Preparing to fly the London Heli Lanes for the first time

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If you’re about to try the London Heli-Lanes for the first time, I strongly recommend going with an instructor, or at least someone with plenty of heli-lane experience. Compared to normal helicopter flying it’s very high workload, requiring accurate flying, detailed navigation, and sharp radio work. Choose a nice day, with good visibility, moderate winds, and cloudbase above 2500ft.

To get the most out of your trip, and to avoid getting into a muddle in quite a sensitive area (ie near he world’s busiest passenger airport and in a terrorism-sensitive area), good preparation is essential, followed by a pre-departure discussion with your flying companion to clarify who will do what. (That’s the “D” in MATED brief, which on a trip like this you should be doing in full anyway).

Start by deciding on your route. (I’d recommend leaving a Heathrow crossing for once you are really comfortable in the zone). You need to work out where you’re entering the zone, which routes you’re using, and where you’re leaving the zone.

Then write a list of all the reporting points in order, to print for your kneeboard, like this:

H7 (Northbound) Banstead
Morden
Caesar’s Camp
H10 (Westbound) Barnes
Kew Bridge
Brentford
Perivale
Gutteridge
Uxbridge Common
Iver
Cookham

This has the big advantage of making you inspect the route inch by inch on your up to date “Helicopter Routes in the London Control Zone” 1:50,000 chart. As you do this, note the key landmarks, open ground, obstacles, and stuff you expect to be able to see ahead of you to help you stay on track.

Decide where you would orbit if you were asked to hold at any of these points, and read all the notes on the bottom of the chart, and and the key information, so you know where you may have to report and/or hold on your route.

Also note the “standard operating altitudes”. It’s best to fly at those altitudes, to give yourself the maximum chance of gliding to the nearest open space if something goes wrong. Between Perivale and Chiswick Bridge on H10 you must fly at those altitudes.

Note that if Rwy 09 is in use at Heathrow, H3 may not be available. So if your route includes H3 you’ll need an alternative option planned, to adopt when you’ve listened to the Heathrow ATIS.

Then get the frequencies together as a list to print out like this:

ATIS LHR                      128.075 (so you can check which runway is in use, and get the QNH).
Heathrow Special        125.62 (call for zone entry, see below for format).

Northolt Approach     126.45
Northolt Tower            120.67

London Heliport         122.90

Thames Radar             132.7
City Tower                   118.07

The top two are the ones you will definitely need, and below that are ones you may need.

Then work out, and rehearse, your likely radio call along these lines:

Heathrow Special, good afternoon, Helicopter G-ABCD.

G-ABCD pass your message

G-ABCD is an R44, Fairoaks to Cambridge, request zone transit, entering Banstead, routeing H7 northbound, H10 Westbound, departing Cookham, estimating Banstead at 05

G-CD squawk 3705, London QNH 1028.

Squawk 3705, London QNH 1028 G-CD

G-CD you are identified 2 miles East of Fairoaks, remain outside controlled airspace.

Willco, remain outside controlled airspace, G-CD.

G-CD you are cleared into the zone at Banstead, Special VFR, H7 northbound, standard operating altitudes, your clearance limit is Barnes.

Cleared into the zone at Banstead, Special VFR, H7 Northbound, standard operating altitiudes, clearance limit Barnes,  G-CD

G-CD readback correct, report Caesar’s Camp.

Report Caesar’s Camp, G-CD 

The radio call will include most of the above elements, and is best rehearsed in advance, but make sure you listen carefully to the detail of your own clearance to make sure you understand what you are being cleared to do, and so you get your own replies correct. Write it all down before you go, by all means, but be clear in your head what you’re going to say, and what the replies will include, because you really can’t do it properly by reading from a written cribsheet. There’s a link to CAP413 at the bottom of this article so you can revise for yourself the correct radio procedure for SVFR clearances and zone transits. It varies slightly according to the type of airspace (ie D or A), and it’s good to work from the approved wording.

The other useful thing for your kneeboard is a printout from the AIP of the diagram of the Heli Routes. This is helpful as your proper Heli Routes chart is quite big, and so will be folded up to make it useable in the cockpit, which can make it hard to get a quick broad overview from when you’re being asked to report or hold somewhere up ahead. There is a link to the chart at the bottom of this article. You can print it any size, so at A4 or even A5 it gives you the complete system at a glance. Fold your Heli Routes chart carefully, to give best access to your route. Some people even fly with two charts to avoid having to refold halfway along.

There is also a link to the written description of the heli lane procedures, which has quite a lot of detail about what’s allowed and what’s not in a single engine VFR helicopter. Once you have a clear understanding from this article about how you’re going to use the heli lanes, it’s work a check check on the official document to make sure you’re within the letter of the law. Here are a couple of examples:

(i) Non-IFR flights in the London Control Zone are not to be operated unless helicopters can remain in a flight visibility of at least 1 km, except when crossing over, taking-off from or landing at London Heathrow, when the reported visibility at Heathrow must be at least 2 km. Non- IFR helicopters must remain clear of cloud and in sight of the surface.

and

(v) When flying along the River Thames within the Specified Area, pilots should normally fly over that part of the riverbed lying between high water marks, but not so near the banks as to become a nuisance on account of noise. When deviating from the river, in accordance with paragraph iv above, single-engined helicopters must at all times be able to return to the river in the event of engine failure, in order to alight clear of the Specified Area.

Check out and learn the radio failure procedure. Basically, unless you’re crossing Heathrow, it’s hold at your clearance limit for 3 minutes, and proceed. But read and learn the detail in advance, obviously, because it’s not an area that you want to appear to be an aircraft not following the rules and the clearances.

You’ll be flying in an area where stuff reaches up towards you from the ground, sometimes quite dramatically, and there is no relaxation from the need to comply with Rule 5 of the Rules of the Air Regulations 2007, which precludes flight closer than 500 ft to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure. For example, the London Eye is almost 500ft high, and the new blocks of flats in the Vauxhall area go higher than that. Check it out on the chart before you leave, and have a plan for your route and altitude. The rules for Special VFR appear to overrule the 1000ft rule, but not the need to glide clear. There is a link to the rules at the end of this article.

When you’re in the zone, you need to be prepared to navigate and fly very accurately along the precise path of the routes shown, not straying off them, and not cutting corners. Remember you’re being followed by some pretty accurate radar, which shows your exact position and altitude. Don’t bust the altitude limits, especially, as it sets off an automatic alarm in the Heathrow control room, which is monitored by the CAA. You might like to invest in an iPad with GPS, so you can follow your route on AirNavPro (you can buy the Heli Routes Chart for it) or on SkyDemon. If you do want to use an iPad, make sure you keep your eyes out of the cockpit enough to keep a good look out.

One other point to prepare yourself for is separation from other helicopters using the Heli Routes. It can be quite hairy seeing, or even not seeing, another helicopter opposite direction, same height, separated only by the width of the river Thames. You are allowed to deviate temporarily to the right of the route for safe separation. You’ll be alerted to the presence of  another helicopter, and you will be asked by ATC to maintain visual separation from other helicopter traffic, as long as visibility at Heathrow is at least 6km, and you can see at least that far and you can remain clear of cloud and in sight of the surface. Really, it’s unwise to be flying the Heli Routes in such conditions in the first place, but whatever the weather, if you’re not happy with the presence of another helicopter nearby, let the controller know.

Finally, there’s a very good section in Pooleys about the Heli Routes, which is essential reading before you go.

So, in summary, look up the rules, prepare your route, rehearse your radio plan and organise your cockpit materials in advance. Fly and navigate accurately, and if you get into trouble, ask for help. It’s one of the most rewarding pieces of helicopter flying in the world, so it’s worth all the prep.

Links:

Here’s a useful briefing doc from NATS. Make sure you read up about SERA.

Rules for the use of Heathrow (see Section 9 especially).

Heli Routes Diagram to print out.

CAP413 radio manual.

Please note, information on this page may from time to time be overtaken by changes to procedures, regulations, or other important safety issues. Please check with your instructor and appropriate authoritative sources before committing to the air.

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