A growing number of senior politicians in London, including Mayor Boris Johnson, are calling for reviews into helicopter operations over the capital following the fatal crash of an Agusta A109 helicopter on Jan. 16.
Two people, including the pilot, were killed and several more on the ground were injured when the helicopter – operated by executive charter company Rotormotion Ltd. – struck a tower crane in poor visibility as it was diverting into the London Heliport in Battersea. Video footage and images on social media websites showed chaotic scenes of burning wreckage and vehicles charred by flames.
In the hours following the accident, politicians were questioning the safety of flying regulations over London and in particular about the risks of helicopters flying in areas where the height of London’s skyline is rising. But while they recognize they cannot pre-empt the investigation now being undertaken by the U.K. Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB), politicians were quick to highlight the safety issues of helicopter operations around the city, looking at tall buildings, lighting, poor weather and use of the heliport.
Kate Hoey, M.P. for the constituency of Vauxhall – where the helicopter crashed – urged that the forthcoming investigation “must consider the increasing numbers of very tall buildings in central London, and review the regulation of helicopter flight.”
The crash, the first such fatal helicopter accident in London, has heightened concerns of anti-helicopter noise groups and local residents.
“Any review raised over helicopter operations in London is a knee-jerk reaction,” says Michael Hampton, managing director of helicopter operator Capital Air Services. “London’s airspace is extremely well controlled and tightly regulated and the helicopter routes are very well-defined.
“Any changes or reductions from a review would be very damaging to the helicopter charter industry, which depends on flying customers into London. We are only just getting over the impact of the economic downturn of 2008, and more recently the Olympics, which forced a reduction in helicopter operations into London. It would also send a very sad message to the business community and rest of the world,” adds Hampton.
Helicopter operations over the city are tightly controlled. Because of the busy airspace, helicopters are advised to use the heli-lanes which follow the River Thames. While single-engine types face restrictions and can operate only a short distance away from the river as a precaution against engine failure, twin-engine types have a greater freedom of operation, and as a result are used by the Metropolitan Police and London Air Ambulances. But even these vital services are criticized for their noise levels. The Metropolitan Police Air Support Unit even has a Twitter account to justify the noise it makes to upset Londoners.
Politicians in the past have tried to police the use of helicopters over the city. In 1991, Hoey argued for greater planning controls on heliports, restricting noise levels and controlling the use of helicopters. Back then the concern was the increase in ad-hoc landing sites appearing across the city, while planning committees were investigating the potential for more heliport locations, such was the demand for helicopters in the city.
The bill was unsuccessful, but so too was the plan to build more heliports, leaving Battersea Heliport, now known as the London Heliport, to deal with inbound helicopter traffic alone. But according to Civil Aviation Authority statistics, helicopter traffic across London has dropped compared to 2007 and 2008. In July 2008, the number of helicopter movements traveling through or using London Control was more than 4,300, while the number recorded in 2012 was less than half that figure, with just more than 2,000 movements. But this is unlikely to calm the critics, as operators wait anxiously to hear the results of the AAIB’s investigation.