Alan Bristow, who founded Bristow Helicopters as Air Whaling in 1953, became the first helicopter test pilot employed by Westland Aircraft Limited. He was indeed their chief test pilot from 1947 to 1949. In September 1946 Lieutenant Alan Bristow carried out the first helicopter landing on a naval escort vessel at sea. Then he was again famous in 1947 when he flew a Westland Helicopters operated Sikorsky S51 on the first known police fugitive search over Norfolk in England.
A test pilot and helicopter pioneer, Bristow was a quixotic and unorthodox businessman whose helicopters worked the skies over every country in the world outside the Soviet bloc, and were crucial in the development of North Sea oil. A colourful, brawling personality with a towering temper, he was as happy in the company of whaling captains in South American bars as he was drinking champagne with Aristotle Onassis in the Hermitage in Monte Carlo.
He won the Croix de Guerre in 1950 for rescuing wounded French Foreign Legion soldiers in Indochina and was appointed OBE for services to aviation in 1966. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1967. A former chief executive of British United Airways, he numbered Douglas Bader, the Shah of Iran and the Duke of Edinburgh among his circle of friends, represented Great Britain at four-in-hand carriage driving and survived countless helicopter crashes and flying stunts of his own devising that were, in his own words, “bloody insane”.
Alan Edgar Bristow was born in Balham, South London, in 1923, and was brought up in Bermuda where his father, Sydney, was in charge of the naval dockyard. He moved to Portsmouth, when his father was promoted, and attended Portsmouth Grammar School with the author James Clavell, who remained a lifelong friend and wrote a book, Whirlwind, which was a fictionalised account of one of Bristow’s adventures. This occurred in 1979 when he extracted all his staff and most of his helicopters from Iran in a dawn operation under the guns of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guard.
After the Second World War broke out on his 16th birthday Bristow joined the British India Steamship Company as a deck officer cadet and was sunk twice, once aboard SS Malda by Japanese warships, and again aboard SS Hatarana by the German submarine U214 off the Azores. A squat, powerful man, Bristow was an unbeaten exponent of that vicious brand of shipboard boxing in which men fought when tied together at the ankle.
He was present at the evacuation of Rangoon in 1942 and the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in 1942 but jumped ship to join the Fleet Air Arm in 1944. Graduating in the top four of his pilot training course, he was sent to New York to learn to fly the Sikorsky R4 and became one of the first Britons to master the difficult and unpredictable early helicopter.
Bristow was hired as Westland Aircraft Company’s first helicopter test pilot in 1947, at a time when 25 per cent of the UK test pilot population was being killed every year, and survived many close calls. His record was six engine failures in different helicopters in one day. Always on a short fuse, Bristow was sacked for knocking out Westland’s sales manager after an argument, and moved to Paris to run an ad hoc helicopter operation where his duties included flying up and down the Seine with a pair of circus trapeze artists slung beneath his machine. He survived one crash when the ladder got wrapped around his tail boom and tore it off, and another when he was overcome by DDT fumes while spraying oranges in Algeria. After he had crashed in Senegal when an engine mounting bolt sheared, he fixed the helicopter with baling wire and flew it 30 kilometres to Dakar.
Bristow moved to Indochina in 1949 to try to interest the French Armée de l’Air in buying Hiller Helicopters for the evacuation of wounded in their colonial war with the Viet Minh, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for rescuing four men under mortar fire. He managed to sell eight Hillers to the French, his first financial coup, but threw in his lot with a group of ex-SS mercenaries who were leaving the Foreign Legion to join a pirate whaling fleet operated by Aristotle Onassis.
For four whaling seasons Bristow flew underpowered and unreliable helicopters up to 100 miles out over the Antarctic Ocean, on one occasion surviving only by landing on an iceberg to sit out a snowstorm when his rotor blade iced up. His second financial coup came in 1953 when he sold the patents for a helicopter-borne humane killer for whales to the Netherlands Whaling Company, although it was banned by the International Whaling Commission the following year.
By then Bristow had moved into oil exploration support, having met the legless fighter ace Douglas Bader, who was in charge of Shell Oil’s aviation interests worldwide. Starting in the Persian Gulf in 1955, Bristow Helicopters expanded across the world, and by 1959 Bristow was a tax exile in Bermuda. There he was tracked down by Freddie Laker, who wanted to buy Bristow Helicopters on behalf of Air Holdings, a joint venture between blue-chip companies including P&O, Lord Cayzer’s British & Commonwealth, Eagle Star and Lazards which included the private airline British United Airways. Bristow was happy to sell a stake in order to get access to friendly capital, but their valuations of the company were £67,000 apart. Both gambling men, they settled the issue by tossing a coin at a lunch after which Bristow’s accountant George Fry needed medical treatment. Bristow won. On the proceeds he was able to build a substantial home and buy two estates in Surrey, one of which, Baynards, became renowned as one of the finest shoots in England and attracted sheikhs, captains of industry and oil company executives.
Bristow Helicopters continued to expand at remarkable pace, with Bristow gambling everything on the success of North Sea gas and oil exploration and seeing his risk amply rewarded. In 1968 he took over as chief executive of British United Airways and restored it to profitability, before selling it to Caledonian Airways three years later and returning to Bristow Helicopters.
Always inclined to brinkmanship in industrial and commercial relations, he resigned in 1985 in an argument with Lord Cayzer over Bristow’s offer of a seat on the board to Bobby Suharto, son of the Indonesian President. Cayzer arranged to buy Bristow out, leaving him with no financial interest in the company he had founded.
The following year Bristow, a staunch Conservative Party supporter who had provided helicopters free to Margaret Thatcher during election campaigns, mounted a takeover bid for Westland Helicopters, but the bid foundered when he discovered a £41 million government loan that had not been declared in the company’s books. In a bewildering series of political machinations, Westland was instead acquired by the American company Sikorsky, leading to the resignation of two Cabinet ministers, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan. At one of several parliamentary inquiries into the deal Bristow claimed that establishment figures had twice offered him a knighthood in return for help smoothing the affair. He was not knighted.
Bristow could be terrifying in a rage and had a reputation for sacking people on a whim, but many of his pilots and executives stayed with him for decades. He was loyal and generous to those who had worked for him and retained the friendship of his workforce to the end of his life. He continued to invent and innovate, building a rapid transit vehicle for town centres in the late 1980s and winning the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for Agricultural Innovation for creating water beds for dairy cows, which he licensed profitably to Dunlop.
After his departure, Bristow Helicopters passed through several hands before being bought out by the American giant Offshore Logistics Inc. Bristow was gratified when the American multinational changed its own name to Bristow Group because, according to its president, William Chiles, the name was “solid gold” in the oil industry worldwide. The company remains as significant player in the world of helicopters.