So farewell, biennial helicopter trade show
Has it really been 30 years? It sounds about right. And I’ve been to every one of these shindigs. I was there in London yesterday but have decided it’s time to call it a day.
I recall Helitech’s early days at Redhill, close to London Gatwick, where we camped out in some remote area of the grass airfield, and where more than once it rained so hard that water seeped through the underfoot coir matting. I once spent an idle hour classifying the mud-types I had encountered, from carpark clag to walkway ooze, and even though said field was easy to fly into and around, and perfect for demonstrating skidded machines (wheeled ones invariably sank to their oleos), it was obvious that hugely expensive aircraft and trench warfare conditions did not chime well.
So Spearhead Exhibitions, run by the redoubtable Sue Bradshaw, upped-sticks and moved to another famous Battle of Britain airfield — Duxford near Cambridge. It was here I believe that the show found its spiritual home and, over two full decades, became quite the magnet for operators and, in turn, dragged in exhibitors and visitors. Accommodation and logistics proved problematic — as part of an editorial team I was once put up in a Travelodge on a roundabout next to a Shell station — but since you can’t argue with footfall, most folk found a way around this.
As the show settled into this new venue, it evolved into something of a must-see for the European arm of the ‘industry’. More intimate than the annual US Heli-Expo behemoth, over the years it also developed some unique selling points. Like the Day One reception in the splendid American Air Museum, a hangar so stuffed with US hardware that it took me most of my first visit to notice a giant B52 bomber suspended, amongst so many other planes, from the ceiling. Like the Glenn Miller tribute band, resplendent in USAAF ‘pinks’, that would belt out swing classics to an audience that lingered to chat long after chucking-out time. Like the dinners for many of us held at historic Magdalen College, generously and repeatedly laid on by Jeremy Awenat. And like the decent chance of seeing, over the three days of any show, an RAF Spitfire locking display practice horns with a Luftwaffe Me-109. Bugger all to do with helicopters, any of it, but you can’t buy atmosphere like that.
As a freelance I found my own B&B accommodation in an old manor house to the south of the airfield, where squadron aircrew would surely have been billeted during the Battle of Britain. I would drive in early, along the A505 past the pet cemetery (smoking today?), and talk my way into parking next to the entrance and press-room. Although still a temporary structure, this one looked more like an exhibition and less like an army canteen, and the portaloos were set up on hardstanding rather than slip-slidin’ slop. A static line of new helicopters would stretch the whole length of the exhibition hall and, opposite the chalets, scatter into an unruly mass of interlocking rotor blades.
I knew so many people. Press contacts, visiting pilots and engineers, and the odd CEO. It would take me over an hour to wheel the 120 metres from one end of the hall to the other. I loved news-gathering, interviewing, catching up; the attention dammit.
But to be honest the chalets were a bit tat and, as companies were acquired and million-dollar partnerships forged, clients began to object as the odd rain-generated power cut disrupted their Powerpoints and the barely adequate air-con. Spearhead was also swallowed up by the vast Reed organisation that soon decided, with merciless logic, that million-dollar products deserved million-dollar accommodation. Sue’s services were unceremoniously dispensed with. The writing was on the wall.
So it shifted once more. Today, after three or four outings to its latest home, the cavernous and soulless Excel centre in London’s dockland, the industry pays top-dollar for everything. The result is certainly slick (and the toilets are lovely) but it has shrunk considerably from its Duxford glory days and, to my mind, has lost much of its attraction. Helitech now seems to me like a teeny-weeny cousin of Heli-Expo, with no distinguishing feature whatsoever.
Does that matter? The sector has expanded enormously since the mid-eighties and the helicopter is now involved in any number of new activities worldwide. Exciting new rotorcraft are in development and risks continue to be taken. Business is more corporate and less personal but it is also more profitable. Hundreds of new flying jobs have been created. When back in the day I worked for the then-BHAB, I would counsel wanabee pilots that the only way to employment lay through the military pipeline and that no one else would pay you to fly. That soon changed and several fully-employed aviators I later met at Helitech would gleefully point out just how wrong I had been.
That new generation is now in charge and, as my trade-press writing has tailed off, I have lost touch with most of my colleagues. Yesterday it took me less than two minutes to cross the hall without being accosted. The only friend who I did see, and who I am confident would have been at the very first Helitech, was insurance stalwart Ian Rubie. We have grown old together Ian.
So in 2019, unless there is something to look forward to beyond the press releases and media receptions, I think I’ll take a rain-check. Which is sort-of where we came in.