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Wales and the world's first passenger helicopter service

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 15:15 UK time, Wednesday, 29 June 2011

These days we regularly see helicopters flashing over head and think nothing more about it but in the immediate post-war days, helicopters were a rare sight in the skies above Britain.

So, it comes as something of a surprise to find that the world's first scheduled passenger helicopter service took place over Welsh air space.

On 1 June 1950, British European Airways, as they were then, began a daily helicopter service between Liverpool and Cardiff, stopping off at Wrexham to pick up passengers at a field, now occupied by Sainsbury's.

Helicopters, of sorts, had been developed long before before World War Two. Leonardo da Vinci had already drawn up plans for what he called "an aerial screw" and as early as1907, Jacques and Louis Bolguet had designed and built a gyro-plane.

The Germans produced the Focke-Wulf FW 61 in 1936 but it was not until six years later that Igor Sikorsky built an effective and efficient machine.

Development of the helicopter concept took time to gather momentum - the idea of lift and thrust being provided by one rotating blade being alien to most flyers!

The war also hindered development, so it was not until October 1949 that the first cargo service using helicopters (a mail service) was inaugurated in Los Angeles in California.

By 1950 BEA was extending and developing its services. So a helicopter service across the length of Wales, once the technology was in place, seemed like "a good idea." Helicopters, BEA thought, were the future of air travel.

Three helicopters were used on the route. They were Westland Sikorsky S51 machines and were capable of carrying three passengers as well as their baggage and a certain amount of cargo. The helicopters cruised at 85 miles per hour and the trip between Liverpool and Cardiff took one hour and 40 minutes.

The small number of passengers seems, now, to be ludicrous and prompts the question of how on earth BEA ever expected to make a profit on the service. The cost of the trip was £5.10 shillings for a return fare and the service was to operate three times daily.

John Lennon Airport

People could take a helicopter flight to Liverpool's Speke Airport (now John Lennon Airport)

Wrexham, in those far off days just after the war, was a fairly large industrial centre and the company decided that the helicopters would land, shortly after take off from Liverpool's Speke Airport (now the John Lennon Airport) to pick up any businessmen who wished to journey quickly to south Wales.

Hindsight is always the only exact science and, as might be expected, the service was not a success. There simply weren't the number of potential passengers. The route was flown for just under a year, closing in March 1951.

In that time only 219 passengers were carried. Perhaps the failure was a portent of things to come. Scheduled helicopter flights have never really been established, although there are plenty of private machines and commercial helicopter companies operating in the United Kingdom. Perhaps one day in the future...

The enterprise might have been short lived but it did at least give Wales another important first - the first helicopter passenger service in the world.


  • Comment number 1.

    I often wonder why helicopters have no been used more for internal flights in Britain. You would think they were the ideal vehicle for hopping between, say, North and South Wales. Is it the cost? Or are there safety issues?


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