Written by Tim Desbois on Sep 24, 2010. Posted in Contributors / General Interest

Aerial filming in the UK

Aerial filming specialist Tim Desbois from Flight Logistics shares his tips for a safe and successful helicopter shoot.

Your first consideration needs to be whether a single- or twin-engined helicopter is best suited to your needs. Camera platforms on single-engined helicopters are very manoeuvrable and are available at a reasonable cost, but on charter flights they cannot be used at night, in cloud, extensively over water, or over built-up areas. For these areas and conditions a twin-engined machine is required.

Both single- and twin-engined helicopters come in different sizes. Some have more power and speed, fly sideways more efficiently, accept different types of camera mounts and have more room inside to carry the Director and Assistant Camera person.

To fly at night your pilot must have a current night rating (qualified to fly at night) and a twin-engined helicopter. The helicopter must now also have an autopilot. Be careful as very few helicopters have autopilot fitted. The weather must be no worse than a 1,500ft cloud base with 6km visibility.

Remember that if your shoot requires flights before dawn or after sunset, be careful not to assume that the helicopter can fly at night.

There are various mounts available which fall into three groups. You have top-quality high tech gyro stabilised camera spheres such as the Wescam, Cineflex and Stab C. There are also balanced mounts such as the Tyler or Continental and handheld 'assists' such as the Tyler MiniGyro and Portamount. Which one you use depends on the shot and how much time and money you have.

When fitted, the mount becomes part of the helicopter and must be signed off by a helicopter engineer. Ideally it is best to consider the aerial team as a separate unit and not to plan to share camera equipment, as often with weather problems all units end up shooting at the same time. This also applies to the Camera Assistant.

All helicopters are required by law to carry Third Party Liability Insurance. The production company can be named as additionally assured under this policy, usually at no further cost, but you must ask. You can always obtain life/personal accident insurance for any of your employees or crew who may fly the helicopter. Some insurance companies will not cover high-value American passengers, such as Directors, even with an additional premium. Hired camera equipment must also have special cover.

As a broad guide, single-engined helicopters are between GBP650 and GBP950 per flying hour. Twins range from GBP1,150 to GBP1,750 and very large helicopters vary from GBP1,900 to GBP5,500 per flying hour. Specialist film pilots often charge a separate daily rate. Helicopter costs are calculated by the hour and by part hour.

It’s best to regard a helicopter engineer's presence on the shoot as insurance against silly mechanical hold ups. His cost justification depends on the cost to the production in the event of lost time and where the location is. Will the shoot be at an airfield with maintenance available or out in the wilds? The engineer can also make a considerable contribution to safety on location and around the landing site and assist with ground-to-air communications.

Taking a fuel bowser obviously depends on the length of flight time envisaged. Helicopters - like cars - perform best at light weights so ideally taking on fuel little but often. But remember that the idea of sending the helicopter to the nearest airfield to re-fuel often doesn’t make economic sense. You will lose valuable time that you have paid for and a landing fee could cost up to GBP550 each time.

Make sure the Location Manager talks to the pilot or helicopter company before he or she goes recce’ing. For instance, a large area around London requires clearance from the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for a non-standard flight. This can take up to seven working days to arrange and you may not have that long.

Film flying in the London area can be awkward. To protect the airline traffic at Heathrow, the authorities have created a large airspace area called the London Zone. Any helicopter company, despite having all relevant approvals, is at the discretion of the Heathrow Duty Controller of the day to approve the flight.

Oddly, superb weather may bring many different delayed flights over London; too many and they limit the number in the zone. The zone will be closed due to weather if the cloud base is less than 600ft and/or visibility is less than 1km. No money, cajoling or influence changes this. If you can select locations outside the zone, it is best to do so.

Landing within the congested area of cities requires special permission from the CAA. However, helicopters can land on any suitable site in the UK subject to airspace and safety considerations and provided that you have written permission of the owners of the land before arriving. You must also inform the local police and relevant local residents and check on local livestock. Sheep and cows are obvious but don’t forget racehorses in stables and battery hens (who panic and don’t lay eggs for a couple of days!).

Minimum heights vary but, as standard, you may not fly closer than 500ft to people, vehicles and buildings (some companies have a special dispensation to 200 feet distance for film purposes).

A pre-production helicopter checklist

Check with the Director or Camera Operator:
Do they have a preferred helicopter company or pilot?
Do they have a preferred camera mount?

Get as much detail as possible about:
Probable location areas;
How much use of the helicopter is envisaged;
Any special requirements such as other camera rigs, night flying or over-water flights?

Check with the helicopter company:
Which type of helicopter is most suitable for the filming?
What is the pilot and aircraft availability including weather cover days?
What is the availability of the preferred camera mount?
Does the mount have a base plate or brackets to fit the individual helicopter?
Are there any probable restrictions with the locations chosen?
What insurance cover will be in effect whilst filming?
Once confirmed, what are the cancellation penalties?
Is the helicopter operated on a Public Transport Air Operators Certificate?

Also check the following details:
Is a fuel bowser and/or an engineer required?
When and where is the mount being fitted and who is fitting it? What is the screen direction - right to left or left to right?
What are the home telephone numbers of everyone involved?
Who provides air-ground communications?
Is video playback required?
Have all the relevant local residents/farmers/police been told?
Are all the camera equipment and lenses compatible with the mount?
Is there any requirement for early or late airfield opening?

Practically every helicopter company in the UK claims to be "specialised film flyers" and indeed there are some very good local operators. However in your assessment only the genuine specialist companies will be able to provide a list of credits, references and/or a company showreel for recently completed work.

Do not call the CAA directly. Let your helicopter company or co-ordinator liaise with them for you.

Images courtesy of Tim Desbois and Flight Logistics.

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