Taking off after Covid-19

One VIP helicopter charter service is balancing an uptick in business with a green agenda

Helicopter chartering is a market poised for growth in 2021, as celebrities and business leaders once again require swift and secure transport into London. And charter firm Castle Air is at the front of the pack: it can deliver VIPs to Battersea London Heliport from Biggin Hill airport in Kent in just six minutes.

Interest in the service has picked up since August and, such is the company’s confidence, it is increasing its fleet and investing in larger and even more luxurious aircraft. It has plans to expand other parts of the business, too – including aircraft sales, maintenance, spare parts, helicopter management, aerial filming and pilot training.

“The market for charter flights had recovered well following the 2008 financial crash but understandably it has been quieter during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says managing director Ross Bunyard. “The people who fly around in our helicopters include heads of large organisations who employ thousands of people. They need to get to places quickly – they see our service as an important tool to help them grow their businesses.”

The company is now one of the world’s largest dealers for helicopters and private jets

Castle Air has its own fleet of Agusta Westland A109 turbine helicopters – fitted to a luxury standard – and a pool of experienced in-house pilots who can be ready to serve clients within half an hour. The company can also arrange for transfers to the Battersea Heliport from private jets arriving at Biggin Hill and regional airports including Luton, Stansted, Gatwick and Farnborough.

As seen on TV

The company has come a long way since it was founded in 1980 by Cornish entrepreneur Roy Flood, who joined forces with two former Royal Navy pilots to launch a helicopter charter business near Liskeard in south-east Cornwall. In 1982, two more aircraft were added to meet growing demand. Castle Air found fame that year when it was asked to provide the transport for Channel 4’s popular gameshow Treasure Hunt, wherein contestants travelled the UK by helicopter solving clues.

Since the 1980s it has been all about growing the business by expanding the range of services on offer. As well as its facilities in Cornwall and at Biggin Hill, a third base was opened at Gloucestershire Airport. This is home to Castle Air’s state-of-the-art training academy, which specialises in advanced training for qualified pilots.

This part of the business was boosted in 2016 with the acquisition of the Bristow Academy UK. The two training facilities were merged to create the UK’s largest pilot school, which has so far coached more than 300 pilots.

Balancing profit and responsibility

Mr Bunyard has always believed in providing a complete end-to-end aviation service to cater for different clients’ specific needs. The company is now one of the world’s largest dealers for helicopters and private jets, and a leader when it comes to providing maintenance services including upgrades, refurbishments and pre-buy inspections. Its stock of parts for the AW109 series is one of the largest in Europe.

The company’s management service is popular because it enables aircraft owners to offset some of their costs by adding their own helicopter to Castle Air’s charter fleet and generating revenue.

Castle Air still offers aerial filming for the creative industries, including television, advertising and live broadcasts such as news reports. It holds a Civil Aviation Authority Air Operators certificate, which means it can gain permission to film at low level in controlled airspace and in built up areas, something drone operators cannot always do. “I want to keep growing the business by adding services and departments and expanding our academy,” says Bunyard. “We are also pushing the engineering and maintenance arm for privately-owned aircraft and lease contracts, and are keen to obtain more support contacts. We already work closely with Ministry of Defence contractors.”

Mr Bunyard understands why environmentalists may question the business and its plans to expand, but he says Castle Air is committed to a green agenda. “We have introduced a carbon offset scheme where 100 per cent of our helicopter charter flights are carbon neutral,” he says. “Our scheme allows us to invest in various accredited international renewable energy projects.”

He is optimistic about the future, and remains confident that the aviation infrastructure the company has built up over the past 40 years reflects its responsible attitude to both its clients’ needs and the environment.