Interview + Photography by Luke Alland, using Leica's Q2 Reporter.
"They give you an oxygen bottle. They say it's good enough for about three breaths, but there's no way of knowing how much oxygen is actually in there... it's not pleasant, I didn't like it at all."
Tom Barnard is a bike mechanic-turned-civilian helicopter pilot. Living proof of those famous Armed Services adverts: if you can ride a bike, then you can fly a chopper. Granted, he didn't go down that particular route, but it's been a bit of a wild ride to get to where he is now.
We sat down with him at the Cafe House restaurant in Elephant & Castle to talk about how he actually got to fly helicopters, why he thinks they sometimes look a bit silly and why you should always check the weather before taking off... If you wondered what it's like learning to fly the rotorcraft that most of us won't ever travel in, Tom's your man.
Luke Alland: You becoming a helicopter pilot was never originally the plan, was it?
Tom Barnard: "I had no interest when I was young, or up until the moment it sort of came into my conscience, I just wanted to play sport really. Cricket, football, anything. Even a PE teacher was on the cards. I was gonna do a higher National Diploma at Wandsworth College or something, but it got cancelled last minute because I was the only person on the course. They couldn't afford to run just one, so I worked at the Lido for a good period.
"I really wanted to fix things, and so I got a job in a bicycle shop. Very lucky, really, very good boss. I'd stayed there if I had more passion for cycling itself; the business and the trade. I realised there was money to be made if you had your own shop, but that's the only way to make money. When cycling to and from Hammersmith—which is where the shop was—you'd see the helicopters coming in and out of Battersea Heliport. It got me thinking that maybe that could be my job one day, and that's where the spark was, so I took a course doing that instead."
LA: Just after you'd started the course, there was the really unfortunate, tragic accident at Leicester City.
TB: "I lived five minutes away from the Leicester City football ground. There's nothing the pilot could have done. I don't think the full accident report has come out yet, but essentially, I think it's going to go down to just maintenance. It was definitely a shock."
LA: Was there any point during the training that you thought that you might quit?
TB: "Straight away!"
LA: Straight away?
TB: "Well, the first thing is I'm a bit afraid of heights. Which is mental. I don't like Westfield Shopping Centre, for example. There's three floors and as you look down from the third floor, it really makes me uncomfortable. But when I did my trial lesson, the heights up there didn't bother me."
LA: I think the only real comparison most people have is a driving test, or learning to drive: having a theory-based section and then the practical. In my case, it's more of a, you know, like cycling proficiency test, which is basically 'can you ride one handed?' But some people really struggle with the practical. Did you find the practical easier than the theory?
TB: "The theories, yeah, they're quite conceptual as well, a lot of information about the weather, meteorology. No one actually knows how the weather works! Anyway, we're able to forecast relatively accurately and know what it's going to behave like, and what to expect for particular types of weather. But it's interesting to think that it's still just a theory. Someone might come along in twenty years with a new theory that's a bit more accurate. You have to be able to have quite an open mindset, accepting these new ways of thinking.
"But some of the theory was quite difficult, actually. Not too challenging once you put some work into it and I'm really proud of myself and the results I got. So although the first practical test is the easiest, supposedly, I found it the hardest because I had no idea or understanding of why I was doing what I was doing. I failed that first test, and I passed the second time round."
LA: But what does a test entail? You can't do an emergency stop, like, left at the lights kind of thing. How can you fail? Guessing crashing is up there...?
TB: "Yeah, don't do that! So there's a number of things like normal procedures, general handling, how you handle the aircraft. Can you fly it straight level? Can you fly at knots on a particular heading at a particular altitude which requires a bit of dexterity, a good scan of the instruments, so you're not focusing on just one. If you focus on one for sure, the other things are going to go out of parameters. So it's keeping a good scan. Flying with the aircraft in a non-power flight. When we simulate the engines failing—called an auto rotation—so you glide back down to the earth, in one piece."
LA: What altitude do you do that?
TB: "Probably start that somewhere around 3,500 feet above sea level, about 3,000 feet above the ground."
LA: I've done a stall turn in a plane. Which is terrifying, I had a pilot with me, obviously. A helicopter doesn't seem as adept to actually glide...
TB: "They sink at a far greater rate, something around 2,000 feet per minute. So if you're up there, you know you've got 40 seconds to a minute in a glide. You've got to try and keep on a particular heading, trying to get into wind, just trying to think about where you would land. Fly the aircraft first, navigate the aircraft second, essentially. Pick out a good field, and then communicate to Air Traffic Control what's been going on. Then someone can come and help you. See, there's an emergency procedure section, which is fun."
LA: What would be the most fun you've ever had? I know you've landed on a golf course to just pop in and buy an orange juice...
TB: "Yeah that was good fun, but I'd say going to the Lake District for a day trip. I took off from Leicester, going up over the Peak District to Blackpool, landed there and had some food, got some fuel. Then up to the Lake District, ended up landing at a hotel near there."
LA: Did they have a helipad?
TB: "I mean, they had a little H! Then from there we went around the Lake District, then back through the Peak District, and back down to Leicester. That's probably the best day trip I've had, then coming back and going through London as well. That's always good. Yeah. The Heli-lanes of London are always fun."
LA: You make it sound like such a hipster location, 'The Heli Lanes'!
TB: "Yeah, if you've got a single-engine aircraft then they don't like you flying over the top of London, because if your engine fails, then you're going to be taking out some people on the ground or a building, so what they want you to do is fly particular prescribed routes at particular altitudes so that if you have a failure, you're less likely to go and crash into people."
LA: So just hope for Richmond Park?
TB: "Well, yeah exactly, parks or the river. You can come down through the Lee Valley, at the O2 then you pick up the river, fly along it and then there's routes where you'll go out towards Richmond Park, towards the Southwest and out that way, or up over Heathrow to the Northwest that way."
LA: I can imagine flying near Heathrow would be quite terrifying. Lots of traffic...
TB: "Yeah, you get in a lot of trouble if you bust the airspace as they say. You'll be having an interview without coffee at the CAA. "What were you playing at?!" just grovelling with them basically."
LA: Going near any major airport must be really heavy going though?
TB: "You need to be on top of your game, you need to know where you are, what you do if your engine fails, but you're always thinking, 'where would you go if that happens?' You need to have a very good idea of where you are in space. So that if they ask you, you can tell them exactly where you are.
"Practice and skill plays a massive part in it and it's a problem in the aviation industry at the moment. Obviously COVID has been a huge issue because people haven't flown due to less demand. Some of their skills fade and they have to go back and perform at that high level again, and you've got to stay on top of your game. It's hard if you've not had enough practice."
LA: So why helicopters and not planes?
TB: "To be honest, it's just a bit more dynamic, the actual flying. You're not going from an airfield to another airfield on a prescribed route, which probably after you've done ten times, the only real bit that you're doing is the take-off and landing. Also, the fact that if you're long haul, you're going away to go from one airport hotel to another. I suppose my favourite bit of flying was always when I came back from a holiday, when you're flying quite low level around the city and getting to point things out and say, 'oh, that's cool'. That's the perspective all the time in a helicopter."
LA: On your license, what's the largest helicopter or the most amount of passengers you can carry?
TB: "On the type I just learned to fly, it's maximum eight passengers. Although the largest civilian aircraft I think is 18 seats and you're kind of limited to that. If you have 19 seats, you have to have a steward onboard, that's one of the regulations, just someone there to say, "Put your seatbelt on". That's then the extra cost of that person's wages, the extra seat, the increased performance that the aircraft needs to carry that extra weight and then the potential loss in fuel load, which will affect how far you can go."
LA: What's the ceiling to which the aircraft you use operate, how high can they actually go?
TB: "The aircraft I fly now? That's 20,000 feet."
LA: That's fucking nuts. Why would you need to go that high?
TB: "You wouldn't often go up to that altitude, I mean, if you're operating in the Alps, for example, you might be landing actually on a mountain which is the ground level at that altitude—the aircraft performance is madly impressive."
LA: Have you ever been in a situation where you're just like, Fuck, this could go seriously wrong?
TB: "When I was an instructor, you've only got 200 hours more experience, although that's huge. You still have no idea what you're really doing, you've got to really concentrate otherwise, things can go wrong quickly. I never had an issue with handling or something going wrong with the aircraft, the big issue comes with the weather, and I think all pilots can relate to that. Just making a mistake with yes or no? Should we go? Shouldn't we go? Can we get around this?
"There was one incident, when I was teaching a student and the weather was marginal, we could get into this circuit to do some training at the airfield. Then the weather just closed in really quickly, really quickly, quicker than forecasted, quicker than expected. All of a sudden we were making an approach to the H and we were flying through the wall of rain. Visibility drops hugely once you go through heavy rain, and being 300 feet above sea level, maybe 200 feet above the ground you're thinking that there are hopefully no trees down there! You're familiar with the area, but even then you're really working hard to make sure you get the aircraft safely on the ground. I had to ask the student just make sure to read my height and my speed if there's any massive deviation. Because it's nice having a second set of eyes! It was a huge learning point, even for me. Weather can turn really quickly and it's not something to mess around with. If you're not sure. Don't go."
LA: I remember talking to you about the underwater training you did, what was that?
TB: "Oh, yeah, the HUET training. Essentially dunking helicopter underwater escape training. It might have used a posh word for escape, like egress training or something like that. If you do any flying over water, you have to demonstrate you can get out the aircraft if you have to ditch it. There's a few places in the UK to do it; I did it at this place in Southampton. You sit in this box, they slowly lower it into the water whilst you're strapped into the seat. It sort of feels like a bit like an aircraft, the seatbelts are the same.
"Initially, they just make you go underneath, hold your breath, undo your seatbelt and get out through the window. They build it up gradually: they put you underwater, then they turn you upside down, and then you have to get out straight away. Then the last one is where they give you an oxygen bottle. They say it's good enough for about three breaths, but there's no way of knowing how much oxygen is actually in there... it's not pleasant, I didn't like it at all."
LA: You don't have to do it again?
TB: "Yep... every three years. It was miserable, you get water up your nose and everything."
LA: "Final question, if there was an experience or something that you'd like to be able to do with your training, what would it be?"
TB: "For me the dream is to be in London's air ambulance. I'm from London. I'd love to live and work in London, flying over the city that I love, doing a really interesting job and having essentially unlimited clearance. The skies are yours. The surface, too, is yours in many respects. If you can get in there and you can make sure it's clear, then it's all for you.
"In terms of acrobatic stuff, I don't think helicopter looks particularly elegant and aeroplanes are really elegant when they're doing acrobatic stuff—they look really pleasing on the eye. Helicopters, I think look a bit silly. They're awesome, though, because they can hover. Watching a helicopter hover for me is like magic. That's what they're all about. Watch them pop up going into a confined area, landing in someone's garden. That's the magic and the beauty of a helicopter."