Alan Bristow - OBE
Managing Director - Bristows Helicopters
Deputy Chairman and Managing Director - British United Airways
3rd September 1923 - 26th April 2009
Alan Bristow is a name synonymous with aviation, especially helicopters. After his Royal Navy service in World War II, he became the first helicopter test pilot employed by the Westland Aircraft company, flying many of the early types of helicopters from their base at Yeovil.
Westland had arranged to build Sikorsky S51 helicopters under licence in 1946, which would be known as the Dragonfly. While this work was put in hand they had some S51 demonstrator aircraft shipped over from America.
While at Westland, he flew their S-51 demonstrator to the Wolf Rock lighthouse off of the Channel Islands, with supplies on board for the lighthouse keepers. Bad weather had kept the supply ship from getting through and Bristow managed to lower supplies to them while hovering over the lighthouse in the bad weather. These were the days before any lighthouses had landing pads, and he was awarded the Royal Aeronautical Societyís Silver Medal for his work that day in February 1948. See photo below.
On 15th July 1948 he made the first roof-top landing on any building in Britain, when he landed a Westland S-51 on a building near Olympia in London. The flight was arranged as a demonstration by the organisers of the Mechanical Handling Exhibition being held in Olympiaís exhibition halls.
The first British built, S-51, or Dragonfly, G-AKTW, flew on 5th October 1948 and was flown by Westlandís chief test pilot, Alan Bristow.
In 1949, he was out in French Indo-China demonstrating helicopters to the French forces, when he rescued one of their men who was pinned down under fire. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre (War Cross) for the manís rescue. The Croix de Guerre was awarded to individuals who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces.
His first experience of flying helicopters in the Antarctic came in 1951, when he first flew whaling missions and later went on to form his own company, Air Whaling Ltd. in 1952 to consult, advise and specialise in this type of helicopter use. They were based in a hangar leased from the Royal Navy at Henstridge Airfield in Somerset.
During 1953, though still flying whaling operations; the company changed its name to Bristow Helicopters. They soon built up a trade ferrying men and material to and from oil rigs in the North Sea, its first notable contract coming from the Shell Oil Company in 1955 for the operation of two Westland Whirlwind S-55 helicopters in Doha.
By September the two S-55ís had been delivered to Bristows, they were soon fitted with long range fuel tanks and on 20th September they left Southampton for Doha, attempting the longest journey ever flown by a British Helicopter. Alan Bristow was one of the pilots, Alan Green the other, and they set out on the 3,300 mile journey across France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Iraq. They arrived on 27th September.
Alan continued to build on Bristows oil related work, both abroad and closer to home in the North Sea, many contacts were won, and their helicopters and crew were soon operating worldwide.
The West London Heliport opened on 24th April 1959, though it was known as the Westland Heliport and then the Battersea Heliport back then. The first operator were Bristows, with an air-taxi service using a Westland Widgeon helicopter. Though, pleasure flights along the Thames were soon very popular with Locals.
Airwork brought Bristows Helicopters in Januray 1960, Alan remained their chairman and managing director, and they continued to operate on their various overseas contracts.
The takeover happened just as Bristows were planning their move to Redhill Aerodrome, mainly due to the increase in work at the Battersea Heliport, necessitating that they be closer to it, by March they were on the move from Henstridge Airfield to Redhill.
Bristow Helicopters merged into the British United Group on 1st July 1960, though again, retained its identity, and it operated in co-ordination with the Airwork helicopter fleet within the BUA group, where they would continue to grow and dominate the British helicopter scene for many years to come.
Alan Bristow was awarded his OBE for services to aviation in the 1966 New Years honours, and was soon celebrating with a girls v boys staff football match at Redhill Aerodrome, with Alan Bristow refereeing and an after match buffet with champagne in celebration of the OBE.
On 5th December 1967, Alan Bristow became BUA's Managing Director and retained his role as Bristow Helicoptersí chairman. He had a tough job on his hands, BUA had plunged into debt in 1967, to the tune of £500,000 and it looked like a loss of £1.1million was on the cards for 1968.
He had to make many hard decisions, including new contracts for the flight crews, which caused all sorts of problems, though were eventually resolved, he froze recruitment and brought about many cuts to drive the airline's efficeincy up. Through his actions, and those of the staff, the forecast loss of £1.1million was turned around into a £200,000 profit by the end of 1968. Durng the year he had also brought the 900 strong engineering staff back in-house from Aviation Traders, where Laker had transferred them in 1964, and he became Deputy Chairman of BUA after they were sold by Air Holdings to British & Commonwealth Shipping in May.
Alan Bristow was awarded the honour, Britainís Champion Helicopter Pilot. The contest had 15 entrants and included precision flying tasks and cross country navigation, Bristow flew his personal Bell helicopter and won the competition on 22nd June 1969. The Duke of Edinburgh presented him with his trophy at RAF Kidlington. The photo shows Alan with his award and his helicopter.
Early in 1970, Alan had resigned from BUA, but he decided to stay and oversee the momentus events unfolding, the sale of BUA to BOAC.
Thankfully that never came to pass, but British & Commonwealth Shipping would not make it easy for anyone to make a rival bid to the deal that they had struck with BOAC behind closed doors. The Edwards Report had opened the door for the creation of a second force airline, and many were interested, including Alan, and a consortium of investors. By April 1970 his consortium had raised around £7.5 million, but they withdrew from the process eventually.
Alan Bristow, resigned his position as Deputy Chairman and Managing Director of BUA following their successful takeover by Caledonian Airways. He said: "I wish them luck. Now that BUA has gone to Caledonian, I am no longer required" and he returned full time to Bristow Helicopters, which had not been part of the BUA sale.
He retired from Bristows in 1985.
The photo below shows Alan (with an umbrella), in his role as referee, after the annual Bristow's football match in 1969.
Please, feel free to drop me a line with any recollections and stories about Alan and his long association with Bristows and with BUA