Vertigo Rigging gave new meaning to their name by pulling off one of the most daring car launches ever staged to mark the start of the 2006 British International Motor Show in London in July.
Vertigo unveiled Opel’s new Corsa to the world’s press and industry VIPs by flying the car, suspended beneath a specially modified helicopter, along the River Thames through the heart of the City of London and straight into a big reveal in the Old Billingsgate Fish Market with split-second precision.
Rather than just pulling a cloth off the new model, the carmaker’s PR agency had proposed a helicopter-based reveal as a dramatic statement – an idea promptly rejected by safety authorities.
Undaunted, and convinced that the concept was a winner, Opel brought in events specialist Jack Morton Worldwide to come up with a workable solution. Their team, headed by special project manager Adam Wildi and producer Miles Platt, called on Vertigo Rigging to make the high-flying and potentially high-risk elements of the launch happen.
The brief had already taken on serious complexity. The plan was to suspend the new Corsa on a platform rigged underneath a helicopter, twirl it over the Thames for a photo call, then fly it across the river to Billingsgate for the VIP launch event, before dramatically flying it out again.
A key element was that the car’s arrival at Billingsgate would be a show cue, timed to the second. “When I read that,” recalls Vertigo Rigging MD Becky Loughran, “I thought, ‘this is going to be interesting!’”
Faced with countless regulations just to get the idea airborne, the Vertigo team held consultations with several specialists, including naval, marine, safety, and aviation experts to formulate a plan. That started with gaining the Port of London Authority’s agreement to close the River Thames to all traffic for half an hour, and finding a helicopter rigging solution that minimized environmental noise while meeting the post-9/11 requirement that only twin-engine helicopters may fly over London under load.
Says Loughran, “It required a lot of negotiations with ATC (Air Traffic Control) and the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), and entailed closing central London airspace for 20 minutes. Working closely with our team of consultants and with Helicopter Services in High Wycombe, we’d resolved all the technical and safety issues and negotiated permissions from everyone concerned.
“We did a test flight at High Wycombe to work out complications arising from the car’s centre of gravity, which had to be calculated on the support platform precisely, and we devised a special anti-twist mechanism to prevent the car from spinning under the helicopter. Four crew members headed by Tim Roberts rigged the car platform to the helicopter, and the whole rehearsal went perfectly, which was just as well, as Opel’s management team turned up to watch it.
“Weight then became the next major issue,” she adds. “The forecast was for a hot, still day, which unfortunately provides the least possible lift for a helicopter and doing the sums gave us a maximum total weight of 700kg. To do the lift safely, it would have to land on the Isle of Dogs and be stripped of every possible item, including the doors and all but the safe minimum of fuel. It would then fly upriver, pick up the Corsa from a car park by the GLA headquarters, perform the stunt on cue, followed by a second chase helicopter filming the event, return the car to the car park, refuel, and fly home.
“And then things got even more interesting. Three days before the event, the GLA revoked all event licences for the car park, so we had to move to Plan B, hiring a giant 90 ft by 60 ft barge, used as a floating tennis court, from General Marine to use as our car pickup and drop off point. We moved the barge down the Thames to near ExCel, craned the car on board and brought it back upriver to Tower Bridge with the car under wraps.
“At 4:23:30pm precisely on the big day, the helicopter lifted the car off the barge and headed to Billingsgate for the reveal, following a strictly controlled flight path which included a 360-degree turn for the TV cameras and the press.”
Loughran adds, “You couldn’t have thrown more difficult elements into a single project. We had more safety cases and risk assessments than you would believe; there were the CAA, ATC, Port of London Authority, the police and the GLA to negotiate with, and a show to incorporate it all into.” She concludes, “Pulling off this specialist project required maximum use of both our own experience and a lot of specialist connections. In no particular order, an admiral, a civil aviation expert, three helicopter pilots, two engineers, a Thames barge owner, a lot of determination, and the power of positive thinking.”