Summer 2023

Helicopter, Hotel, Heritage

The-Landing-Hotel,-newly-completed-at-London-Biggin-Hill-Airport

Already offering the unique Helishuttle service into the Edmiston London Heliport, London Biggin Hill Airport has added The Landing Hotel to its unique passenger and crew offer

Few airports in the world can match the heritage embodied by the UK’s London Biggin Hill. Truly epic moments in history have occurred and begun there, and today it is an epicentre for aviation and high-tech industry. Between those two extremes, heritage and the future, the airport is a thriving business aviation hub offering unique access into central London and an array of supporting services. A day of events late in April provided the opportunity for EVA to tour The Landing Hotel and sample the Helishuttle service.

A hangar had been laid out for the annual London Centre for Technology, Aviation and Enterprise (LoCATE) gathering of local business and civic leaders, with speakers reinforcing Biggin Hill’s importance to the local economy. The backdrop of Global Express, AW109, Spitfire, de Havilland Dragonfly and PC-12 subsequently provided the setting for the launch of Nine Lives: The Story of Biggin Hill, a specially commissioned book detailing the airfield’s history from its foundation in 1916 to the present day.

 

The Landing Hotel
Completed in all but detail just six weeks before EVA visited, The Landing Hotel is primarily intended for crews resting between flights. Some enjoy the facility’s special six-hour rate that provides a room for sleeping and relaxing on short layovers, while most stay for one or a handful of nights; one crew was in the middle of a two-week stay.

The hotel combines convenience and comfort with straightforward elegance and sustainability. Everything, from the artwork on the walls to the bed linen and hall carpet has been carefully chosen and exudes quality, yet it is all functional, welcoming and, especially in the case of the reclining chairs gracing every bedroom, supremely comfortable.

General Manager Steven Thorne-Farrar was involved in the hotel’s design from the beginning and the finished product very much reflects his vision. That includes a small but well-equipped gym, a restaurant and bar, and 56 bedrooms. Crews save an hour or more in hotel transfer time compared to similar facilities in the closest towns, and pre-check-in means room keys may be handed to them on arrival at the airport, with no requirement for further checking in at reception.

The bedrooms feature 100% blackout curtains to help guests who need to sleep during the day, while extensive soundproofing keeps out airport noise, even though some rooms have, should a guest wish for it, the potential for watching the runway approach from bed. The restaurant and bar have spectacular airport views and yet, Thorne-Farrar says, a low whine is all that can be heard when a Global 7500 takes-off.

He places considerable importance on local sourcing, including two beers brewed “down the road”, produce for the kitchens, and staff. Air Culinaire Worldwide, Biggin Hill’s resident inflight caterer, runs the kitchens, serving food comparable in quality to its VIP aviation offer. Crews in from the US especially appreciate the fish and chips, and Thorne-Farrar describes the overall offer as exceptional. Significantly, our driver later told us how she and her colleagues occasionally arrive early for work, especially to make time for a Landing breakfast.

 

Helishuttle
EVA opted for a spot of London sightseeing on the way from Biggin Hill to the Edmiston London Heliport at Battersea, but the usual flight time is six minutes. Castle Air operates the Helishuttle with Leonardo AW109 and AW139 helicopters. EVA sampled the latter, its cabin finished to a high standard with seven very comfortable passenger seats, deep carpet and central refreshment cabinet. Headsets are provided for all passengers for ease of conversation, but noise levels are surprisingly low and speaking across the cabin not at all difficult without the headset.

The remarkable view from the AW139’s expansive windows make the flight seem even shorter, while the ride is very comfortable. The wettest of UK spring weather had grounded the helicopter during the morning and although the sky was far from clear, the craft’s four-axis autopilot helped the two-pilot crew deliver a smooth journey. There is inevitably some vibration in the cabin, but passengers familiar with helicopters will barely notice.

EVA managed a six-minute interview with Michael Jupp, Chief Pilot at Castle Air, before the flight; the conversation was brief – equivalent to a typical transfer into Battersea…
Jupp flies both the AW109 and AW139 and explains: “We have a diary for pre-booked flights, but we also react to ad hoc customer requests.” It’s a challenging scenario in which to operate a commercial business, managing aircraft and crew availability, maintenance and weather.

“Monday to Friday we generally have crew on site and a helicopter ready to fly, giving us a go-now ability, especially if the customer is happy with a single pilot. Because the AW139 is configured with just seven passenger seats we are permitted to fly it single-pilot, but two pilots are often preferred, in which case we might need to get a second pilot in. If a customer wants two helicopters, we take a careful look at aircraft availability.” (Were the AW139 equipped for nine or more passengers, multi-pilot crewing would be mandatory.)

Considering the weather, caution is the better part of valour. EVA’s scheduled morning transfer to Biggin had been scrubbed for that reason and Jupp explained: “If we make the decision to cancel because of weather the customer is refunded and we do everything we can to help them, even if that means accepting the drive into London. We won’t promise to have someone ‘there for 10am’ if the weather might prevent that and we won’t allow ourselves to be pressured into flying in poor weather because we’ve promised the customer.”

In most cases, weather decisions are taken early, and customers informed as far in advance as possible, helping manage expectations and minimise disappointment and disruption. When the weather is good, and aircraft and crew available, Castle Air can be ready to move passengers within 15 minutes of a request to fly. It is not unusual for the paperwork to be in progress while the helicopter is pulled from its hangar, refuelled and prepared to go.

In many cases the helicopter may be parked adjacent to the customer’s jet. Although it depends on Customs requirements, passengers regularly walk down the aircraft steps, a few metres across the ramp and then step into the helicopter, arriving in central London little more than 30 minutes after landing at Biggin Hill. The service is so convenient that commuting from New York, say, to London is common. “They’ll get the first helicopter out on the Monday morning, around 6.45am, and they’re in their London office for 7.30,” Jupp notes. “Then we’ll fly them back out later in the week.”

The Helishuttle is typical of London Biggin Hill’s tireless efforts to meet the needs of its business and VIP aviation customers, while The Landing offers a new level of care for their crews and other airport visitors. The LoCATE initiative signifies the facility’s wider aviation and high-tech ambition, all set against the regular sight and sound of Spitfires and other warbirds. Whether it’s the convenience of a six-minute transfer into London or the airfield’s extraordinary heritage that’s the attraction, London Biggin Hill is unique among business airports.

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