The Gatwick - Heathrow Airlink
Captain William "Bill" Ashpole
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Here we have Part 1 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.
Introduction and Background
British Caledonian (BCal) was formed in 1971 as a result of the recommendations of the Edwards Committee. A key recommendation was that it should be based at London Gatwick thereby imposing an immediate penalty - the one runway Gatwick having the potential of only half the slots available for network and frequency development compared with the two runway Heathrow. Also, at that time, almost 50% of the operations at Gatwick were charters, leaving limited room for growth in peak scheduled services.
The 1970s was also a very different regulatory environment to that which would evolve later, with all routes requiring Route Licences from the newly formed Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and overseas routes requiring Bilateral designation. The usual consequence of these requirements was that only one carrier per nation was allowed to fly a route. Thus route development and service opportunities available to BCal at Gatwick were limited and those that did arise were the subject of fierce Licence hearings despite active Government and CAA licensing policy which favoured route development at London’s “second” airport.
To fill the gap in Gatwick’s scheduled service network and provide vital connecting traffic opportunities to BCal, the “second force” airline needed to tap into the Heathrow network.
BCal had for years run cars for its high yield traffic between the airports making use of Tristar limousines but unlike the normal IATA Interline agreement, where the “delivering carrier pays”, BCal had borne the total cost of car transfers.
Against this background of gaps in the BCal and Gatwick network and frequencies and, as a result of the US/UK Bermuda 2 agreement, with the prospect of new routes to the Southern USA opening in 1977 to Dallas, Houston and Atlanta, BCal looked to see how it could tap into the Heathrow network more effectively.
The BCal Planning Department, led by Alistair Pugh and John Prothero Thomas, was put on the case. They asked Laurie Price, then Manager Economic Strategy, to look at the options and liaise with BAA who were keen to promote their “Twin airport” system.
There followed months of research, analysis and meetings. All options were considered. The then new DHC Dash 7 STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft was demonstrated.
The cover of an Airlink pamphlet with Dawn Shuter, one of our Airlink agents, with G-LINK (from Bill Ashpole)
Continuation of surface transport was not ruled out but it was finally concluded that a helicopter operation was most likely to succeed with least adverse impact on slot availability (even then) at Heathrow and Gatwick. A trip to New York followed to see the New York Airways inter airport helicopter operation. Many meetings were held with NATS* (National Air Traffic Services) and a lot of work ensued with potential new partners - BAA, British Airways Helicopters (BAH) and British Airways Executive Handling at Heathrow. (*Largely to explain the versatility of helicopter operational capability as an alternative to the lengthy aeroplane arrival procedure to Heathrow.)
Fundamental to the service was a requirement to gain a route licence from the CAA. BCal’s adroit Licence Application and Hearing team led by a formidable advocate, David Beety QC, BCal’s one time Secretary and Solicitor, was put on the case. David was assisted by Hugh O’Donovan who, like David, went on to assist in many BCal licence hearings at the CAA. It resulted in the first of five Airlink hearings and some of the most unusual to be faced by a CAA Panel. It was the first Air Service Licence Hearing where environmental issues were raised significantly and householders and local authorities were allowed to make representations; even the opportunistic local bus company objected! There was even an approach from a travel company in London - Air Link Travel - accusing us of stealing their trade mark; so the operation became the Gatwick/Heathrow Airlink - although in reality it was always referred to as Airlink.
The result of that hearing was the granting of a one year licence. Four further licence hearings were held and all were successful with the eventual grant of a licence that would run until the M23 / M25 link was open when the situation would be reviewed.
Rationale and Implementation
The Airlink scheduled helicopter service commenced operation in June, 1978, as a fully commercial operation by British Caledonian Airways supported by the British Airports Authority. Both of these organisations had a vested interest in introducing a high speed connection between Gatwick and Heathrow airports (as explained above). Since neither had helicopter expertise, they turned to another company resident at Gatwick, British Airways Helicopters (BAH), who could provide the expert staff and equipment necessary for the CAA to issue an Air Operators Certificate (AOC) for the service. The original BAH Project Manager was Captain Don Huggett who was running the BAH Beccles operation at the time. Captain Stuart Birt, BAH Chief Pilot, also had a significant hand in preparing vital operational paperwork. With respect to persons involved it must be mentioned that Captain John (Jock) Cameron, Managing Director of BAH was as enthusiastic as any for the implementation and success of this service. He, alongside his contemporary, Alan Bristow, MD of Bristow Helicopters, were the two undisputed visionary grandfathers of British commercial helicopter operations.
So, the British Airports Authority was seeking to promote its second major airport, Gatwick, as a leading interline hub convenient to London and joined by an umbilical cord to Heathrow, the World’s premiere hub for interlining international passengers. British Caledonian Airways, the nation's second largest major airline after British Airways, was keen to compete more effectively with airlines operating from a very highly dominant Heathrow hub and its rival BA. As mentioned earlier, in order to connect Gatwick with Heathrow, British Caledonian were hiring an ever increasing number of limousines to ferry passengers between the two airports. Surprisingly, for every passenger sent from Gatwick to Heathrow, only one returned. This indicated the high level of poaching being practised at Heathrow, a factor proving very costly to BCal as the second force airline.
Following the decision that the helicopter provided the best solution, the British Airports Authority were persuaded to purchase one Sikorsky S61N helicopter, with appropriate UK registration G-LINK (proposed by BCAL), at a cost in 1978 of £2million. British Airways Helicopters provided pilots and engineers; British Caledonian Airways (BCal) provided the overall commercial management, took the financial risk and provided personnel to act both as cabin attendants and check-in staff, together with baggage handling staff at Gatwick. British Airways contracted to provide staff at Heathrow for passenger check-in and baggage handling. Operational management as Chief Pilot of the service was given to me as a senior captain in British Airways Helicopters with three years’ experience as the Manager of the BAH base in the Shetland Isles and three years on the Penzance/Isles of Scilly scheduled service - probably the longest running scheduled helicopter service in the World (1964-2012). Just before the commencement of the service, J.R.S. (Mick) Sidebotham, Operations Director of BCal, honoured me to be BCal’s Manager of this quadruple company enterprise.
Most of the international airlines operating through Gatwick and Heathrow became signatories to the special interline agreement with British Caledonian Airways, ironically these airlines now having to help pay for inter airport transfers which hitherto they had avoided. Under the terms of this agreement the airline which benefited from the long haul sector of a two or three leg itinerary would pay for the Airlink sector. If two airlines were involved in long haul sectors for a particular journey, with the Airlink sector as the middle leg, then each of the two airlines would share half the cost of the Airlink fare. Laurie Price, who was BCal’s Airlink Project Manager, having been involved in the conception of the Airlink service from the start, was responsible for negotiating interline agreements.
Airlink commences operation
Prior to the inaugural flight five days were spent on proving flights during which hundreds of airline and airport staff were flown between the two airports whilst we practiced passenger check-in, baggage handling, engineering considerations, rotors running refuelling and flight operations. All went smoothly.
On 9th June, 1978. H R H Charles, Prince of Wales, travelled from Victoria to Gatwick on the inaugural Gatwick Express rail service. He then opened the new North Terminal at Gatwick. His third ceremony of the day was to fly on the Gatwick/Heathrow Airlink inaugural.
He arrived at the side of the helicopter where a guard of honour of pilots, cabin staff and engineers were assembled. He then boarded the helicopter followed by several VIPs. In view of his special interest in aviation matters and the fact that he was a qualified helicopter pilot, he travelled on the supernumerary crew seat in the cockpit between myself and Captain Don Huggett. The conversation included mention of the environmental issues and Prince Charles commented that he knew of such matters, Windsor Castle being in line with both runways at Heathrow!
It is usual, of course, for one to stand and bow when meeting royalty. However, in this occasion, in order to minimize delay, Don and I were strapped in and had completed the checklist ready to start no.1 engine. Prince Charles arrived at the small entrance to the cockpit and, whilst still standing, had to bow in order that we might shake hands and introduce ourselves!
Sikorsky S-61 G-LINK at London Gatwick
From the British Caledonian - A Tribute Collection we have the two commemorative first scheduled flight covers. The one on the left shows HRH Prince of Wales as a passenger on BR081, with Captain's Ashpole and Huggett flying both inaugural services.
In the early days of the operation air traffic control procedures were laborious (as had been anticipated during the initial protracted negotiations with NATS) the average sector time from stand to stand being in the region of 25 minutes. Almost 10 minutes of this was ground taxing and other ground delays. G-LINK started to go through brakes and tyres at an alarming rate, almost unprecedented in helicopter operations! During the inaugural flight, as we taxied for five minutes to the then take-off position, one of the VIPs on board, Freddie Laker, quipped “Oh we are going by road!”
The practice of inviting air traffic controllers to fly on the supernumerary crew seat in the cockpit was encouraged. This quickly produced a dramatic reduction in sector times. These highly professional men soon learnt how versatile the machine was and realised that the helicopter was being held unnecessarily. With only 10 pilots dedicated to the Airlink operation, the controllers appreciated that they could completely rely upon their instructions being obeyed immediately and precisely. This fact, together with operational adjustments negotiated with the management of National Air Traffic Services, soon produced consistent sector times of just over 18 minutes block to block with an airborne time of just over 15 minutes i.e. all air traffic control holding on the ground together with all ground taxing amounted to an average of just three minutes in total per sector - a remarkable achievement by all concerned.
One cannot speak too highly of both the ATC controllers and their managers. Their understanding of our needs and their willingness to give us certain freedoms made many things possible. A particular example was the freedom we exercised in respect to vortex wake and jet blast. Generally speaking, the larger the aeroplane the greater the vortices emanating from each wing tip, vortices which can be highly disruptive to smaller aircraft which stray into them, even some miles or minutes later. Similarly, the larger the aircraft the greater the “blast” emanating from each engine at the commencement of the take-off roll. A landing “Heavy” aircraft, with flaps fully extended, creates considerable vortices. Although the air traffic operational instructions issued by NATS had taken vortices and jet blast into account, it was essential to the efficient operation of the helicopter that we could use our judgement in choosing a safe flight path during take-off and landing. Suffice it to say that the Airlink pilots became very skilful in ensuring a safe operation when operating close to the ground. Making the mistake of flying through the downward side of a vortex could be rather eye watering!
Crucial to the success of the Airlink operation was the ability to operate with no impact on fixed wing operations. Each runway slot was precious and were the helicopter to significantly affect the capacity of either airport, Airlink would have ceased to be acceptable. Whilst it would have been relatively simple to operate as a VFR helicopter operation, the resulting regularity of service would have been inadequate for what was essentially a feeder service. An IFR capability was essential. (VFR - Visual Flight Rules - the pilot flies the aircraft using outside visual reference for control and navigation; IFR - Instrument Flight Rules - the pilot has the capability of flying the aircraft using cockpit instrumentation providing the pilot with spacial orientation and navigational information). The fact that British Airways Helicopters had pioneered the introduction of the commercial Instrument Rating for helicopters a few years earlier - the first of its kind in the World outside of the USSR - made this possible. In fact the author was awarded the third to be issued “certificate of competence to fly helicopters in IFR conditions” (the forerunner to the helicopter instrument rating). The holders of the first two were Captain Dave Eastwood, who had driven the programme with the CAA, and Captain Mike Perkis, former Manager of the BAH Penzance-Isles of Scilly helicopter scheduled service.
State of the art navigation available to helicopters in 1978 was the Decca Navigator - a far cry from the versatile and extremely precise navigational equipment which would become available some years after the demise of Airlink with the advent of GPS. Decca provided the Airlink pilots with a moving map display in the cockpit giving approximately one inch to the mile representation of the route between the two airports. A very precise height and track profile was followed on every flight using this system. Essentially, whether flying visually or on instruments, the pilots would adjust heading to keep a pen, representing the aircraft's position over the ground, on the line representing the official track. Thus the Airlink helicopter was able to fly through cloud and descend at the destination airport using a cloud break procedure. The final approach path of the helicopter was at 90 degrees to the orientation of the runways at runways at Gatwick and Heathrow. Once visual with the ground, the helicopter would be given a landing clearance by air traffic control at a time and location which would not cause interference with aeroplane operations. Initially at Heathrow a grass helicopter landing strip was laid out delineated with lighting. As the operation became more efficient from an ATC point of view, and we were cleared to land and depart from the southern end of the “V” formed by the two disused runways, the strip was abandoned. Eventually HAL asked if they could remove it.
The minimum descent altitude and minimum in flight visibility permitted using this cloud break procedure were 550 feet QFE* at Gatwick and 500 feet QFE* at Heathrow and one kilometre respectively. In the event that visual contact with the ground was not achieved on the descent then the helicopter would perform a 180 degree turn and commence a climb. In the case of Gatwick the helicopter would then request radar vectoring for an ILS (Instrument Landing System - the standard ICAO precision landing approach system installed at most airports around the World). On these few occasions when an ILS became necessary, the Airlink helicopter could have a small adverse impact on fixed wing operations. However this impact was minimised by the pilots maintaining as high a speed as possible on the approach and clearing the runway centre line whilst still airborne when over the runway threshold.
*QFE - above airfield level
After a few months of operation, I began a project to achieve lower operating minima at Heathrow. As we were denied use of the ILS, I investigated a military instrument landing system manufactured by a firm in Crawley, next to Gatwick. The system called MADGE was a compact item which could be carried by two soldiers and “pegged” into a field. It was, in fact, a mobile microwave ILS system. I proposed that the MADGE equipment could be set up in proximity to the helicopter landing strip on the south side of Heathrow to give us minima similar to ILS. The senior manager of National Air Traffic Services with responsibility for Airlink matters was Ron Toseland, then head of ATC Heathrow but later to become Director General of NATS. Following my request, he organised a meeting of all departments in regulatory circles who would be concerned with the MADGE proposal. A meeting of over 20 individuals resulted! There was a lot of head scratching and shortly after Ron phoned me to propose an abandonment of the MADGE project in return for use of the regular ILS facility at Heathrow! An unusual feature at Heathrow, was that the Airlink helicopter was permitted to carry out an ILS approach to one of the parallel runways whilst aeroplanes were landing simultaneously using the ILS on the other runway - a precursor of developments which would be needed later to cope with growth in aeroplane traffic at Heathrow.
Using a combination of visual, Decca cloud break procedure and ILS, throughout the period of the Airlink operation from 1978 to 1986, loss of regularity due to weather factors was adequate for a feeder service, i.e. with few exceptions, aeroplanes (except those with BA’s Autoland) did not then have the capability of landing in lower weather minima than those of the helicopter, viz. 200 feet cloud ceiling and 300 metres. In fact, I recall one morning when flying into Heathrow with Captain Gerry Howie as co-pilot, we requested an ILS approach. We were given it with the comment that “no one else was trying!” We successfully landed on 10 Left with the weather almost exactly on our limits. If we thought that this was an experience, finding our way to the stand in the fog was something else!
Six return flights of the total 10 daily return operations were scheduled almost consecutively commencing at 7:15 a.m. (The initial timetable commenced 30 minutes earlier but was revised in the light of experience). Such was the efficiency of the service that by keeping the rotors turning whilst passengers and baggage were loaded and off loaded and pressure refuelling following each arrival at Gatwick*, the single helicopter could be scheduled to leave Gatwick every 50 minutes. The remaining four return flights permitted by the CAA route licence were scheduled throughout the afternoon and evening with the last landing at Gatwick at 8:00 p.m. (*Refuelling each time permitted the maximum payload of passengers and baggage.)
An Airlink flight schedule for the summer of 1979
An additional facility would have been introduced if it had not been for the untimely termination of the Airlink. Negotiations had been successfully concluded with HM Customs & Immigration, GAL (Gatwick Airport Ltd.) and HAL (Heathrow Airport Ltd.) for an “airside” operation, i.e. passengers would be treated as international throughout their Airlink transit and thus, if they were arriving from and departing to a foreign country, they would avoid the inconvenience of passing through customs and immigration controls at either airport. Permission was also included for passengers arriving from or departing to domestic flights to be carried on the helicopter.
The number of passengers travelling on the Airlink service rapidly increased. The morning flights experienced average load factors of over 80 per cent which, for a service without reservations, was extremely high and meant that many flights were full. The Gatwick/Heathrow Airlink became well known to the travel industry. The concept envisaged by the planners became reality in that these two major airports were now perceived by the travelling public as a mere 15 minutes apart - a very important marketing concept for British airlines and the BAA when promoting the multi-airport multi-terminal London airport system against competition such as the single airport single terminal Amsterdam Schiphol. Passengers found it extremely convenient and the popularity of Gatwick and Heathrow as interlining hubs was enhanced. The dominance that these two airports had achieved over the years in the World league of international passenger throughput was further strengthened against competitors such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. It was calculated that this one helicopter was responsible for an additional interlining revenue benefit to British Caledonian Airways of some £6 million per annum and to British Airways £9million.
Passenger numbers on Airlink continued to increase to the point that the need for extra capacity became a concern. Dialogue commenced with Westland Helicopters, the British manufacturer of helicopters based at Yeovil in Somerset. They were offering the WG30 in a 14 seat configuration and were very keen that we should be a lead customer. The very rectangular box of a cabin gave good headroom but baggage capacity would have been a challenge. The economic case for operating such a machine was also proving elusive although we did hold hopes of a “deal”. Unfortunately, this project had to be abandoned with the arrival of the recession of the early 1980’s. The growth in airline passenger numbers declined and we continued with G-LINK alone. Westland did go on to manufacture and sell a number of WG30 aircraft and one was used on the Penzance/Isles of Scilly operation, Captain Terry Nelson being the manager, to supplement the S61NM.
Airlink was always a NON SMOKING service. There was insufficient time during the very short turnarounds for cleaners to come aboard the helicopter and smokers do tend to leave a mess of ash and cigarette packets. Following the demise of Airlink I was appointed Manager Domestic Operations for BCal and responsible for groundhandling at the five airports, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Prestwick and Jersey, served by BCal’s BAC-111 services. Using Airlink as an example, I suggested that these services should be made NON SMOKING. Apart from improving the environment for the non-smokers, the majority of our passengers, this innovation would also, I understand, have largely solved the problem that the engineers were having with the pressurised cabin vent valves (not the technical name). These had to be cleaned regularly to remove the gunge resulting from tobacco. Richard Havers, General Manager, and Arthur Jamieson, Marketing Manager, sucked their teeth but concluded that this was too revolutionary a step for that time. However, in view of the worldwide NO SMOKING policy now standard on all airlines, it goes to show that Airlink was a leading edge operation!