London helicopter crash will raise concern about flight rules far beyond Vauxhall

Londoners who live, work or commute close to the river may be startled to learn that the Thames is the capital’s thoroughfare for helicopters

Just as the underground railways and the streets of London are carefully mapped, so too is the airspace above the capital. The London region comprises the most intensive air-traffic control area in the world.

Click image above to enlarge CAA routes map or click here

Fixed-wing aircraft follow complex low-altitude and high-altitude airways. Also within the mix: a tangle of routes specifically designated for helicopters to follow: north and south from Heathrow, for example, and through the north-west and south-west suburbs.

On the official Civil Aviation Authority chart, the central area is marked with red hatching, with the warning “Flights by single engine Helicopters normally prohibited except along the River Thames”.

After this morning’s tragedy, Londoners who live, work or commute close to the river may be startled to learn that the Thames is the capital’s thoroughfare for helicopters. They may also be alarmed to learn that a Private Pilot’s Licence is obtainable with as little as 45 hours’ helicopter flying, not out of line with the typical time spent learning to drive a car – and that it entitles the holder to fly right through the middle of the biggest city in Western Europe.

Experienced helicopter pilots, long accustomed to the course along the Thames, have privately expressed concern about the amount of high-rise building on the river banks – of which the Shard, opening to the public on 1 February, is a shining example.

The immediate official response to Vauxhall may well be to impose much stricter rules on the aircraft and training required for flying in central London. Yet Britain’s aviation community has a remarkable safety record, for private flying as well as commercial airlines. The Vauxhall crash was an awful event, but it was not necessarily a “wake-up call”. Permanent changes must be well considered and proportionate.

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