The Cheltenham Festival held this year between the 15th – 18th March in its 105th year attracts royalty, as well as the rich and famous. With this brings the more luxurious travel, some choosing flash cars, others the steam train and for the very rich the helicopter is the only way to go.
Cheltenham is one of only a few racecourses in the UK to have a licensed heliport, which for most of the year has limited movements, with only a few helicopters using the facility for some of the larger one day and weekend race meets. For a few days in mid March this all changes with the rotary assets from across the UK and Eire descending on the Prestbury Park site. To manage the comings and goings of over 100 aircraft, Helicopter & Aviation Services Ltd (HASL) set up a full air traffic service, providing both Approach & Tower frequencies, as well as Rescue & Fire Fighter Services, weather and refuelling.
Due to the closeness of Gloucester Staverton Airport a lot of liaising has to take place between the two outfits, especially with Staverton being extremely busy itself with additional fixed wing bizjet and bizprop movements. The recently installed ILS at Staverton does have its advantages for aircraft attempting to arrive at the racecourse when visibility isn’t great.
The 2016 festival got off to a great start with good weather and large amount of movements for the opening day. Although the movements were constant over the four days the weather was somewhat variable. On my day of visiting, the Friday, this has historically always been the busiest day for movements, but sadly due to the weather this year it wasn’t as busy as planned, with a small number of aircraft not being able to make it. However, there were still 55 visiting aircraft.
Opening the heliport at 1130hrs due to low cloud, reduced visibility and freezing fog, was Starspeed’s Sikorsky S92, the largest aircraft to visit the festival carrying 16 guests in VIP Comfort. For the remainder of the morning and into the early afternoon movements kept flowing right up to the first race with a variety of aircraft ranging from AW139s and S76’s through to R44s and a single Enstrom. As not to distress the horses, which at times are less than 100m’s from the heliport, no movements are allowed during the races meaning a few late arrivals had to wait in a hold pattern whilst the races ran.
Once all the movements had taken place the flight line was then opened up for a supervised tour thanks to HASL’s fire crew, in return for a small donation to Midlands Air Ambulance whose Helimed 06 was based on site for any unfortunate events.
On a personal note the highlights of the day were the Bell 430 N430PR and the ex-Chiltern Air
Support Unit police helicopter G-CHSU, which is now operated by 2Excel Aviation.
Overall, despite the early set backs with the weather it was a very successful and enjoyable event and I look forward to returning in 2017.
© Matt Sudol/South West Aviation Photographers 2016