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In 1979, the U.K. boasted very few private helicopters, and in the rural southwest, the Royal Duchy of Cornwall was home to just one. Roy Flood’s business in used car sales was doing so well that when his driving license was suspended following a misinterpretation of the speed limit, his only sensible means of getting around was to learn to fly helicopters, and buy a new Bell 206 LongRanger.
Meanwhile, Cornwall-based Royal Navy pilots Jerry Grayson and Keith Thompson were leaving the service with the dream of starting a local helicopter charter business. After a few rejections, their letter to Roy Flood’s Castle Motors was met with curiosity, and the three formed Castle Air soon thereafter. Grayson flew a charter flight on the same day he left the Navy, and the business has grown ever since.
Operating from the car sales business outside the small town of Liskeard, the three not only flew the aircraft, but built the facilities that they would use to house and maintain them. In his book Rescue Pilot, Grayson describes Flood’s approach as being very hands-on. “It was a jigsaw puzzle where you had to make all the pieces yourself and then put them together with a crane.”
Cornwall’s rugged coastline and spectacular undulating countryside made helicopter sightseeing popular with tourists, and by 1982 the company was able to add two new JetRangers to its fleet. The same year, high winds battered southwest Britain, knocking trees across narrow roads and causing power outages across a county in which, without any motorways, getting around to assess the damage was already hard enough.
Answering a contract for aerial survey of the infrastructure, Castle Air’s pilots had an intimate knowledge of the landscape, and as the only charter business within a few hundred miles, the saving in transit costs alone was significant. It was valuable experience, and the realization dawned that the skills used to follow downed power lines at low level could be well employed for producers keen to introduce a new perspective to entertainment television.
The company’s TV debut came on the 1982 gameshow Treasure Hunt, which ran for seven seasons and developed a cult following in the U.K. More work in the industry followed as the pilots developed an understanding of the unique demands of maneuvering the camera to the right position, regardless of the orientation of the aircraft. While most of this work had been carried out from the company’s trusty JetRangers, Castle Air began to reach the limit of the aircraft’s potential and in 1984, bought its first Agusta [now Leonardo] A109.
With the transition to two engines came new capabilities, and Castle Air was able to go further, faster and in poor weather. Its ex-Navy pilots even found themselves out over the sea again. Equipped with loudhailers, they chased errant leisure craft that had wandered into maritime ranges, as the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment tested its newest torpedoes — which were then recovered by the company’s helicopters.
The A109 proved a good camera platform too, and with a reputation for understanding the needs of the film industry, Castle Air still films all over the country. The costs of the transit more than makes up for the cost of finding a local pilot with the requisite skill and experience.
In 2010, the company was awarded a leasing contract to provide aircraft to train the Algerian military. Bell 206 and AW109E helicopters were bought and then leased to companies that delivered the training on behalf of AgustaWestland (now Leonardo Helicopters).
While lucrative, the completion of these contracts towards the end of 2012 left the company with 13 helicopters that needed work or new owners. It turned to its old business model, putting the aircraft to work under lease or charter while courting potential buyers. “We’ve put a lot of A109s out there,” explained Declan Lehane, the operations manager at Castle Air’s Biggin Hill site in southeast London. “Our charter customers get used to the 109, and they’ll tell us they really like it. When we say it’s for sale then often they will ask how they could buy it, and our job is to make that as simple as possible.”
With a proven capability to deliver aircraft internationally well beyond the range of its charter operation, not all aircraft sales are to charter customers. Here too, reputation is all-important, and word-of-mouth a powerful driver of custom. Again, the key priority according to Lehane, is the ease with which Castle Air is able to offer solutions to its clients — both in through-life and extemporary support.
“We’re one of very few, if not the only people in the U.K. who can acquire the right aircraft for you, customize the paint and interior, train you or your pilot, manage it and maintain it, all in-house,” said Lehane.
While the company built its success in Cornwall, there was no way the county would sustain or enable the lease, charter and sale of the surplus aircraft from the Algerian contract. The helicopter market around London was generally buoyant and competition was on the rise, but Castle Air felt that without leasing costs it was a market it could enter from a position of strength, using the purchase of another established London charter operator as its springboard and acquiring several more AW109s in the process.
Commensurate with the do-it-yourself ethos of the company’s founder, Castle Air bought a hangar at London’s Biggin Hill airport and set about turning it into a viable charter hub. A European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) part 145 maintenance facility was established on-site, primarily for the company’s Bell 206s and AW109s.
Having started its London operation with a single aircraft in May 2013, Castle Air’s hangar space during Vertical’s visit earlier this year was occupied by 10 helicopters from three manufacturers, albeit six being AW109s. While almost any type of helicopter can now be accommodated for maintenance, management or sale, the company’s enduring preference for the Leonardo light twin is clear.
Castle Air has flown almost every civilian type of the aircraft, and, as Vertical went to press, was set to soon take delivery of the latest model, the AW109 SP Grand New, which includes a modern glass cockpit with an integrated four-axis autopilot.
The 109 series have always been popular in the U.K., and while Castle Air would probably be happy to take credit for that as early adopters, it is more likely because the aircraft is almost an exact fit for the U.K.’s peculiar corporate charter requirements.
The country has relatively little infrastructure designed to suit corporate helicopter aviation, and so operators find themselves making frequent use of larger airfields, most of which have hard prepared surfaces. Having wheeled undercarriage means not only greater comfort for the passengers rather than wobbling along in a hover-taxi, but also reduces the logged airframe hours on the lengthy taxis necessary at some major airports that are nervous about departing traffic from the apron. Furthermore, snow-capped peaks are a rarity in the U.K., which does away with the need for the skids necessary for VIP access to many European ski slopes. The AW109E’s wider undercarriage is more than a match for the shooting grounds of Dartmoor and the Highlands; about as close to the wilderness as these aircraft will be expected to get.
Aside from the utility, having retractable undercarriage lends a sense of speed and finesse to the aircraft’s aesthetic that can’t be overlooked in terms of appeal to Castle Air’s clientele. “I don’t think the looks are the reason clients choose the aircraft, but it’s certainly a factor,” explained Lehane. “Sleek, fast, Italian design. It just looks the way people expect a corporate aircraft to look and that definitely improves its salability.”
Spreading its wings
Having an aircraft well-suited to its mission is certainly an advantage, but in its Liskeard headquarters, Castle Air was used to having an operating site customized to its requirements — and expanding into London would cost it that control. When searching for a suitable site in the capital, it needed a base whose operators not only understood the corporate game as well as Castle Air did, but was also flexible enough to allow helicopters freedom of maneuver — and grant access to onward connections. Of all the airfields serving London, Biggin Hill was the natural choice.
Formerly a Royal Air Force fighter command base that was home to some of “The Few” during the Battle of Britain, in the free-market boom of the 1990s, Biggin Hill underwent a transformation into a hub for business aviation. Prohibited by law from operating ticketed flights, it has staked its survival on catering exclusively to private aviation. This was an arrangement that suited Castle Air just fine. It can have its customers delivered from London’s only civil certified helicopter landing site — London Heliport at Battersea — to a private jet at Biggin Hill in around six minutes.
Away from the capital city, many of the sites that Castle Air flies to are field landing areas at private residences, for which the relatively compact size of the AW109 is ideal. Off-airfield sites are surveyed prior, and where night approaches are necessary, Castle Air’s partners Puma Aviation must be in attendance with landing site lighting, and the pilot must have flown there in daytime. “If done incorrectly it can be unsafe,” said Lehane. “But if you get the right procedures in place and do it properly, with the proper lighting, you can do it safely.”
With aircraft containing ever-more capable technology (and marketed as such), will customers who are used to the height of convenience continue to accept being flown to the nearest licensed airfield when a field landing is imprudent?
“We make the capabilities and limitation of the aircraft very clear during the sale,” said Barry Chalmers, Castle Air’s manager at Biggin Hill. “If they need to do more then it’s quite simple, they need a different aircraft. The vast majority [of customers] understand that perfectly well and we rarely encounter that kind of pressure.”
It is reassuring to hear a safety culture being reinforced from the perspectives of both sales and operations personnel. Keeping the customer happy must sometimes take second place to keeping the customer safe, and so Castle Air’s pilots are expected to also be skilled diplomats. Even when risks are low, Lehane is very specific about why the selection of their pilots is so important.
“The team on the ground will work tirelessly to get a client on-side, but the first person that customer will meet from Castle Air will most likely be a pilot,” he explained. “Of course they’ve got to be good at what they do, but they’ve got to be nice people [too].”
It is doubtless a challenge to find people who can maintain professional focus on a cognitively demanding task, with the easy charm and ready solutions of a concierge. Castle Air prides itself on providing a pathway into the role for early-hour helicopter pilots, building their experience through its continued use of Bell 206 aircraft for seasonal pleasure flying.
Allied to this is the company’s 2016 purchase of the Bristow Academy site at Gloucester airport in the west of England. In a break with tradition, much of the infrastructure was already in place, although their AW109E simulator was transplanted from the Liskeard headquarters, adding to the two Airbus AS355 and single AW109 FNTPII trainers already in-situ.
Gloucester is also being developed into a full maintenance and charter facility, enabling Castle Air to reach further north and into Wales — another popular retreat for the wealthy.
The team at Castle Air certainly has a solid ethos of high standards and a strong link with their entrepreneurial do-it-yourself heritage. That kind of self-motivation has likely been valuable in standing up two new operations with barely a break in step. It also lends itself well to a world where the company must work around complications in order to deliver the client a trouble-free experience.
Whether in the shape of a regulatory barrier or inclement weather, obstacles encountered in aviation tend to be complex, and while operating a helicopter represents good value for those that can afford it, extracting that value demands the coordination of several interdependent or otherwise seemingly irreconcilable factors to safely deliver the expected service.
Summing up the company’s approach, Lahane said: “Our clients have a department that looks after all of that, and it’s Castle Air.”