUBLISHED: 10:30 27 September 2013 | UPDATED: 11:36 29 May 2014
SUR SEP HELICOPTER
It may be the transport mode of choice for high-flying businessmen and millionaire rock stars, but you don’t need to be oil rich to experience a flight in a helicopter. Matthew Williams hops aboard The London Helicopter, which flies from Redhill Aerodrome, for a unique sightseeing tour in the skies over Surrey and the capital
Last time I was in a helicopter for Surrey Life magazine, I was being trussed up in a neck brace on a stretcher, all for the entertainment of a photographer and paramedics when we visited Surrey Air Ambulance at their Dunsfold Park base.
So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to our latest expedition. “It’s simply a sightseeing tour, we promise,” I was told.
Nervously entering the gates of Redhill Aerodrome, hidden in the countryside somewhere between Earlswood and Outwood, I suddenly remember that Surrey Air Ambulance have recently relocated to this side of the county – necessitated by their expansion into night flying.
Was I going to be involved in some Holby City-esque escapades again?
Thankfully, the atmosphere seems relaxed though, with plane spotters reclining on picnic benches by the nearby café, watching light aircraft land, taxi and take off at a surprising rate. Indeed, the flying school seems to be flourishing under the spectacular summer skies we’ve been blessed with this year.
Meanwhile, an elderly couple make their way slowly across the car park, presumably local helicopter commuters into the city rather than taking advantage of the stunt flying lessons on offer.
Following our own set of instructions, we soon find ourselves at the desk of The London Helicopter. Relief all round that it isn’t the Air Ambulance (me, with some trepidation: “but you do have stunt choppers; right?”). We are a little early and so find ourselves with a bit of time to explore the aerodrome before heading to the briefing room.
Redhill Aerodrome started life primarily for private flying in 1933. To bring us up-to-date, it’s gone through various guises as the home of Spitfires during World War Two, a maintenance base for British Air Transport who chartered flights out of Croydon and Kenley and as a store of “materials that may be necessary in cases of national emergency” by the Home Office.
Today, it’s largely a home for air taxis, ferrying millionaire business people and the rich and famous to and from their chosen destinations, as well as private flyers and aspiring aviators in the process of learning.
Anyway, back to the briefing room where we are promptly handed instruction sheets on how to cope “should the worst happen”. Nervous again then, seeing as we are first time helicopter fliers but quickly put at ease by our hosts.
Over the last 12 years, The London Helicopter has flown approximately 500 flights per year with around 30,000 passengers warming the seats. Now the number of flights per year is significantly increasing, with the aim to be at 2,000 flights per annum by 2014.
I’m told that the pilots are also qualified instructors and can provide flight training to passengers who enjoy it so much that they wish to learn how to fly themselves.
But back to the matter in hand and out the doors of the reception and across the tarmac we walk to our waiting flying machine.
Apparently these things can hit 120kts (or 140mph for the more grounded like me), fly between 750 feet and 2,000 feet altitude over London, use 190 litres of Jet A1 (similar to car diesel) an hour and are completely rebuilt every 12 years.
Ours certainly looks in good nick and once our group of six are all strapped in with headsets on there is just one thing left to do… wait for the pilot to finish his lunch. Emerging from the hangar slightly sheepish but smiling – and in fact on the dot for our departure time (we must have been keen...) – settles into the hotseat and begins to run the various flight checks.
There are buzzes and whizzes and much flicking of switches and the rotors begin to turn overhead, distorting the sky where they pass. Sitting at the front, my wife grabs my hand in expectation.
More used to aeroplanes than whirlybirds, it comes as a bit of a surprise when we take off sideways like some theme park attraction – in fact, I’m amazed how realistic those things turn out to be. It’s an incredible sensation and seemingly so effortless – none of the groaning and straining of a jumbo at take-off.
And there we are, in the air. Only metres above the grass waiting for the all-clear from the control tower. Seemingly balanced on some invisible helipad.
The instructions come through on our headsets and we’re off, straight up in the skies over Surrey. Farmland and woods stretch as far as the eye can see; lakes appear as lagoons as we rise clear of the usual trappings of everyday life and gravity.
The M25’s scar cuts through the landscape, and slowly green turns to grey as we settle over suburbia; across Croydon and onto Selhurst Stadium and the Crystal Palace transmitting station. The O2 arena looms like the white elephant it once threatened to be, slowly taking up a little more of the windscreen as the London approach is made. You can see why those who have the means choose the air over the roads; within minutes, the capital has become a reality rather than a distant ever-encroaching mass.
Moments later, we’re alongside Canary Wharf, city types scuttling around like ants below. The Shard splits the heat-hazed sky ahead in the distance to one side. There’s the Olympic Stadium; now Tower Bridge; oh and St Paul’s; look it’s Parliament; and the London Eye.
Our own eyes flick between windows taking in scenes that, yes, we may have occasionally seen via post-holiday landings but, no, have never experienced from the tiny cabin of some mechanical insect.
Continuing along the Thames over Chelsea, Battersea, Wandsworth and Wimbledon, we soon spot Richmond Park and its deer below us… and then the grey swiftly turns to green again, stretching out to a hazy horizon.
Suddenly we’re touching down back at Redhill. Where did the half hour go? Jettisoning seatbelt and headphones, and leaving crouched below the rotors, we have a cheeky look inside the hangar where a selection of helicopters of all shapes and sizes rest in wait. One could certainly get used to this life. Can I have another go?
For more information about The London Helicopter, visit thelondonhelicopter.com.