The British Horse Society is urging riders to take advantage of a new Ministry of Defence hotline, which gives daily advice on low flying military helicopter activity across the country.
The freephone helicopter helpline, which went live on 1 March, was introduced by the MoD in response to recommendations made by the Louth & Spilsby District Coroner at the inquest into the death of rider Heather Bell in June 2003.
“The Ministry of Defence takes seriously its responsibilities when conducting essential low flying training. This new freephone service demonstrates our commitment to improving communication with the public on this issue,” says Under Secretary of State for Defence, Ivor Caplin.
The BHS hailed the helpline as “a major step forward” in riders’ safety. “[The MoD] have taken it very seriously. Co-operation has been excellent and they are trying their best and wanting to sort the problems out,” says the society’s Head of Safety, Sheila Hardy.
Riders can call 0800 51 55 44 from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, to find out about planned low-flying helicopter activity throughout the country. The service, which will be extended until 8pm during British Summer Time, will confirm whether and where low flying helicopter training is taking place and provide details on the number of helicopters taking part in the training.
However, “members of the public should be aware that all military helicopter activity may be subject to change at late notice,” warns the MoD, adding that the service “ will not be able to provide information on helicopter activity around helicopter training schools and main helicopter operating bases, due the consistently high level of activity in these areas, or about fast jet activity.”
This doesn’t make the line any less useful, according to Hardy. “This [information] is going to be limited, because operations or weather conditions or crew — and therefore the way they operate a helicopter — can change at late notice. But the phone line is a stepping stone,” she says, urging riders to call it.
“I would encourage people to use it. [The MoD] will see what riders want and, if [the service] is not used, they may — I don’t know that, but it is just my take — sideline it. People have to take the initiative. It’s a person you speak to, not an automated service, so ring and hold on.”
The BHS is now working together with the MoD to find other ways to ensure riders’ safety in low flying areas. “There has to be [helicopter] training somewhere and they have lots of restrictions anyway, so we have to work with them,” says Hardy. “I have a meeting with them to see other ways we can help ourselves. As they understand our needs, these things will be developed.”
Until then, riders can help themselves by ringing the hotline and wearing fluorescent clothes. “A helicopter can take some avoiding action if they can see you [in advance],” explains Hardy. “[But] there is nothing they can do once they are on top of a horse.”