Just across the water from Chelsea Harbour is an unassuming jetty that is, in fact, a rather extraordinary landmark — both on the Thames shoreline and in the history of aviation.
London's oldest and now only heliport juts into the Thames at Battersea. Its strategic location provides the ideal launch pad for celebrities, businesspeople, heads of state, and other dignitaries of sky-high wealth or status — but it also facilitates the city's air ambulance and aerial police units. In recent years, it's even opened itself up for sightseers who want to get a bird's eye view of London — provided they can afford it, of course.
When did it take off?
Back in 1959, when the future meant private air travel for all, British aerospace company Westland built and then operated the hub. It was partly an exercise in showing off the helicopters that Westland was building at its factory in Yeovil — but it then proved rather useful for the business community, and has been in continuous operation ever since.
Why's it there?
Offering transfers to Gatwick in 20 minutes, and to Heathrow in half that time, the pad has long provided a more glamorous alternative to a wheelie suitcase on a tube train. In its lifetime it's seen over half a million entries and exits, and currently handles about 10,000 such movements per year.
It's surprisingly unique
Not only is this the only helipad in London licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), it's the only air transport hub with a central London location — unless you count City Airport in the Docklands. A short-lived facility called City Helistop operated near Blackfriars Bridge, but closed in 1985.
London has other heliports, such as in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, but they're not commercial, public-facing ventures.
Britain's richest men own it
Formerly owned by Harrods, the pad was snapped up in 2012 for £35m by the Reuben Brothers, who topped the Sunday Times rich list in 2016. It serves partly as a shuttle service to 'London' Oxford Airport — which belongs to the brothers too — and to sporting events like F1 and horseracing, in which the Reubens also have a stake, as they own racecourses.
Its usual clients are in another stratosphere as well
Online paparazzi pics inform us that Tom Cruise, Kendall Jenner, and Mariah Carey are among the celebs who've recently flown in here — and apparently the facility is also particularly handy for footballers needing to get places quickly on transfer deadline day.
The heliport staff, though, prefer to keep high-profile passengers hushed up; knowing that a discreet entry or exit is typically a VIP's preference.
But it also helps propel the emergency services forward
The heliport reports an annual average of 700 take-offs and landings by public, governmental, or military aircraft — and a further 500 or so by the emergency services. The London Air Ambulance has, since 1989, operated from a helipad atop the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel — but it does coordinate missions from here as well.
Has it been a bumpy ride?
A horrific accident in January 2013 saw a helicopter collide with a crane in nearby Vauxhall, causing two deaths. Suddenly there was more scrutiny of the amount of air traffic in London, and by extension the London Heliport, too.
As you might expect, it's been the subject of noise complaints too; helicopters have even been blamed for disrupting plays at the open-air Globe Theatre a few miles along the south bank of the Thames. But it's important to remember that not all helicopter traffic in London is related to the heliport.
Can I use it one day?
For further evidence that the heliport has spent much of its life serving the business and pleasure needs of a global elite, it's enough to know that the London Heliport's website advertises the option of a private guard for your parked car.
But in a bid to open itself up to a wider customer-base, the hub has recently introduced sightseeing helicopter tours, which now represent about half of its total flights. The tours start at £150 per person — which works out at about £10 per minute of air time. While that cost may still seem sky high for many of us, there's just no arguing with those amazing views.