A helicopter pilot was arrested yesterday in a move which has provoked a storm of controversy. 44 year-old Stuart Michelson, an employee of Hampshire-based Swift Helicopters*, was charged by the Metropolitan Police of landing a helicopter in a prohibited area without permission.

The incident happened when the helicopter, carrying four passengers, being flown by Mr. Michelson on a sightseeing flight along the Thames developed a fault. A witness said "there was grey smoke coming from underneath the rotor. It dropped very fast and looked very unstable. The pilot eventually seemed to get it under control and it landed roughly near the river bank." Armed police surrounded the helicopter within minutes of the landing.

After fire service crews made the area safe Mr. Michelson was escorted away by Police amid protests from onlookers and his horrified passengers, whose lives he had just saved. The passengers were said to be suffering from shock and bruising from the hard landing but not seriously injured. None were available for comment.

Current law says that helicopters cannot fly over Central London unless they can land clear of it if an engine fails. The only part of Central London that is exempted is the River Thames. In other words, crash-landing a helicopter anywhere in Central London except the Thames is against the law.

Conservative and Liberal MPs, joined with Human Rights advocates and Civil Rights groups, have variously condemned the action as "an outrageous knee-jerk reaction to a heroic act" and "anti-terrorism regulations gone mad." Helen Johns, speaking on behalf of the European Human Rights Trust said: "This illustrates perfectly how anti-terror law can be misapplied. If the helicopter had ditched in the Thames, there is a great chance the occupants would have drowned. To seriously ask a pilot to choose adherence to the law over saving the lives of his passengers is preposterous."

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said the law "...reflects the urgent need for protection of our Capital City from terror threats." The Air Accidents Investigation Branch, when questioned, said the incident "would be investigated" but declined further comment.

Let's say right away that of course the above didn't happen. It might make some interesting reading if it did, but it didn't. I say 'might' because some other aspects of aviation law are neglected for artistic licence. For example, a pilot acting to preserve the safety of his/her aircraft and its passengers can ignore as many of the Rules Of The Air as needed to do so. I haven't gone deep enough to know whether the aspects of the law this covers counts as one of the Rules Of The Air, so I don't have much of an idea how an incident like this would really play out. It might be a total non-story, but in the current environment I would not bet my government salary on it.

So, the law then. The United Kingdom Aeronautical Information Publication (informally called the Air Pilot, or AIP) is the means by which modifications of the Air Navigation Order (the document which defines all that is legal/illegal, aviation-wise, in the UK) are published. The 'En-Route' section of the AIP includes a variety of specific restrictions or allowances for flight in certain areas of the UK. The latest update to section 5.1 (Prohibited, Restricted and Danger Areas) includes a new restriction, identification EGR160, which is imaginatively called 'The Specified Area':

Except with the written permission of the Civil Aviation Authority a helicopter shall not fly over the Specified Area of Central London below such a height as would enable it, in the event of an engine failure, to land clear of that area...excluding so much of the bed of the River Thames as lies within that area between the ordinary high water marks on each of its banks.

The Specified Area is:

The area bounded by straight lines joining successively the following points:*

51 29 12N 000 17 16W (near Kew, where the A205 crosses the Thames)
51 34 20N 000 14 07W (near the terminus of the M1 motorway)
51 33 18N 000 09 04W (on Mansfield Road new Kentish Town)
51 34 09N 000 03 18W (near Upper Clapton)
51 31 30N 000 00 45W (in Bromley by Bow, near where the A12 crosses the railway)
51 26 45N 000 00 44W (in Catford on the A205)
51 27 12N 000 06 10W (in Herne Hill, right by the station)
51 25 15N 000 12 22W (in Wimbledon, right by the station)
51 28 54N 000 14 07W (between Hammersmith and Barnes, right by the London Wetland Centre)

* coordinate format edited - Google Earth will happily accept these lat/longs.

Hazarding a guess, the Specified Area is approximately one hundred square miles; it extends infinitely upwards from the surface.

So, would anything like my little tabloid piece happen in reality? I have no idea, but by strict interpretation of the law it is illegal to fly a helicopter anywhere over Central London at such an altitude that would not allow it to land clear of Central London in event of an engine failure. The Thames is exluded from the Specified Area, however the flying of a helicopter over the bank prior to landing even if in distress may be considered an infringement of this regulation, if done without written permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (trying to get that while you're trying to autorotate would be interesting). It is for this reason that all helicopter routes through London neatly follow the line of the Thames. I find this all morbidly amusing.

The article doesn't necessarily reflect my own views on this law or strict realism, I just thought it an interesting way of describing a small bit of aviation law.

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