Four Go Mad! at Silverstone Grand Prix 2013

As I positioned on final approach for the helistrip I counted four helicopters ahead of me, one by only a couple of hundred metres. We were all at 80kts so the spacing remained safe but it heightened the senses a little. My call of, “Black Black One Eight final…” was met with, “Black Black One Eight, pad three”. Clearly this was no ordinary day in the Redhill circuit, so let’s rewind a little…

Nick Cox had phoned me a few weeks before: “Hi Dave. How do you feel about flying into Silverstone for the Grand Prix?”. Well ok, as the new boy on the EBG commercial scene it was a bit of a daunting prospect for my first charter, having cut my teeth on the London sightseeing and local buzz trips, but was I really going to say no?

So on Monday 24th June Ken, Nick, David and I set off for Silverstone for the mandatory pilots’ briefing. Or we would have done, had the M23 not had other ideas. A serious accident just north of Gatwick had closed it so that both Ken and David got stuck in the horrendous knock-on M25 traffic. A quick phone call to Heliair at Silverstone resulted in a later private briefing for us, and a flame-grilled Whopper en route.

We came away with a rain-forest worth of briefing papers and a head full of information. During the Grand Prix weekend a Restricted Area (Temporary) or RA(T) is implemented around the Silverstone area. Strict slot times are allocated to arriving helicopters to the incredibly busy helistrip. There’s no parking at the pad so it’s a case of land, ditch the passengers, lift and go. Clearly the emphasis is on safety, but with the sheer volume of helicopters and passengers involved there is no time for dawdling.

It was clear that we needed to get our heads around the routes and procedures, especially given that out of the four of us only Ken had flown in before, so once back at base we started to get to grips with the entry and exit procedures to for the Silverstone helistrip, with David almost causing smoke to pour from the computer while he plotted the routes and holds on Google Earth. Over the next few days we read, re-read and attempted to digest the information contained within, mindful that non-compliance last year almost resulted in a collision between the same two helicopters twice.

After a busy Saturday’s flying we all landed to find that Linda had kindly cranked up the barbecue and so, with a bellyful of burgers, sausages and pork, we set about drawing lines on charts (yes – it should still be the basis of all your cross-country trips and the batteries never go flat on a paper chart…). We compared routes and drew the holds in place to give us an extra clue, noting tracks and planned times. Nick had given us a massive helping hand with a frequency list and crib notes – hugely useful to have to hand as getting into the helistrip involved no less than four frequency changes within just a mile or two. It was rather late when we left the airfield…

That night I sat up in bed with my new iPad Mini, drawing my route and the holds on the quarter mil chart on Memory Map, taking Ken’s advice to draw the holds in as a separate route for extra clarity. I wasn’t the only one who had a poor night’s sleep, dreaming of approaches and holds and a sky full of helicopters.

When I arrived at the airfield at just before 7am on Sunday morning I found a rather shell-shocked Linda asking why she’d been told to be there from 6am. I couldn’t answer as I thought she only needed to be there from 7, so I just smiled and made her a coffee – I thought it was safest. The weather was stunning at Redhill with bright blue skies and limitless visibility. Which is why it was particularly galling to hear that Silverstone was fog-bound and that Farnborough, right on our route, had broken cloud at 400′. The passengers arriving for Ken’s first EC120 trip were equally bemused, but remained in good spirits once bribed with coffee and doughnuts. My first passengers for PGGY arrived in good time and were equally understanding, while Ken, Nick and I pored over the METARs (and that, folks, is why it’s so vital to always check your destination weather before leaving, notwithstanding what it’s doing at Redhill). Finally the sky started to appear both en route and at the racetrack, so as Ken lifted in G-OTFL I strapped my chaps into PGGY and called for start. Having just got used to being Redhill 09, remembering I was “Black Black 18” for the day was going to be a challenge…

With a full load of fuel and three sizeable gents on board, it was something of a skid-scraping departure to the north from the 18 numbers, but we were soon up over Nutfield Priory and heading west along the ridge of the North Downs, with a basic service from Farnborough LARS West. Already Silverstone helicopter call signs were filling the airwaves and we skirted beneath a wispy layer of cloud at 1400′ as we took the ‘British Rail’ routing to Frimley just outside Farnborough’s ATZ, then headed north. We passed a glorious Henley-on-Thames with its marquees set up in preparation for the upcoming regatta then as Stokenchurch Mast on the M40 appeared we were handed to Farnborough LARS North with a change of squawk.

Then as I bade them farewell the fun started as I listened in on the Silverstone ATIS, selected the initial frequency and was quickly QSY’d (funny – I thought we didn’t use that term anymore…) to the Tower frequency. I was expecting a tricky and lengthy hold but was cleared straight in to East Point, which sounds really easy to see but was merely a position just north of some woodland, for an approach to the 21 helistrip. I was very glad of our meticulous planning, especially as I was now being joined by helicopters from all directions. Once into the RA(T) the rules were all lights on and 80kts so nobody was too close for comfort as I slotted into my place. As I started to line up behind a Squirrel there were two others ahead approaching the helistrip. I called “Final,” in turn and was allocated my one of the nine pads.

There was no time for hesitation as there would be somebody else hot on my tail so I quickly hover-taxied to my spot and put her down. With a thumbs-up to the swarm of ground handlers my passengers Martin and Adam were helped from the helicopter and disappeared towards the terminal. As soon as I got the thumbs-up from the marshaller, I lifted into the hover, spot turned to the left and called, “Black Black 18 ready.” I looked to my left at a line of helicopters approaching the FATO (Final Approach & Take Off area) but with a, “Black Black 18 lift and go,” it was nose down and get the hell out! Max angle of climb was required, avoid the campsites either side of the departure route and leave the RA(T) at 1000 before setting off en route back to Redhill in ever improving weather.

After a quick refuel was about an hour late lifting with my second passenger, Richard, due to the weather delay, but he was understanding and good company as I repeated the route. Yet again there were no delays and no hold required as we headed towards the FATO. Given my spot I taxied towards it to see a Twin Squirrel lifting to my left. “This is going to be bumpy,” I said to Richard, as we were downwind of the bigger twin. Sure as eggs is eggs, as I came to the hover his rotor wash hit us. It wasn’t my prettiest landing ever, but a rather firm ‘coming together’ with the ground as I lowered the lever quickly to get us down through the turbulent air. It’s one to remember when manoeuvring on the pad at Hangar 1 when one of the bigger helicopters is lifting or landing upwind of you – if possible delay your approach or departure until the disturbed air has passed.

My day had gone very smoothly thus far, although time was now getting tight. The Red Arrows were due to display over the racetrack in ten minutes and the airspace would be closed to everybody else while they did so, so I had to exit the RA(T) double-quick and get into Turweston Airfield, just west of Silverstone, for our lunchtime layover before the Reds appeared. With some enthusiastic waving from the marshallers on final approach I made it and shut down with minutes to spare.

Nick had already made it there in the 130, with G-WCKD parked in amongst one hundred or so other machines. He’d picked up his passengers from Goodwood earlier that morning and all had gone well. Ken was on the ground at Oxford having had a more complicated day. After Silverstone he’d gone via Elstree to Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, back to Redhill then to Glastonbury. David’s day had gone less smoothly – Redhill to Elstree then Silverstone then back to Battersea Heliport where a very limited power departure made him concentrate somewhat, only to get to the outskirts of the RA(T) just as it closed. Every cloud has a silver lining, so as he held south of Buckingham he and his passengers had a lovely view of the Red Arrows’ display. It was to be 30mins before he was able to land and drop off, then meet Nick and I at Turweston for lunch and a chat.

Less lucky was the poor fool in a fixed-wing spamcan who blundered through the RA(T) just as the Reds were about to display. One of the RAF Hawks broke off to have a look and get the registration number. Somebody will most likely be waving goodbye to their licence and a lot of money. There’s a lesson here: read the NOTAMS and phone the AIS information line EVERY time you fly. It takes minutes and saves lives and licences.

All on the ground at Turweston, we met up for a debrief on the morning’s events, caught up with a few old friends and filled our faces with a rather nice lunch. There was a big screen showing the Grand Prix but after watching Lewis Hamilton’s tyre shred itself to bits we decided to find a bit of peace and quiet instead and plan our return legs. Nick had been ramp-checked by a CAA inspector, as many others were, but of course all his and WCKD’s paperwork were in good order. There was a an important reapplication of the factor 50 sunscreen as we’d all been cooking in the cockpit (apart from Nick, who complained that the air conditioning was a tad cold…) and a game of dodge-the-helicopter-spotter as we waited by the aircraft.

There were slot times to make for the return trips, so PGGY was fuelled and checked with me strapped in and requesting rotor start at 1700 ready to lift at five past. There were some, ‘interesting’ departure profiles from the airfield, particularly by those who had found themselves parked in the middle of the many helicopters. I’d planned to position back from my parking spot onto the runway and use that, but in the event there was a fixed-wing turboprop waiting to line up, so I found a clear strip ahead of my line of parked aircraft, turned right and transitioned away into some fairly clear space, giving myself more options in the event of an emergency. I left a rather forlorn-looking David Milton sat in PAMY as all those around him left. His departure was not scheduled for another hour.

The route back into Silverstone wasn’t straightforward as you had to exit the Turweston ATZ via a notified ‘gate’ before requesting permission to re-enter the RA(T), but this was in fact achieved with minimum fuss as everybody seemed to be adhering to their slot times and were behaving in terms of altitude and speed. I soon found myself on finals for the now more familiar FATO and plopped myself down on Pad 3, oblivious to the fact that our ground contact Charlie from Phoenix Aviation had been texting me not to rush from Turweston as the passengers hadn’t arrived. Fortunately by the time my skids touched the concrete they were there, quickly loaded in and it was, “Black Black 18 lift and go,” all over again. Martin and Adam seemed to enjoy the more spirited departure and we were soon chatting about their day on the return route. Farnborough remained helpful and accommodating despite their high workload including a gaggle of fixed-wings returning from a fly-out to Alderney, and before long I was settling PGGY onto the pad at EBG with an hour’s chill and refuel before my return to the racetrack. Ken had already landed having delivered his Silverstone passengers back and was completing his tech log before heading home.

Nick’s thorough planning came to the fore again and I touched down back at Silverstone on the dot of the allocated slot time. Things were quieter now and ATC had moved to a single frequency. Richard my passenger was punctual so with him strapped in it was, “lift and go,” for the last time and a, “see you next year,” from ATC, and we enjoyed a pleasant chat en route back to Redhill. He’d taken ten hours of helicopter instruction some years ago so he was a good companion, and as a sponsor of a Suzuki motorcycle racing team had been schmoozed by one of the F1 teams to try to get him on board. He had been unimpressed, citing the flying as the best part of the day – a big thumbs-up for Team EBG.

I was last to return to Redhill so it was coffees, tech logs and a debrief on the day’s events all round for David, Nick and I. As three Silverstone first-timers it was fair to say we were all buzzing as a result of the experience, so we swiftly bedded the helicopters down for the night then three cars headed off in convoy for Nick’s local Indian restaurant for a light supper and a lager. The success of the day was down to a lot of people but not least due to some excellent behind-the-scenes planning and organising by the team at EBG, including a fleet of faultless helicopters. I’d love to report that we all emerged from the experience unscathed, but that would be an untruth. It was only later that I noticed I’d blobbed some of my lunchtime gravy on my previously immaculate tie. I remain philosophical about it though. It’s a kind of medal to denote the successful completion of my first British Grand Prix.

Captain Dave Buck

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