Page 1

Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Contents Chapter 1

Danger Money . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 2

War Clouds . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 3

In the Navy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 4

Home and Dry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 5

Urge to Fly . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 6

Taking to the Air . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 7

Introduction to Helicopters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 8

Becoming a Civilian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 9

Test Pilot . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Chapter 10

French Adventures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104

Chapter 11

With Onassis to Antarctica . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121

Chapter 12

My First Million . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135

Chapter 13

Breaking into Oil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154

Chapter 14

Life in the Jungle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173

Chapter 15

Selling Out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 194

Chapter 16

World Expansion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 215

Chapter 17

Airline Ego Trip . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233

Chapter 18

Shooting for Business . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 258

Chapter 19

Chinooks and Tigers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 282

Chapter 20

Aberdeen Strike . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 301

Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Chapter 21

Operation Sandstorm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 311

Chapter 22

Resignation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 325

Chapter 23

The Westland Affair . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 336

Chapter 24

Briway . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 359

Chapter 25

Coda . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 369 Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 371

Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Chapter 1

Danger Money


arely does a single catastrophic blow kill you; it’s the cumulative effect of small difficulties, individually benign, that build and build into a deadly threat while the realisation grows that you’re in over your head and the cold sweat rises on your spine. Sensible people said it was too risky to fly a primitive Hiller helicopter, with balsa wood rotor blades and vintage piston engine, out over the Antarctic Ocean from a small, difficult-to-find ship in weather that could not be accurately forecast; whenever the notion crossed my mind I would think of the extraordinary sums of money Aristotle Onassis was paying into my Swiss bank account. When your safety margins are cut down further by a fog that materialises all about, you just have to get down low over the grey waves and slow down to forty, maybe even thirty knots, whatever the visibility allows, and set course for wherever you think the ship is. But when those balsa wood blades start to take on ice and the helicopter begins to shake and rattle, you lose power and lift and you find yourself descending inexorably towards the cold ocean depths, it’s difficult to find much comfort in the thought of Onassis’s money. Helicopters fly only if the shape of the rotor blades remains as the designer intended; an accumulation of ice from freezing fog or sleet destroys that shape, kills lift and forces the aircraft out of the air. I was wearing my patented Frankenstein Rubber Co. survival suit but I knew my lifespan would be measured in minutes when I went in; the chances of the ship finding me were virtually non-existent, even if expedition commander Fanden Andersen – known to his crews as the ‘Devil’ – could be bothered to look for me.


Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09


A l a n B r i s t o w: H e l i c o p t e r P i o n e e r The Hiller rattled out its dying protest as I wound on throttle to stay above the waves. In a few moments, I knew, I would run out of lift. My wife and daughter back in Somerset would receive a telegram saying I’d been lost at sea, and nobody would know how it happened. Strangely, fear was not an issue; I was wholly focussed on the problem of how to extend my life by another minute. Suddenly I became aware of a marked increase in the light level, a brighter glow ahead of me. I slowed the helicopter to a crawl, and out of the murk loomed the side of an enormous iceberg. I came to a hover in front of this vast wall of ice, which disappeared into the fog left, right, and over my head. I sat there for a few moments with my heart beating fast. The vibrations from the rotor head were getting critical. What to do? These tabular bergs could be more than a mile long, and my chances of getting around it were poor. The only way was up. I opened the throttle to take what little power there was left and raised the collective lever to maximum pitch. Slowly, the Hiller rose up this ice cliff, the only visual clue I had to my horizontal situation. With the Franklin engine screaming, the machine began to shake like a wet dog and the rate of climb dropped almost to zero. Just as I thought it would not climb another inch, the light changed again and the ice wall disappeared. I saw what seemed to be a snow ledge ahead of me, nudged the azimuth stick forward and settled on top of the iceberg in a blizzard of my own making as those crippled blades whipped up the snow which now reached up to the door sills. The berg was perhaps fifty feet high. Another ten feet and the Hiller would have run out of power and would have had to descend, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop it. I sat for a moment collecting my thoughts. The helicopter seemed quite stable, so I shut down the engine, then wondered if I’d done the right thing – would I ever be able to start it again? But if I didn’t get the ice off the rotor blades, there would be no point in trying to start up. I waited for the blades to stop turning, then stepped carefully out into the snow and climbed up to look at them. There was a layer of rime ice about an inch thick on top of the blades, right across their span and about three inches in from the leading edge. How had she ever stayed airborne? As was my habit in difficult circumstances, I lit a cheroot, took a deep drag and thought about things. I was alone with a crippled helicopter on an iceberg somewhere between South Georgia and the Pole. Try as I might, I couldn’t make the vision of Mr Onassis’s money compensate for this fact. Indeed, I would have given all of it to be back with the Foreign Legion in Indo-China, taking my chances with the Vietminh. Fast forward a couple of years and I’m standing on the corner of Leadenhall Street in the City of London trying very hard not to look

Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Danger Money like a man who is carrying the best part of a million pounds in cash. Pedestrians bustle by. They must know, I thought; it must be obvious to a blind man that the suitcases on which I had a death grip were stuffed to bursting with big white five pound notes. I turned up the collar of my sports jacket and tried to shrink into it. This was 1955 and street mugging was less of an issue than it is today. But a million pounds was a lot of money in 1955. This was the real birth of Bristow Helicopters; I had indeed survived the Antarctic, survived Indo-China, survived wartime sinkings and the early days of unreliable, pioneering helicopters, I had lived to bank Onassis’s money and more besides, and things were starting to get interesting. In the absence of an armed escort, I hailed a taxi. ‘Yeovil, please.’ ‘Where?’ asked the startled driver. ‘Yeovil,’ I repeated. ‘It’s in Somerset.’ ‘It’ll cost you,’ he said suspiciously. ‘I’m aware of that,’ I said. ‘You’ll be well paid.’ Near Blackfriars Bridge we passed a line of telephone boxes and I asked the driver to pull over. He watched me suspiciously as I manhandled the cases to the phone box. I couldn’t get them in the door. I called my accountant, George Fry. ‘George? It’s Alan. I’m in a taxi.’ ‘Bit extravagant, isn’t it?’ said George. ‘I’ve got about a million quid in two suitcases,’ I said. George was not easily perturbed. ‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘It was the damnedest thing, George, I never saw a living soul. Some disembodied voice told me to shove the suitcases through a hatch, they came back full of money, and I walked out. I kept thinking they’d come after me saying there was a mistake. Or somebody would knock me on the head.’ ‘Strange business,’ said George. ‘Better get it to the bank.’ ‘My thoughts precisely.’ The taxi puttered through the London suburbs and out into the countryside, and I sat wondering why the Dutch had insisted on paying so much in cash. But there were all sorts of restrictions on the movement of money in those days, and it didn’t pay to ask questions. They could pay me in cowrie shells for all I cared, as long as they were negotiable at the bank. The money was in payment for the patents on a helicopter-borne harpoon I had invented, a fleet of helicopters I didn’t yet own, and a contract to operate them hunting for whales in the Antarctic. The fact that only a few months later the patents were utterly worthless didn’t seem to bother the Dutch. I thought at best they might want their money back, at worst I might wake up dead with a harpoon between


Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09


A l a n B r i s t o w: H e l i c o p t e r P i o n e e r my shoulder blades, but they even settled a hefty bill I sent them afterwards for conversion work on their helicopters. I have sometimes wondered since what their game was, but it’s never cost me any sleep. Hours later I was decanted in Yeovil, paid off the delighted driver and added a fat tip, and hauled the suitcases up the steps of the National Provincial Bank. ‘I want to see the manager, please,’ I said. The clerk smiled. ‘I’m afraid Mr Cudlipp is with a customer, sir. Would you like to make an appointment?’ ‘Young lady, if you value your job, tell him now that Mr Bristow is here and wishes to deposit one million pounds.’ A hush fell on the bank. Suddenly the manager’s door sprung open and an aggrieved customer was pushed out, still grappling with loose papers. The manager beckoned me in, turning the key in the lock behind us. I placed a suitcase on his desk and clicked it open. The money glistened. New five pound notes, fat bundles of them, each one as big as a pocket handkerchief and covered in swooping script, all together promising to pay the bearer on demand a sum that the average labourer would earn in a thousand years. The manager, a friendly chap with whom I was on good terms, was washing his hands with invisible soap. ‘Have a cigar, Mr Bristow,’ he said. He fired up my cigar and I sat watching while the staff was dragooned into counting tall bundles of money. Even as the work went on, the remainder of my money was being transferred to Switzerland by more orthodox channels. It was a very satisfactory day, I thought. There were to be many more millions to come, but I remember that one with particular fondness because it was my first, and because everything really took off from there. We – myself, a handful of my closest friends and an army of good men and women – built on that foundation the best helicopter service company in the world. There is no corner of the globe over which Bristow Helicopters have not flown. We have opened up the jungles and great sand seas, the ice fields and mountain ranges, and we have pioneered delivery services far, far offshore in places where people once said helicopters could not fly. We have carried employment and prosperity to countries which, but for oil and mineral exploration, would still be languishing in poverty and despair. Our helicopters have saved thousands of lives in rescues at sea and ashore, and perhaps millions more indirectly through our assault on the mosquito and the tsetse fly. In doing all this we have helped to shape the modern world, and not incidentally, we have made a lot of people very rich. One year soon, the Bristow Group will turn over a billion pounds.

Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Home and Dry I was by then an acting Fourth Officer and was in charge of the number one starboard lifeboat. I got up there, threw in my ditty bag and started getting the boat away. It had an old-fashioned release system which meant two men had to hand-lower it in the davits. Just as she was swinging free, a second tin fish hit us on the starboard side and the ship listed sharply. The lifeboat struck the side of the ship and tipped over, and my ditty bag went sailing into the sea. With desperate people rushing to stations all around me and the ship listing in its death throes, I watched the little blue and white fender bob away at about one knot. It was the most important thing in my life at the time, and I felt utterly bereft. The boat had heeled over and remained listing, engines stopped. Only two lifeboats on the port side were useable, so I took charge of the lifeboat further down on the port side. Suddenly the Captain shouted at me. ‘Go down and get the Chief Engineer, for god’s sake.’ ‘Where should I go, sir?’ ‘He’s in his bathroom. He’s just telephoned me, he can’t get out.’ I staggered below to find the Chief Engineer’s bathroom door jammed solid. Grabbing a fire axe, I hacked my way through. Inside, wild-eyed, the entombed chief engineer stood stark naked. With no thought to propriety we rushed back along tilting passages onto the deck, and the Chief Engineer remained unclothed until somebody took pity on him in the lifeboat and gave him a shirt. I got my lifeboat away, and the captain and senior officers all climbed into the other boat. People started jumping overboard from the ship and we went around collecting them. The sea was calm and warm; it was August off the Azores. We soon filled up both lifeboats. The maximum for my boat was twenty-eight; we certainly had more than forty on board. Floating nearby was the old carpenter, a man in his fifties, maybe even older, who had been with us on the Matiana and who was obviously badly hurt. Bones were sticking out of the back of his hand, and he was going under. Some people in the lifeboat seemed shocked into immobility, or perhaps they were poor swimmers. I was young and strong and could have swum the Channel; I dived over the side and pulled the old chippy to the boat. They lifted him in and gave him morphine. It was his last voyage; he retired when we got home. As darkness fell we drifted out of sight of the Hatarana, which turned turtle but stubbornly refused to sink. I heard later she’d had to be sunk by gunfire from the Royal Navy corvette HMS Pentstemon. We were in the lifeboat all night; she had a dipping lug sail and we set course north-east, making for England. It was difficult to calculate the drift – I think the boat went one forward and two sideways. We couldn’t put


Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09


A l a n B r i s t o w: H e l i c o p t e r P i o n e e r side boards out because it would have meant taking out seats, and we were desperate for somewhere to sit. I set ‘overboard watches’ where crew members would take one-hour turns in the water, holding onto the sides, so that others could get some sleep. We used the oars to counteract drift, but gauging drift was purely a matter of seamanship. We had no sextant but knew our latitude and longitude. I set about working out a plot, drawing a Mercator grid on the back of some telegram forms we found in the boat. Next morning there was a cloud of black smoke on the horizon and a dreadful old tub hove into view. She was clearly having trouble with her engines, and making about six knots. He name was Corabella. She was on her way from Takoradi to Liverpool, and any submarine within a hundred miles couldn’t fail to spot her. She came alongside and put down her scrambling nets. We helped up the injured and cleared out the lifeboat. I was just about to pull the plug to sink her when an Australian voice boomed down from above. ‘You sure you wanna do that, mate?’ I looked up quizzically. It was the Corabella’s Captain. ‘This is an iron ore ship,’ the Captain said. ‘If we get the hammer, we’re going down like a rock. You might be better off staying in the lifeboat.’ There was general laughter. I pulled out the plug – you didn’t want to leave lifeboats around to tell the Germans what they’d sunk. The oars floated away as I clambered up the scrambling nets. ‘You forgot to bring the oars,’ said the captain laconically. Rough though she was, the Corabella was a good enough ride home. Vernon Hussey Cooper, like me an acting Fourth Officer, had been in the other lifeboat. He looked subdued. ‘What-ho, old chum,’ he said. ‘Glad you’re alive.’ ‘Why so glum, Vernon?’ ‘Afraid I’ve lost my telescope, old chum. Mummy gave me that.’ The Second Mate of the Corabella came up. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but we haven’t any cabins for you chaps. You’ll have to sleep in the officers’ mess.’ It was tiny, with room for one on the settee and one on the table. Having been sunk twice, Hussey Cooper and I were pretty keyed up. We intended to sleep in our lifejackets. ‘Come on, Vernon,’ I said. ‘Let’s go and check out the lifeboats.’ Just outside the mess was a big raft lashed to four forty-gallon oil drums. It had provisions on board, and fresh water, and there was a well in the centre with places to sit. It was held in the shrouds by two big wooden chocks, alongside which was tied a heavy hammer. Knock the chocks out with the hammer, cut a lanyard and away she’d go.

Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Home and Dry Vernon and I went back to the officers’ mess, had a bite to eat and went to sleep. At around two o’ clock in the morning there was the most almighty clap and we awoke with a start. ‘Torpedo!’ I said. ‘We’ve got one right up for’ard.’ In pitch blackness we groped our way to the float. Vernon picked up the hammer and was about to knock out the first chock when I stopped him. ‘Hang on . . . are we sinking?’ The ship clattered on. Not a soul appeared. All seemed normal. We found our way to the bridge. The Second Mate was on watch. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ I said, ‘where did that torpedo hit us?’ ‘What torpedo?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you hear that bloody great thump?’ ‘Oh, that? That happens every morning at two o’ clock. It’s the coal trimmer down in the bunkers, dropping his barrow on the ’tween decks.’ The sound had resonated up through the ship, and in our jittery state we had presumed the worst. We were the butt of humour, but everybody understood. As we steamed towards Liverpool at seven knots, making smoke that could be seen for two degrees of latitude, I witnessed an extraordinary piece of medical improvisation by the Second Mate. The engineer on watch had been doing his ablutions at a washbasin next to the metal shield around reciprocating shafts from the engine. With soap in his eyes he groped around for a towel, and somehow got his arm behind the shield. The shaft came down and skinned him, ripping his arm open to the bone. He didn’t pass out, surprisingly. Somebody shot some morphine into him and they carried him into the wardroom. The Second Mate got out the Captain’s medical guide, organised water and chloroform and proceeded to operate on the engineer with the book open on the table beside him. They had a pretty good set of instruments for cutting, sewing and tying. As I watched, he’d pull a finger to tell him which tendon was which, then refer to the book. Tying the tendons seemed very much like tying a fishing line. After a couple of hours, he’d joined up everything, sewn back what skin the engineer had left, and bandaged the whole mess up. They filled the engineer up with sedatives so he didn’t go raving mad with pain when he woke up, and he was taken to his cabin and continued the voyage as a passenger. When we docked in Liverpool two doctors came on board to examine the engineer. They spent some time with him in the wardroom, poking this and pulling that, and one of them, a surgeon, said he didn’t think he’d have been able to do a better job himself.


Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Chapter 13

Breaking into Oil


y letter to Douglas Bader triggered the chain of events that transformed Bristow Helicopters into a world force in aviation. In it, I introduced Air Whaling Ltd as a company with long experience of helicopter operations in the Antarctic and suggested that Shell would profit from using helicopters to support exploration for oil and the transport of crews to drilling rigs that Shell was working all over the world. By a mystifying coincidence, the letter landed on Bader’s desk at Shell Mex House in the Strand just as he was wondering where on earth he was going to find an operator for two Westland WS55 helicopters he’d just bought, on instructions from his superiors, to service exploration platforms in the Persian Gulf. I was summoned that day by telephone, and drove up to London with my mind full of outlandish possibilities. At Shell Mex House the corporate pecking order determined which floor you were on, and Bader, as worldwide Aviation Superintendent, was two floors off the top. I was taken up in the elevator by his secretary, Pam. ‘The Group Captain’s looking forward to meeting you,’ she said. Douglas Bader always preferred to be called ‘the Group Captain’, and Pam never referred to him as anything else. She led me into a bright, airy office with a window looking out on London’s smoky skyline, the diffused reflections of riverside buildings playing on the Thames far below. Bader got up and came around his big desk to shake hands, walking carefully on his tin legs. He had in his mouth the short-stemmed pipe that was rarely a stranger to his face. ‘Ah, Mr Bristow,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’ ‘And I you, of course,’ I ventured.


Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09

Breaking into Oil He motioned me to take a seat and resumed his own. Bader spoke in short, sharp sentences and was not disposed to idle chat, but he was clearly enthusiastic. ‘I’ve heard about all your work in the Antarctic,’ he said with boyish eagerness. ‘Remarkable. What’s it like flying down there?’ ‘Well, sometimes it’s very pleasant and sometimes it’s quite dangerous,’ I said. ‘I’m sure it is,’ he said. ‘It takes quite some nerve to do what you’ve done.’ I was flattered to be spoken to in such terms by a man of his mettle. Bader was world-famous as an indefatigable fighter pilot, a man who’d talked his way back into the wartime RAF after losing both legs in a flying accident before the war, who’d shot down twenty-two German aircraft and whose spare legs had been parachuted to him in a unique sortie, by special permission of the Luftwaffe, after he’d been captured in 1943. He had escaped on them that very night, only to be recaptured gamely hobbling towards England, and had ended up incarcerated in Colditz Castle, where only the most incorrigible officers were imprisoned. He was an indomitable sprit, a legend, and a great aviator. And here he was praising me! ‘How far did you fly from the factory ship?’ he asked eagerly. ‘The furthest we got was 180 miles.’ ‘That’s a long way. Had any engine failures?’ ‘Not in the Antarctic, fortunately.’ ‘Where do you get your pilots from?’ ‘I train most of them. We’ve picked up good engineers from various companies.’ ‘How many chaps have you got?’ ‘Six pilots with a few more coming on, and five engineers at the moment.’ ‘Do they have S55 time?’ ‘Yes, all of them.’ ‘Which mark?’ ‘The Westland version with the Alvis Leonides 550 hp engine, not the American S55 with the Pratt & Whitney R1340.’ ‘Good, good. Now I’ve been told by my superiors that we’re going to have a serious exploration in the Gulf based out of Doha.’ ‘Where’s Doha?’ I asked. ‘It’s in Gutter!’ ‘Never heard of it. Where’s Gutter? ‘It’s pronounced Gutter, it’s spelled Qatar. It’s in the Persian Gulf.’ ‘What sort of operation do you want?’


Press Proof - Ian H – 18/09/09


A l a n B r i s t o w: H e l i c o p t e r P i o n e e r ‘You’ve got to carry men and materials from Doha forty miles out to Shell’s first drilling rigs in the Gulf. Seven days a week, and at night.’ ‘We can do that. It’s just a question, sir, of having the manpower available for night operations. You can’t expect people to fly around the clock.’ ‘Fine. Just make sure everyone is trained and licensed for night flying.’ He rattled on with barely a pause for breath. ‘I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll give you the helicopters, you give us the manpower and the maintenance, we’ll do it like that. We’ll provide the hangar. Can you go tomorrow?’ ‘Yes, I can go tomorrow.’ Bader pressed a button on his desk. ‘Snoddy? Pop in please.’ In came Roy Snodgrass, all of five eight, slightly built, tidy and very well spoken. Snodgrass and an engineering man called Bill Williams were Bader’s right and left hands. ‘Snoddy, this fellow’s going to run our helicopters for us. Take him to Doha and make sure he gets what he needs. He can go tomorrow.’ He smiled a close-of-business smile, but we hadn’t done the important job. ‘How are we going to get paid for this, sir?’ I asked. ‘Oh. Oh yes. You’ll be paid so much a month in arrears for the wages, and you can mark up your expenses by ten per cent.’ ‘We’ll have to get a stock of spares, sir, and I’ll have to charge you more than ten per cent on the replacement parts.’ If Bader didn’t realise it then, it would have dawned on him soon afterwards – once we had control of the spares it was very difficult to fire us. It seemed unusual that a great oil company would buy the helicopters and then give the operator the right to provide spare parts. Shell had no idea about the WS55’s spares consumption, but I had a firm handle on it from our Antarctic experiences. It was a reliable helicopter, although pumps, solenoids, fuel and air filters and a handful of small items often had to be replaced before they’d completed their scheduled maintenance flying hours. The Alvis Leonides engine worked very well and rarely failed. But the fact that our relationship with Shell remained unbroken for decades was nothing to do with our monopoly on the supply of replacement parts. We did a fantastic job for them, and the Group Captain knew it. I phoned Jean and told her I was off to somewhere nobody had ever heard of and didn’t know when I’d be back. She was used to that sort of thing. The Group Captain’s comment to Snodgrass about ‘our helicopters’ was the first I’d heard of the fact that Shell had already bought the helicopters we would be flying. On the plane to Bahrain Snoddy explained that they were due for delivery later that month.

Alan Bristow: Helicopter Pioneer  

Alan Bristow Book Extract

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you