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Getting to the Grand Prix

WHEN a sport uses a means of transport as a basis for competition, its followers are inclined to travel to that competition by the type of transport which the sport employs. You could not get into Arms Park astride a well-aimed rugby ball, but you could, as many thousands do, travel to the Isle of Man TT Races by motorcycle, join the flotillas of spectators’ craft gathering at races on water, or even pedal your way to watch the Milk Race.

Not unnaturally, people normally travel to motor racing circuits by car, although popularity and sheer weight of numbers have made such journeys, particularly to Grands Prix, far less pleasant than they used to be. Just as anglers are never happier than when their lines are in water, no drivers prefer to drive than sit in steaming traffic jams, thermometers rising.

The Derby, Triple Crown matches and the Cup Final all attract queues of spectators’ cars, but our concern here is the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in July, and the means used by spectators to get to the circuit other than by road.

A neighbouring field once served as an airstrip at Brands Hatch, but encroaching car parks — not to mention an incident when cut grass caused an engine failure — made this hazardous, and fixed-wing aircraft are no longer allowed to land at Brands Hatch during Grand Prix weekend. Helicopters, however, are quite different, for they need no airstrip as such and take up far less valuable real estate than their fixed-wing counterparts. Their convenience is without comparison, and it wasn’t long before they were homing in on Brands Hatch like mosquitoes on a mzungu camping near an African swamp.

And that was when the trouble started. Not only was it convenient to avoid the traffic jams, but it became a matter of prestige to arrive by helicopter and, more important, to be seen thus arriving. Rotorcraft traffic converging on the Brands Hatch infield became so intense as to be dangerous and experienced aviators decided to do something about it.

Two years ago Captain Mike Barratt, an executive of McAlpine Aviation Limited, the Hayes-based importers of Aerospatiale Squirrels, used his experience of flying from a base near Brands Hatch to initiate a scheme whereby all helicopter traffic should follow fixed approach and departure routes to and from a licensed heliport just outside the circuit, regulated by a proper air traffic control facility.

Experience of the scheme suggested improvements and in July this year it worked so well that there was no difficulty controlling the dense air traffic. On race Sunday alone there were no less than 1,396 helicopter movements at the Brands Hatch temporary heliport, involving 71 different aircraft, and those are pretty formidable figures by any standards.

The heliport was set up in a field adjacent to the A20, just on the London side of the circuit’s main gate. The upper deck of a ‘bus served as a control tower operated by licensed staff using two VHF radio frequencies, one for approaches and the other for ground movements and departures. All aircraft positions and movements were depicted on a map board, much in the manner of wartime units.

A “runway” centre line was put down to clearly establish approach and departure directions, selected by the controller according to wind direction. From the runway there were ten lines at right angles, each leading to a landing pad at which passengers disembarked and embarked before temporary terminals in the form of marquees or caravans. There were ground marshallers, of course, to ensure belts were fastened, doors closed and passengers prevented from walking into tail rotors.

Most movements were by the helicopters of five companies operating regular shuttle services from locations, usually hotels, only about a dozen miles or so from the circuit, far enough away to keep passengers clear of traffic jams yet close enough to minimise flying time and keep seat prices down. Three of these companies were allocated two landing pads each, two of them one each, and the remaining two pads were used by other helicopters. Each pad was outside the corresponding terminal “building” and there was a colour coding for ease of identification, used also as radio call signs in place of registration letters in the case of the five shuttle operators.

There was an aircraft parking area at the North end of the runway and sterile areas at both undershoot ends so that aircraft could land temporarily if their designated landing pads were occupied. All approaches were made to the runway centre line where pilots came to a hover before air taxiing to the required landing pad. Landings were made facing the terminals, whilst hovering spot turns had to be executed before air taxiing back to the runway for departure.

The runway direction was 340/160° magnetic and its Air Traffic Control Zone extended for 1.5 nautical miles in all directions, from the surface to 2,000 feet above ground level. Entry was by prior permission only and all helicopter operators were provided with comprehensive joining instructions drawn up by Captain Barrett of McAlpine and Mr. David Ward of Battersea Heliport.

The zone joining point was the southern end of the railway tunnel between Swanley and Eynsford, about 2.5 nm to the NW of the heliport, and to the SW of this there was a racetrack-shaped right-hand holding circuit to be used in the event of arrivals temporarily outnumber departures.

For runway 16 the approach was on a direct track from the tunnel and departure to the South, whilst runway 34 involved a more southerly departure from the tunnel, then making two left turns finally to approach from the SW. Departure from 34 was first to the West, then making a climbing right turn to clear overhead cables and heading out NNE. An indicated approach airspeed of 80 knots was requested to eliminate bunching and minimise the need for aircraft to join the holding pattern.

The whole operation was simple but effective, and certainly necessary for the safety of all those crews and passengers. Without any form of control over such a large number of movements, concentrated largely in the morning and evening, one hazardous situation would have followed another. The cost of the heliport facility was offset by landing charges on a scale varying from £17.25 for an aircraft with two passenger seats to £57.50 for one with 13.

An interesting estimate claimed that of all the passengers flown into Brands Hatch on that Sunday, only 20% chose that means of transport to beat the delays of traffic jams. It seems the other 80% were motivated by prestige-consciousness.

Apart from its import, sales and maintenance facilities, and operations such as the Brands Hatch heliport, McAlpine runs a multi-purpose charter service. Details, along with a list of other operators in Britain, will be found in the 1982 Information Handbook of the British Helicopter Advisory Board. The handbook incorporates all manner of other useful information, including a list of heliports and helipads in the UK. Copies are available by sending a stamped, addressed 6″ envelope to the BHAB, Knowles House, Cromwell Road, Redhill, Surrey RH1 1LW

G.P.