RPMN: What is your current position?
I currently work as a chief pilot for our Castle Air base at London Biggin Hill Airport. Day-to-day my job involves flying the line as a charter helicopter pilot and managing a team of pilots based at the airport. At Castle Air we operate the London Heli shuttle, offering a six-minute trip to London Battersea heliport from London Biggin Hill. We fly the route multiple times per day, offering the fastest touchdown to downtown of any London airport.
RPMN: Tell me about your first flight.
My first flight was a gift from my wife Maxine who bought me a half-hour trial lesson in 1996 at Denham Aerodrome, northwest of London. My love for helicopters began there. My first flight was amazing and scary at the same time. I was wondering what you could do in a helicopter and how long it would take to get to the stage where you could control the aircraft. Learning to hover is the biggest challenge; it’s all about accuracy.
RPMN: How did you get your start in helicopters?
I was working as a stockbroker in London from 1980 and my wife gave me the gift of a trial lesson because we had a friend who had a helicopter. I flew first as a hobby and completed my PPL between 1996-98. In 1999, I accepted redundancy from my job and went to live in France with my family. From there I did my commercial helicopter pilot exams and then came back to the U.K.
RPMN: Where did you get your start flying commercially?
In 2001, I earned my instructor license then worked at a company in southeast England as an instructor. That company was sold, so I moved onto another company in the same area as a chief pilot. I moved to flying twin-engine helicopters and stayed with that company for five years. Six years ago, I started at London Biggin Hill Airport and now run the base as chief pilot. We have eight full-time pilots as a company and six freelance pilots.
RPMN: When and how did you choose to fly helicopters, or did they choose you?
I’ve always only flown helicopters, never fixed-wing aircraft. My parents were always into aviation, but growing up I was not interested at all. Now I love the freedom that comes with flying a helicopter: you can land anywhere from a back garden to a golf club; you don’t have to land at an airport.
RPMN: If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?
If I weren’t in the industry, I would like to be a teacher. I really enjoyed teaching flying and passing on my knowledge and experience to other people. It’s great to pass on my enthusiasm for the industry.
RPMN: What do you enjoy doing on your days off?
Away from helicopters I enjoy spending time with my family. I love going on holiday, especially skiing or doing an activity that will take my mind off work so I can rest. Working as a chief pilot can be an all-encompassing job and it’s hard to switch off. Activities and sport really help me to unwind, which is important.
RPMN: In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this moment in time?
The helicopter industry doesn’t seem to face pilot shortages in the same way as commercial airlines do but we did experience a drop in the number of people coming through during the 2008-9 recession. There was a five-year gap with not much training going on, and because of that there is a massive skills gap and it’s difficult to find pilots with the right level of experience.
Additionally, there is a huge gap in training between PPL to Instructor and single-engine flying charter. It’s difficult for new pilots to build their hours to be considered for employment.
At Castle Air we wouldn’t employ anyone with fewer than 1,000 hours, but how do new pilots go from 185 (CPL level) to 1,000 hours? It’s difficult for us to fund training up to 1,000 hours and furthermore there are not enough smaller helicopters around to build experience. We’re trying to have more two-seater aircraft at Castle Air to help alleviate the issue and provide some training, but without a robust training regime the gap is going to remain.
RPMN: What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?
Some of my highlights have involved sporting events. In 2012 we took five helicopters to Poland and Ukraine to film the Euro 2012 football (soccer) competition. I then headed straight back to the UK to work at the London 2012 Olympics. I flew above the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics to provide aerial shots for the film crews. Our team used five or six twin squirrels. In total there were 10 helicopters flying over this four-week period.
My most recent achievement was completing my type rating for the AW139 in New Jersey. It was really inspiring and great to be learning about a new helicopter type. The training was run by Leonardo, and we now have two in the hangar and are looking into flying bigger helicopters that are multi-crew. Up to now Castle Air has been single-pilot, but with the addition of the two AW139s we now have scope to grow in this area.
RPMN: Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in a helicopter? Can you summarize what happened?
Once I was flying for a deer count in Scotland, which must be conducted in the snow so you can see deer against the mountainside. I hadn’t done much mountain flying before that and I was caught in a downdraft; air was blowing the helicopter down faster than the helicopter could fly up. Fortunately, the wind doesn’t blow as fast near the ground, so once I moved lower, I was able to pull back into a hover. That was 15 years ago, and I still don’t like flying in a Scottish winter!
RPMN: If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot, what would it be?
My advice for new pilots would be to meet as many people in the industry as possible. It’s difficult to build experience without a job and you won’t get a job without knowing people. Always ask for advice and talk about the next steps or people they think you should meet. Most helicopter pilots are happy to help others.