On Wednesday 16th January 2013, a helicopter on the way from Redhill, south of London, to Elstree, north of London, ran into bad weather and was diverted into Battersea Heliport in Central London. At some point, most likely on his approach into the heliport, the helicopter hit a crane which was obscured by the cloud. The helicopter came down in a clear area near the base of the crane but unfortunately both the pilot and one person on the ground were killed. Because the helicopter also hit a couple of cars there was a fire and all the emergency services were called.
Because London is a major city and these kinds of incident are very rare, this accident created a lot of press coverage and all the networks were fighting for 'helicopter experts' to explain what might have happened. As editor of Helicopter Life I was asked by Sky News, Canadian TV, Radio Derby and The Times of London to give my advice on what might have happened and what affect the crash might have on helicopter flying in London.
I talked on the various networks and did my best to try and give a sensible and calm view of the matter. These accidents are incredibly rare. Aviation is a highly regulated business and pilots have stringent and frequent checks both on their flying skills and on their health. The weather is, however, an important part of this and many other accidents and as ever it is important to think about how we pilots, when we find ourselves inadvertently in bad weather, may get out of it quickly and safely.
This is a matter I had recently been discussing with the CAA, although not in relation to London. We were discussing the necessity to reassure pilots that if they do something that was otherwise illegal (such as landing in a built-up area without permission) because it was necessary to save life, they would not be prosecuted. I would like to bring up this position again and to relate it to London in particular. Had the pilot felt it was possible to land somewhere in London immediately the weather got too bad to continue flying, would he have done so? It does take quite a psychological leap to land in, for example, a park in London, knowing there will be people around and that their safety must also be taken into account. There is also the question of Battersea Heliport and the equipment that is there. Would it be a good thing to modernise the only general heliport in central London. This certainly seems like a good idea.
Whatever happens in the future, one thing is certain, there will now be considerable discussion on the subject of helicopter flying over London. I hope there will not be any immediate and automatic reactions which will lead to greater legislation which may not have any affect on safety.