Get To Da Choppah
I can tell you exactly where this all started: it was in Hong Kong, in 2005. The Belated Birthday Girl and I had checked into the Excelsior Hotel and bought ourselves a room upgrade, because we were feeling a bit fancy and because I didn't realise I was going to lose my job five months later. I mentioned at the time that our premium highness allowed us a great overhead view of the Noon Day Gun, but it also gave us a view of something else – a nearby helipad, from which we could see helicopters taking off and landing every few minutes. This delighted The BBG no end.
Ever since then, we've joked on and off about how doing a helicopter ride together would be a fun thing, but never quite got around to arranging it. Until last Christmas, when I finally cracked and bought her an experience package that would allow us to do just that. The story that follows spans a period of eleven months – and if you've been paying attention, you'll know some of it already. Does it have a happy ending? Well, don't watch that video over there if you want to avoid spoilers.
The massively overpackaged box contains, as I said, a voucher with a code on it, along with a few sketchy instructions about what it entitles you to. The specific one I'd bought was the Six Mile Buzz Flight, and that tells you upfront what you'll get – a six mile flight lasting around five minutes or so, as one of up to six passengers occupying the copter. When you redeem the voucher on their website, you get to choose from a list of forty locations around the UK, and from a list of available timeslots at those locations. Pick what you want, and you're booked in. The voucher lasts for a maximum of a year – more accurately, December 1st after the Christmas it was bought for – so there's a ticking clock to consider.
What's the catch? Well, technically, there are two. The first is the unspoken assumption that you'll be travelling to the helicopter launch by car. Many of the locations, once you start feeding their postcodes into Google Maps, turn out to be totally inaccessible by public transport. Sure, I understand that you wouldn't build a heliport next door to a railway station: but some of them are several miles away from the nearest bus stop, and for non-drivers like myself and The BBG that can be an issue.
The second catch is the one I've been dropping hints about on this site for most of 2018, and it's this: if the weather is at all iffy on the day, they'll cancel the flight. Obviously you can use the voucher again at a later date, but it's a bit awkward if you've travelled a long way to get there. So, when The BBG and I started planning how to use these vouchers, we aimed to use them in places where a) there was interesting stuff to look at from a helicopter and b) there was interesting stuff we could do if it turned out we couldn't go in a helicopter that day. This approach helped us survive the first two last-minute cancellations we encountered, at Edinburgh in May and Newcastle in August. But as we scrabbled around afterwards to find our next available slot for a flight, that deadline of December 1st started looming alarmingly. And bear in mind that at this point, we hadn't as yet had any concrete evidence that these people actually owned any helicopters.
Liverpool in mid-November didn't seem like the optimum time and place for our third crack at a ride. But it fitted all of our criteria for availability and accessibility – in the latter case, we found we could stay at the Burbo Bank Bed and Breakfast in Waterloo, and get to the heliport with a single ride on a 47 bus. 75 minutes before our flight was due to take off, as we got on the 47, we still hadn't been notified of any cancellation. It was all looking promising.
By the time we got off the 47 at the other end, it was pissing down. We got to the designated flight area to discover just how these things work – what I'd been referring to as a 'heliport' until now was in fact an open field round the back of the Red Squirrel pub. The control centre for the whole operation was a people carrier parked at one end of the field: there was a large roped-off area where the helicopter action was obviously due to take place, and the rest of the field was taken up with the parked cars of the various other people booked on flights that day. They were, of course, all sitting inside their cars staying dry, which wasn't an option open to us.
We'd assumed that our chances of getting airborne that day had hit zero. Happily, we were wrong. The ground staff were surprisingly optimistic, insisting that this rain was scheduled to stop in a little while, and that the flights would probably go ahead, albeit with delays. And just to keep us happy, they let us wait out the rain inside their people carrier, along with the one other punter who'd turned up on foot rather than in their own car.
After a little while, as promised, the rain stopped. People were cautiously coming out of their cars to check in, so we decided to do the same. Just like at the Excelsior all those years ago, the check in process involved a degree of upselling – paying a bit extra if you wanted a ride in the front seat, or a 'Thrillseeker' ride that involved a couple of aerobatics on top of the standard route. At this point, we were so relieved this was finally going ahead that we were malleable enough to say yes to the Thrillseeker, which cost another tenner apiece. By the time it was our turn to step up, we were running an hour late: not a problem in the slightest, as by that point the sky was a glorious shade of blue throughout.
We got a quick safety briefing - mostly obvious stuff like 'don't stick your head into the back rotor' - posed for the inevitable souvenir photo in front of the copter, and then we got in. It wasn't the first time in a helicopter for either of us – The BBG rode in one during her first Japan trip in 1999, around the same time that I did something similar during my US trip. As everyone on the flight gets a headset, I got to tell the pilot and all the passengers that I'd flown over New York back in the days when they let helicopters fly over New York. Given that nobody else in our party had been on one before, in retrospect that was probably a bad time for me to drop an implied reference to 9/11, but it's too late to do anything about that now.
As for the ride: yeah, it's as fun as you'd expect. We were out by Crosby Beach, so we got to fly out to the coast and back, taking in a couple of bits of farmland along the way, including a lovely view of a huge pumpkin patch. I'm sure we got the promised couple of additional twizzes we paid our extra tenner for, and the random shots of clouds in the video seem to bear that out, but at the time we were just enjoying the whole experience. It was a perfectly smooth ride even with the bonus wobbles, and well worth the wait in the end. Five minutes is about right, really – you're back on the ground again before you've had chance to get used to the sensation, so you're still babbling with excitement as you leave. Which is, of course, the exact point where they persuade you to pay another tenner for your souvenir photo.
If we'd ended up having our third flight in a row cancelled due to bad weather, I think I'd be a lot more cynical about the whole experience: but now I know that Adventure 001 really do have some helicopters and really do let people ride in them, I'm happy to recommend them to anyone, as long as you're aware of the risks of bad weather literally pissing on your chips. And for the record, we also got through a full backup collection of other events in Liverpool while we were there. Saturday lunch in BrewDog (hi, Eddie): a stroll out to Crosby Beach to see Antony Gormley's Another Place: pre-theatre dinner and post-theatre drinks at The Pen Factory: the excellent beatbox-gigtheatre hybrid Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster at the Everyman (and let's gloss over the fact that it's a production we could have seen back home at Battersea Arts Centre): post-copter lunch at Timberwolf: a quick stroll around Port Sunlight and the Lady Lever Art Gallery, the latter currently home to a lovely exhibition of Quentin Blake illustrations: one more set of beers at the Baltic Fleet: and a terrific curry at Mowgli to set us up for the train home. It almost seems greedy to throw a helicopter ride on top of all that, to be honest.
We did Anthony Gormley's Another Place during our Liverpool weekend in May. The main reason for the visit was the Terracotta Army exhibition (not sure if that is still on). Would also recommend both of the Cathedrals (completely different).
Not quite sure how it would have worked on the Thrillseeker ride if one of you had paid the extra tenner and one of you hadn't ?
Posted by: Suzannes flaming flan club | November 20, 2018 at 05:29 PM
Sensible answer: they'd have put us on different flights. Stupid answer: one of us on the inside of the helicopter, one on the outside.
Posted by: SpankTM | November 21, 2018 at 12:41 PM