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Wonders of the Western Group world: 2. Have the region's choppers really been grounded?

publication date: Oct 28, 2013
author/source: Dave Moss



Travel supplement editors seem to have unrivalled opportunity to indulge in expansive travelogues packed with glossy and colourful pictures of far flung exotic locations - enticing readers to enjoy the hospitality of the locations covered. Well, this travelogue offers none of that: its a distinctly radical alternative, and an unashamedly eclectic collection of material - mostly involving wings and wheels - from the length and breadth of our region. There are pictures, but glossy and colourful would be the wrong adjective in both cases: some are grainy, some black and white - and some are absent, simply because they're unobtainable.

Here we offer a different kind of regional viewpoint, looking at diverse but important happenings in our region, some recent, some not, by peeking well underneath the familiar tourist-oriented facade of stunning scenery, mild climate, friendly folk running bed and breakfast operations... and the ubiquitous clotted cream tea. 

In this specially compiled series the stories are sometimes edgy - and tend to celebrate the unusual, the surprising, the little-known, the sad-but-true, the former glories - and, yes, the slightly curious. Some stories are long on coincidence; all are entirely based on historical fact - and everything you can read about here has come into sharp focus as a story worth telling while researching the latest Western Group Travel Supplement found elsewhere on this site. 

These are stories to fill idle minutes waiting for a train or plane, or perhaps eating lunch at your desk; the chances are that, afterwards, you'll probably find yourself thinking... that's remarkable/sad/amazing... I'd never have guessed that... For the determinedly curious, each feature offers links to further information if you want to delve more deeply. 

So, although this specially compiled series meanders through the west country and into south Wales, any similarity to ordinary travelogues categorically ends there. Everything you are about to read is true, and absolutely no names have been changed to protect the innocent. Take this opportunity to relax, reflect and enjoy a journey of discovery amongst some well-hidden Wonders of  the Western Group world.


by Dave Moss

Many and varied are the stories of ventures established in and around Britain's  automotive and aviation industries which began on a high and later ended in tears - and amongst them are plenty of sad, poignant and occasionally unusual tales.

The west country has recently seen the demise of three high profile operations, all with a long history. Here's one of them - apparently dead, but not quite ready to lie down. 

Evocative black and white shot from Penzance Heliport

Penzance Heliport is one of them, built by BEA on a 15 acre site just a mile east of the town to inaugurate a helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly in 1964 when it became apparent that runway limitations on St Mary's and at Lands End airport effectively prevented the use of larger fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopters could carry more people than the existing aircraft, and were less restricted in take-off and landing space, advantages neatly circumvented the problems.

The service subsequently became part of British Airways Helicopters, and in the 1980's the company was privatised into the hands of publishing magnate Robert Maxwell, and renamed British International Helicopters. (BIH) Even before the new millennia dawned this isolated route had established a record - it was easily the world's longest running scheduled helicopter service.

In the past, the two Sikorsky S61 machines once operating this route were making up to 40 flights a day: since 2000  the average has been less than half that, though the importance of the service until recently is shown by estimates suggesting around 100,000 tourist and business passengers used Penzance heliport in 2010. Trouble is, the number has been in steady decline for some time....

The British International Helicopters name survived various ownership changes and a management buyout, but by 2011, with passenger numbers still reportedly in decline, significant investment was becoming vital in order to renew the helicopter fleet. Finance was to be raised by selling the Heliport, which proved controversial. 

Serious concerns were raised by the Island community, local and county councils and the region's MP - all worried about potential loss of the long established link to the Scilly Isles (right).

BIH however claimed it spent £300,000 on what eventually proved an abortive application for an alternative - though much less convenient - heliport site at St Erth in west Cornwall.

An idea of the distances involved from this graphic 

A sale of the Penzance site was eventually agreed with Sainsbury's, who planned to build a supermarket. British International Helicopters were due to vacate on 31st October 2012, having previously stated the sale was necessary to release capital to continue the service - with the St Erth alternative then still in the frame. 

Sainsbury's plans to buy the land were delayed by a legal challenge from Tesco and private individuals over the granting of planning permission. BIH announced it would cease Helicopter services at the end of October, claiming it was hamstrung by "uncertainties" resulting from an impending judicial review. Ironically, that was abandoned literally days before the last helicopter flew, but there was no going back. The service ceased as indicated, the islands lost a lifeline, and Penzance Heliport is no more, lowering the curtain on the world's longest running scheduled helicopter service.

But this is a story that just will not lay down and die - for now a new chapter seems about to open, and incredibly, this particular wheel may yet turn full circle, though with a curious twist. Over 100 miles east, ownership of Exeter airport has very recently changed hands: the incomer is Patriot Aerospace - aviation division of the Rigby Group PLC - which counts amongst its interests a newly revitalised Coventry airport, and a newly purchased Blackpool airport.

Patriot also happens to own the country's largest helicopter operator... Newquay based British International Helicopters, which of course operated the now defunct Isles of Scilly link. Speculation about the Group's intentions is now growing in the region, with some Press reports even suggesting helicopter services might be started from the currently moribund Plymouth City airport. Separately, there's been new speculation that an Isles of Scilly Helicopter link could yet return - run by an entirely different, completely unrelated operator - though it cannot now fly from the original Penzance Heliport. Suddenly, this has turned into a story that could run and run.

If you'd like to know more about the background to the demise of the helicopter service to the Isles of Scilly, have a look at these:

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