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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Day at the (Motor) Races Beats the Recession

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

A recession is often a time for cutting back and saving on the extravagances in life. However, sometimes it is also an occasion to say “what the heck” and engage in a little indulgence—such as flying by helicopter to attend the UK’s most popular motor racing event of the year.

The British Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone (which runs Friday July 6th through Sunday July 8th) is that annual event. It regularly attracts a huge crowd over the race weekend. In 2011, 88,000 attended on the Friday of the three-day race weekend—and remember this is a day with no qualification timing, just practice. On Saturday, the official race qualifying day, the figure rose to 105,000. Finally on Sunday, a record 122,000 swarmed to the ex-Royal Air Force airfield in the north Buckinghamshire countryside to see Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull racing car repeat his victory of 2009.

Needless to say, in spite of excellent road improvement schemes in recent years—which have been partially successful in reducing the traffic congestion—in the immediate area of the raceway, the sheer volume of people traveling to the racetrack for a specific start time still causes inevitable long queues.

The best way to avoid this mayhem, especially on a hot day (yes, it even occasionally happens in the UK), is to fly in by helicopter. This can either be in one of the flights a few minutes flying time away from the racetrack, usually just off the M1 motorway, or from an airport further afield.

With six weeks to go before this year’s race, the new owners of Battersea heliport in central London—now called the Barclays London Heliport—were anticipating the best weekend of the year in terms of bookings. The trip from this central London location takes only 25 minutes.

Private equity and real estate entrepreneurs, the Reuber Brothers, bought the London heliport in Battersea in February this year. It is the only London-based heliport licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

“We have already confirmed more slots for the Grand Prix than in the last four years,” said heliport manager Simon Hutchins, adding that “bookings are up 100 percent and counting on last year’s event.” He continued: “The slot allocation for Sunday (race day itself) is almost fully utilized and Saturday is heading towards maximum capacity too.” However, 15 percent of bookings are connecting passengers arriving at one of London’s airports into the motor racing circuit.

Flight bookings into Silverstone still have some way to go before passing an exceptional record set at the British Grand Prix in 1999. On a single day from dawn to dusk the temporary Silverstone heliport recorded 4,200 aircraft movements (one movement being a landing or take-off). The airfield was fully licensed with used 24 air traffic controllers during the day. It utilized six air traffic control radio frequencies with an additional continuous message broadcast service (ATIS). Finally, all movements were coordinated on a Visual Flight Rule (VFR) basis without the assistance of radar or other electronic navigation aids.

Little has changed since then, even air control on a VFR basis. This year’s CAA information notice states that maximum movement rates have been agreed through experience gained over the years. The raceway’s air traffic control (ATC) has a slot system that regulates departures and arrivals, which operators have to adhere to. All feeder sites must submit their applications a month in advance together with the estimated number of aircraft movements from that site.

The Silverstone heliport is based on a single-circuit Final Approach and Take-Off area (FATO). The heaviest helicopter permitted to operate into the circuit is a Sikorsky S-76 or equivalent. Silverstone limits remain at 5 km and 800 feet AGL (1,300 ft AMSL based on Silverstone QNH).

Note: RAF Silverstone was opened as a training station in 1943 and operated the Vickers Wellington bomber. Its classic three runway format in World War II triangle formation still lie within the racetrack.

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