The Gatwick - Heathrow Airlink
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Here we have Part 3 of an indepth history of the London Gatwick to Heathrow Airlink, with a list of staff provided by Captain Ashpole. Also, we have some photos to round off proceedings
The staff of Airlink
No article on Airlink would be complete without mention of all the staff who made it possible. This includes not only the pilots but, of equal importance, the engineers and cabin staff dedicated to the service and the baggage handlers drawn from the general pool at both ends of the route. In addition, the British Airways team at Heathrow, also dedicated to the operation under their manager, Geoff Fordham, were exemplary in their handling of passengers and delivery to and from the helicopter. By “dedicated” I mean not only were they assigned exclusively to Airlink but by their approach to the job and their actions on the job, they showed a complete dedication to giving of their best in the interests of the service. Although employed by four different companies, they worked as if one - the Gatwick/Heathrow Helicopter Airlink. I look back with many fond and appreciative memories of them all.
In fact there was another company which became involved in Airlink - British Caledonian Helicopters. After several years of operation with the pilots and engineers of BAH, new senior management in BAH decided to raise the contract price for their services. A double hike took place whereupon BCal felt it necessary to look elsewhere. There was now a choice alternative in the form of the BCal Group’s recently acquired helicopter subsidiary - BCal Helicopters. Bob Macleod, Managing Director of BCalH was hungry for the business and so the staff of BAH were replaced by those of BCalH. The service continued with the same dedication as before. I had taken severance from BAH in May 2002 and joined BCal some time prior to this change of staff. I continued to manage Airlink as well as other operations within BCal. BAH appointed John Lutkin to take my place as Chief Pilot. He was replaced by Ken Brett. When BCalH took over the operation, Graeme Thomson became Chief Pilot. Another important change to the management of Airlink was the retirement of Mick Sidebotham. I now reported to the new BCal Operations Director, John Prothero-Thomas as well as frequent contacts with Bob Macleod, based in Aberdeen.
The engineers performed magnificently in maintaining G-LINK. One must bear in mind that there was no back up aircraft. If G-LINK went unserviceable then it had to be fixed with the minimum of delay. The engineers were led by the Airlink Station Engineer, Harvey Pole for most of the life of the service (1978 to 1984) and Derek Hapgood during the latter days when BCal Helicopters took over from British Airways Helicopters (1984 to 1986). In fact G-LINK had the highest daily utilisation of any S61 of the many on the UK register.
The service began with two male staff and eight female Airlink Agents. This was initially organised by Bob Manning but later placed under the supervision of Sally Caine, then Suzanne Taylor and finally Frances Thompson. The staff were given the title of “Airlink Agents” as they performed duties as flight attendants and check-in staff at Gatwick. The female cabin staff dressed in the famous and very attractive BCal uniform. The kilted skirts, with the Cameron tartan in respect of Jock Cameron, were weighed down at the hem for reason of modesty. Normally the weights would be adequate in the downdraft from the main rotor at minimum pitch during rotors running turnarounds. However, I have heard tell of incidents when some cheeky pilot has been known to raise the collective lever….!
Last but not least was Betty Wells, my secretary, who took over from Frances Grant. Betty was, and remains still, a central figure in maintaining contact with many of the former staff. She organised a number of Airlink get-togethers. The role of Betty and her predecessor and successor, Sandra Groves, included keeping Airlink statistics and many other vital clerical functions to enable the service to work effectively.
Here is a list of team members who worked extensively on the service. It is not exhaustive and please drop Dave Thaxter a line with any additions / corrections.
BAH Pilots 1978/84
BAH Engineers 1978/84
Harvey Pole - Stn Engr
Graham Short- Stn Engr
BCal Airlink Agents
Sally Caine - Supervisor
Suzanne Taylor - Supervisor
Stephanie O'Connor - Supervisor
Frances Thompson -Supervisor
BCalH Engineers 1984/86
Derek Hapgood* (StnEngineer)
BA Handling Heathrow
Geoff Fordham (Supervisor)
BCalH Pilots 1984/86
Graeme Thomson (Chief Pilot)
Other members of staff who worked for short periods on Airlink but nevertheless made their contribution to its success.
Ian Morrison, Pete Bramley, Tom Porteous, Digby Mackworth, John Keepe, Steve Stubbs, Mike Evans, Dave Ritchie, Dave Turner, Dave Gilbert, Simon Sullivan, ? Bailey, ? Hall, ? Blanch, ? Gibb, ? Charleton, ? Booth, ? Buckley, ? Moxham, ? Turner, ? Dupon
Including Rotation Staff BCAL
Jane Austin, Sue Melbourne, Liz Blake, Melanie White, Sarah Grove, Marion Hewitt, Angela Russell-Croucher, Shirley Rose, Audrey de Sa, Gill Murphy, Debbie Green, Liz Leaver, Katy Kirkham, Pauline Hobbs, Sally Huggett, Maggie Carswell, Chris Warrington, Debbie Young, Tina Davies (or Davis), Lorraine Ferguson, Sharon Morley, Madeline Robinson, Jan or Jeanette ??, Sharon Thomson, Jan Hammond, Jackie ? and Vicky Webster
And we have the following commentary
The Birth and Death of Airlink by Alastair Pugh
The birth and death of Airlink was on my watch and I thought that I should write something about it. Not everyone knows the circumstances under which the service had to terminate, but I think it can now be told
The advantages of a helicopter link between Gatwick and Heathrow were appreciated not only by British Caledonian but equally by British Airways. In the formulative stages a number of discussions were held with Jock Cameron, the arch helicopter enthusiast who ran British Airways Helicopters. Not much came of this potential collaboration except that Bill Ashpole transferred across from BA to run the Airlink. For BCAL this was an excellent move.
Once a CAA licence had been granted and the service was up and running the helicopter ride was very popular with those who used it. A somewhat vibrationary journey took only about 15 minutes and had a significant novelty value. The frequent low-level scheduled journeys between the two airports were however not at all popular with some of Gatwick’s neighbours - I have a recollection of being invited to a number of cocktail parties the main purpose of which was, it seemed, to vent displeasure at the Airlink and to demand that something was done about it!
Actually, not all the disturbance was down to Airlink. I was telephoned at home early one morning by the senior civil servant with responsibility for aviation demanding explanations as to why our helicopter was flying off course and too low. He wasn’t very polite about it either. I said I would check and shortly I was able to call him back to say that our S-61 was on maintenance and had at that time on that day operated no services at all. The culprit was the RAF!
When the time came to renew the operating licence there were no less than 100 objectors, far exceeding the opposition experienced by any other licence application. As many of those who objected lived near Gatwick I used to joke that I knew half the objectors by their first names! In making our case for continuation of this very successful service David Beety, our advocate, used the example of the exchange that had taken place with the civil servant to argue that Airlink was to some extent being unfairly blamed for noise disturbance (not only noise either, some of the complaints were about residents’ swimming pools being overlooked from the air!). The civil servant, who was present at the hearing, was almost incandescent with rage at his misidentification being quoted.
Predictably, we lost the case, but in those days airlines could appeal the decision to the Minister for Aviation, and of course that was done. The Minister at the time was Nicholas Ridley who was advised by none other than the civil servant whom we had so upset! Not only that, but the day following the determination of the Appeal Nicholas Ridley was moving on. His new post was - Minister for the Environment! And that is the story of how the excellent Airlink service had to come to an end.
And of G-LINK…..The Sikorsky S-61N helicopter G-LINK built for the service and registered on 9 March 1978 had its registration cancelled from 10 June 1987. She was sold to Nash Helicopters and was exported to Brazil in 1993, re-registered PT-HTT and reportedly used in logging operations.
By 2006 she was parted out and left as just an airframe in Jacarepagua, an area of Rio de Janeiro; Brazil. The last report was in Oct 2012 and she was still there, though in the same condition. I cannot see here at the local airport, but the Jacarepagua area is huge.
Some Airlink pocket timetables and service leaflets
The Demise of Airlink
The demise of this tremendously successful service was totally political. Realising that the environmental lobby had many friends in government circles, the operators commenced lobbying members of Parliament. Some 70 members offered their support. Captain Peter Hounsome, one of the Airlink pilots organised a petition to gain support for the service. His efforts were rewarded with over 7,000 signatures, far more than the total lobby of the opposition. He and another pilot visited Nicholas Soames, MP for Crawley. He said he had been under the impression that no-one was pro the helicopter service. To his credit he then raised the issue in the House of Commons as can be seen in over two pages of Hansard (the official minutes of proceedings). However, all of these efforts came to nothing. Two days before the local government elections, Mr Nicholas Ridley the then Secretary of State, announced that Airlink would terminate 4 months following the completion of the M25 motorway.
Competition for the Airlink helicopter was confined to surface traffic on the M25 motorway. Soon after Airlink began, Green Line Coaches commenced a new service called Speedlink connecting Gatwick and Heathrow. This high frequency coach service had to contend with the severe congestion on the M23 and M25 motorways. Studies showed that the M25 traffic flow far exceeded the planned design criteria. Frustrated from the beginning by the environmental lobby, its three lanes were hopelessly inadequate. Late in the day the government ordered an extra lane to be built. These road works, lasting over many years, caused even worse congestion and millions of tons of polluted air from lorries and cars at a standstill to drift in the prevailing south-westerly wind over London. For many years after the cessation of Airlink, transfer between the two airports by road could not be guaranteed to any timetable and even today, one accident can block the motorway for hours.
During its eight years of operation, the Gatwick/Heathrow Airlink carried 600,000 passengers conveniently and speedily between the two airports. It became established as the crucial link in the London airports interlining strategy. It was both popular and efficient. Interlining benefit to British Caledonian Airways and British Airways ran into tens of millions of pounds; the interline revenue for the London airports amounted to £100million. It truly fulfilled its function. Like many other brave British aviation ventures it failed because of political interference based on misinformation or worse.
But, as always, we will not end on that image.........but one that is more fitting to end this feature