Justin Wastnage / Stapleford
A spillage from a paint truck as it overturned leaving Staines was the joke on Thursday's breakfast show on London's Capital FM radio show, inspired by a real blockage to the city's ringroad highway, the M25.
Capital's aerial traffic reporters, the Flying Eye, were dispatched to investigate the real accident and were able to get from the Woolwich fly-over in the city's east end to the blockage in the Reigate exit in the south west in 12min by flying down the Thames. Select Air, the air taxi operator last year awarded the contract to fly the radio station for its travel slots is the only operator except the police and ambulance services to have a 'Whiskey' (W-class) licence, granting permission to fly anywhere in central London.
Select Air's chief pilot Colin Dobney took Flight International's senior reporter Justin Wastnage for a spin in the new Twin Star (pictured), while explaining the unique challenges the Flying Eye service requires. Hugh Broom, the station's travel correspondent coordinates activities at the Leicester Square headquarters of the station, from 06:00 when the radio's controversial Cockney presenter Johnny Vaughan starts his show. "The public texts, emails and calls us with news of accidents or blockages and we investigate them with the police and authorities before putting together a list of possible locations for the plane to fly over," he explains.
At 06:50 the voice of the Flying Eye, Louise Pepper receives her final brief from Broom and sets off from Select Air's base at Stapleford airport north east of London. The normal traffic build-ups start by 07:00, she explains, with the names QE2 Bridge, North Circular and Dartford Crossing familiar to all frustrated peak hour London drivers.
The aircraft flies at around 2,000ft (600m) for most of the flight, but can go as low as 1,000ft to get a close look at incidents, says Pepper. "You can see in five minutes all the surrounding roads and see where the gridlock starts, whether the police are there and judge when it's likely to clear," she says. Listeners stuck in the jam are reassured to hear the Flying Eye, as they feel part of a bigger event, she adds.
The Flying Eye deals directly with air traffic control centres to amend its repetitive flight plan. Unfortunately for ATC, the infamous traffic black spot the Blackwall Tunnel lies in the control area for London City Airport, so some cajoling is required to take a peek, and usually only one pass is allowed, Jacqui Dobney, the Flying Eye pilot. Otherwise few restrictions apply and the aircraft passes freely only a few hundred metres above some of London's best-known landmarks, although Buckingham Palace and Westminster are still off-limits, as is the stretch of the M25 close to Heathrow. "We'll never tell someone we were flying over the M4/M25 junction [near Heathrow] as it wouldn't be true, so we have to use ground-based information, except when the ATC computers went down and they let us have a buzz over just because we could," he says.
The aircraft comes down at 09:00 and is used for occasional charter during the day before taking off again at 17:00 for the Richard Bacon drive time show until 18:40. Pepper tried out the Twin Star just after Flight International and says the wide, open view of the diesel-cycle twin will allow much clearer views of the jams than peering over the wedge-like wing of the Seneca. The words: "queues on the clockwise section after junction 17 due to an earlier accident" and "only the outside lane open" will no doubt sound even more soothing as a result.
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