Photograph by Iñigo S. Roces
Culture Spotlight

The only way to beat Bangkok traffic is to fly above it—so we did

Perhaps the only other city in Southeast Asia as notorious for its traffic as Manila is Bangkok. Thais can spend as much as half a day in gridlock, even with its elevated highways. While aboard the Airbus Helicopters EC145 T2, here's  the car-crazy city from the sky
Iñigo S. Roces | May 04 2019

The Bangkok Metropolitan Region, occupying 7,800 square kilometers, is where more than 14 million Thais or 22 percent of the entire population call their home. It’s no surprise then that with modern underground and elevated trains only added as recently as 1999, much of the city’s industry and population is still dependent on road use. In addition, Thailand has become somewhat of an automotive superpower, producing a large majority of vehicles exported throughout Southeast Asia. The windfall is lowered prices for domestically produced vehicles, making a car extremely affordable for many citizens.

Pa lam Bridge over the Chao Phraya with the Kasikorn Bank tower in the foreground.

It’s a phenomenon most Manila residents are familiar with, where an average commute of just eight to 12 kilometers can stretch to as long as two hours. Visitors to Bangkok are made painfully aware of this, with the commute from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the city center taking an hour on a good day. The only way to beat traffic is to fly above it.

 

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Alternate means

Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter Group), has long known the benefits of flying above it all. The European manufacturer has staked a sizeable claim in the Southeast Asian and Philippine private rotary-wing market and hopes to increase it.

Outskirts of Bangkok as seen through the cockpit of an EC175.

Eyed as one of the key vehicles towards achieving this is the new model EC145 T2. It is a twin-engine, light utility helicopter, with seating for eight to 10 passengers. Though preferred by corporate users, the craft also fits the needs of civilians and the military. It bears the trademark shrouded tail rotor (Fenestron) for safety, a clamshell rear loading bay, and larger windows for better visibility.

I flew to Bangkok upon the invitation of Airbus to sample their latest models. The craft, in metallic charcoal and white stripes, was waiting on the tarmac of Don Mueang International, Bangkok’s old airport. The sky was a clear and azure, making for near-perfect conditions for air travel.

 

Now boarding

Upon reaching the helicopter on the tarmac, I boarded the craft and chose one of eight rear seats. Inside, the cabins were thoughtfully planned, ensuring each passenger is no more than two seats away from an exit. I was strapped on with five-point harnesses and given a Bose active noise-cancelling headset connected to the vehicle’s intercom system so I could better communicate with the pilot and co-pilot above the din of the rotors. The low roar and vibration of the engine was constant but that soon caused no more discomfort than the hum of an old air conditioner.

The interior of the EC145 T2 in the 8-seater configuration.

Much like fixed-wing aircraft, Thailand’s aviation authority requires helicopters to taxi just like airplanes despite the chopper’s ability to take off and land vertically. When the pilot started up the engines, four blades whirred to life and later turned into a louder whirlwind. After just a few seconds, the craft was already some 10 feet off the ground, following the yellow lines on the tarmac to the main runway. The craft would bank steeply forward and then from side to side to maneuver. Within moments, it was at the end of the runway awaiting clearance from the tower. Receiving the go signal, it banked forward once again and gained momentum and altitude. Just a few hundred meters of the runway was used—a cursory “take-off” trajectory in deference to the aviation authority.

The trademark Fenestron shrouded tailrotor of the EC145 T2.

 

Bird’s eye view

Once clear of the airport’s airspace, the craft headed south into the metropolis. The tower had only cleared the chopper for an altitude of 1,000 meters, yet that was more than enough to distinguish much of the landscape below.

A built-in radio communication system allows the pilot and passengers to talk via headsets.

Bangkok, as seen from ground level, is a bustling city. Low-rise buildings eliminate any horizon, exacerbated by the occasional elevated railway or highway—making it all too easy to get lost. Nonetheless, at street level, there’s always something to see with little shops and food stalls already crowding the narrow sidewalk. Venturing a step on the roadway is a dangerous proposition, with cars speeding by and much less tolerant of wayward pedestrians unlike in Manila.

Up in the air, it’s a different story: easier to get one’s bearings, with a quick view of landmarks to situate one’s location. From this vantage point, Bangkok reveals itself as  semi-urbanized, with crop fields interspersed with industrial complexes, mid-rise condos, and the occasional shrine and temple. The Vibhabadi Rangsit Highway was a ribbon from the sky and our landmark to the city center.

Rural Thailand with limestone cliffs.

The flight itself was mostly smooth with strong winds occasionally buffeting the craft, which was no different from clear air turbulence typically experienced on commercial flights. Although the craft banked forward, backwards, and side to side, the stomach churning one would expect as a result never materialized, as all the pitching and rolling seemed to counter gravitational forces.

 

Smart flying

Comfy pilot accommodations include 5-point restraints and customizable instrument displays.

In the craft, we were told that Airbus Helicopters are especially designed for ease of use. The new Helionix aviation suite featured a wide array of user-friendly and failsafe systems. The typically intimidating cockpit filled with switches, dials, and gauges now looks simpler and can be customized to a point. The pilot faces just two large LCD screens with buttons along its frame, each one corresponding to a display option. It can be configured to display the conventional array of gauges or just one or two. Built-in warnings are made to sound as if the chopper is way too close to another airborne vehicle although they might be a good 500 meters apart.

The cheeky pilot demonstrates the autopilot system and customizable instrument displays.

Two flight control computers constantly monitor all systems. The fly-by-wire configuration makes sure there’s always enough power from its twin engines before it performs a particular action. Some of the built-in training modes and autopilot systems make it look like a cinch to fly. In several instances, the pilot even let go of the control stick to show the flight system taking control in order to maintain a particular heading or even a hover.

 

Photographs by Iñigo S. Roces

This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 14 No 2 2014.