While on the bus to Romford I spotted a helipad in a park.
That's unusual, I thought.
So I got off to have a look.
It wasn't entirely out of place because it was immediately alongside Queens Hospital and big hospitals often have helipads. But it did seem unusual that it was unfenced in a public park with a footpath close by, indeed so close that the path needs yellow warning signs at each end. Most of the time this is a patch of green where you could linger for a smoke or a picnic, and just occasionally it morphs into a helicopter landing area subject to extreme high wind and noise (BHR, NHS and helicopter operator are not responsible for any property damage or personal injury sustained within 50 metres).
n.b. A fence with a locked gate runs between the helipad and the hospital service area, with a tarmac strip connecting the two, so NHS staff are better protected from the blast than the general public.
n.b. Oldchurch Park used to be much larger until Queens Hospital was built in the middle of it in the 2000s, and now all that's left is a C-shaped remnant of grass threaded through by a lacklustre footpath.
n.b. The vegetation surrounding the helipad isn't all grass, it's mostly low plant cover which is enough to deter most people from straying off the path, but really no protection whatsoever.
Romford's Queens Hospital helipad is only ever in operation for a tiny amount of time, air ambulances permitting, which I guess is why it can afford to be an integral part of a public park. But it started me wondering whether this open access helipad is perhaps unique within Greater London. And more importantly it made me ask the question...
Where are London's helipads?
a) The obvious place to start is the LondonHeliport, the capital's premier helicopter launchpad. It's on the south bank of the Thames in Battersea and opened in 1959. The riverside location is important because all landings and takeoffs take place on a jetty, with an adjacent apron allowing up to three craft to rest their rotors. Public transport nearby is fairly poor but that's OK because helicopter users tend to be taxi types, or more likely limo users, indeed the heliport is the only London transport hub to be sponsored by a luxury yacht management company.
For those walking the Thames Path the heliport is a fortified obstruction to onward progress, though thankfully only brief. It's screened behind a strengthened fence to reduce blowback, and emblazoned with signs warning of Helicopter Down Wash, Laser Hazard and Drone Flying Strictly Prohibited. A control tower keeps an eye on things, an anemometer and a wind sock provide crucial information for pilots and a team of mechanics are on standby to provide fuel, service knowhow and quite possibly a supply of lemon-soaked paper napkins. The contrast to Romford's untended circle is stark.
Ⓗ London Heliport, Battersea
b) Several other London hospitals have helipads, notably those with a link to the air ambulance service. The most famous of these is the Royal London in Whitechapel where the helipad is on the roof, originally a few storeys up but now high atop the 17th floor where the entire neighbourhood can watch comings and goings. From here everywhere inside the M25 is reachable with 15 minutes, and the service treated over 1700 patients last year. A second helipad opened on the roof of St George's Hospital in Tooting in 2014, which is of particular use when county air ambulances need to deliver patients to a London Trauma Centre.
Other London hospitals with a helipad include Queens in Romford, obviously, and King's College Hospital at Denmark Hill where a facility opened on the roof of the 10-storey Ruskin Wing in October 2016. Then there's Harefield Hospital where hearts for transplant need to be able to fly in asap. Its helipad lies within a patch of grass beyond the car park, watched over by a line of benches that are perfectly safe to sit on at least 99% of the time. The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital used to have a lowly helipad but that's recently been removed to make way for more operating theatres. Helicopters do sometimes land near health centres on land not marked with an H, but I believe the number of hospital helipads in London is just five.
Ⓗ Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel
Ⓗ St George's Hospital, Tooting
Ⓗ King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill
Ⓗ Queen's Hospital, Romford
Ⓗ Harefield Hospital, Hillingdon
c) Some airfields have helipads, though none that the public can casually wander onto. Heathrow has one helipad to the south of the main runways. RAF Northolt has two, being the favoured spot for politicians and royalty to launch themselves across the kingdom, and is also where London's air ambulances are stabled when they're not on call. Biggin Hill's helipad, used to chopper the elite to central London in six minutes flat, is a frankly disappointing letter H in the centre of a taxiway. London City Airport has nothing.
Ⓗ Heathrow Airport
ⒽⒽ RAF Northolt
Ⓗ Biggin Hill
d) Other heliports are available. The Vanguard heliport on the western edge of the Isle of Dogs has been operational since 1980 and is sometimes used by private clients trying to access East London direct. It's hidden behind a self-storage centre and only visible from across the river, and creates an annoying diversion in the Thames Path. Then there's the deceptively-named London Docklands Heliport which appears to be located on the bleakest edge of the Ford Motor Works site in Dagenham. I've had to look at a lot of aerial views while trying to compose this list, it's not an easy topic to research.
Ⓗ Vanguard Heliport, Isle of Dogs
Ⓗ London Docklands Heliport, Dagenham
e) I thought a good way to properly enumerate London's helipads would be to check OpenStreetMap and count all the times the helipad symbol is used. The key tag is "aeroway=helipad", and brilliantly there's a script you can run that highlights every occurrence on the map. It generated this view of London and the surrounding counties.
The map includes all the heliports I've previously mentioned and also several interesting additions. Harrods has a helipad to help really rich shoppers spend their money with ease. Regents Park Barracks has a helipad to launch SAS missions a little quicker, amongst other army activities. The swanky West Lodge Park hotel on Cockfosters Road has a helipad on its lawn. The industrial estate at Coldharbour Point downstream of Rainham includes an old painted H which you might have walked past on the last section of the London Loop. And a grass helipad exists in the lower reaches of Alexandra Park below Alexandra Palace, which is much lowlier but more accessible than the helipad in Romford.
Ⓗ Harrods, Knightsbridge
Ⓗ Regents Park Barracks, Camden
Ⓗ West Lodge Park, Enfield
Ⓗ Coldharbour Point, Rainham
Ⓗ Alexandra Park, Haringey
n.b. Helipads just beyond the Greater London boundary include the Uxbridge Business Centre, Pinewood Studios, Elstree Aerodrome, Sandown Racecourse, the Met's police helicopter base at Lippits Hill and of course Windsor Castle, but they don't count. Neither do historic helipads like the Waterloo Air Terminal from the 1950s, the Millennium Dome's former launchpad or the site they've since built over at Whipps Cross Hospital, because they're not current.
Assuming OpenStreetMap is correct then that should be the full list of London's helipads, but there's no reason why it definitely is so you may know better. If there's a private helipad on the roof of your penthouse flat or an H scrawled across the far end of your local car park do let us know. But if you'd like to stand on a London helipad, taking into account due regard for health and safety, then Romford's peculiar hospital outlier appears to be your best bet.
4pm update: Buckingham Palace has a (deliberately unobtrusive) helipad in the back garden marked out by two different types of grass. The RAF Museum at Colindale supposedly has a helipad on a triangle of grass to the west of the main building, but I can't spot it. The Heathrow Crowne Plaza hotel beside M4 J4 has a helipad tucked into the corner of the neighbouring golf course.