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From Humble Beginnings to One of the Largest Civilian Helicopter Companies in the World

May 11, 2015

Bristow Helicopters Limited traces its start to 1955

Bristow's humble beginnings
Bristow began building its oil and gas credentials before the first discovery in the North Sea, tracing its beginnings back to an adventurous and shrewd businessman, Alan Bristow. London-born Bristow, a former Royal Navy pilot, established Bristow Helicopters Limited on June 24, 1955, after landing a contract with Shell Oil Company to transport crews and materials to rigs in the Persian Gulf as the existing boat service was unreliable. Bristow supplied the crews for Shell Oil helicopters and managed their operation, ferrying men, tools, spare parts and groceries. A contract with British Petroleum in 1957 enabled Bristow to purchase its own helicopters, two Westland Widgeons. Later that year, realizing that few companies could afford helicopter services, Bristow began looking for work on a global basis and successfully ventured into Iran and Bolivia.

Tackling the Aberdeen market in the 1960s
Helicopter transportation soon became the preferred alternative to the slower boat service and Bristow worked to capitalize on the opportunity. The firm expanded to begin training Royal Navy helicopter pilots at Redhill, Surrey, in 1961, which was followed by contracts from India, Australia and New Zealand. By the end of the 1960s, Bristow had also established a training joint venture in Iran. Bristow first entered the North Sea market in the mid-1960s, and was ideally positioned to take advantage of the oil boom by commencing operations from Aberdeen in 1967. Bristow was the second helicopter operator to arrive in Aberdeen, after BEA Helicopters Limited.

Broadening the business during the 1970s
Bristow's Aberdeen expansion truly began in 1970 with Dyce Airport identified as Bristow's main oil and gas support hub. In the summer of 1972, Bristow expanded further and sent a single Sikorsky S-61N to share a hangar in Sumburgh on a three-day-a-week contract for Shell's Bluewater III and Glomar rigs. Offshore workers were flown there from Aberdeen by fixed-wing and new accommodations for workers and their families were needed. The operation grew and during the 1970s, at its peak, thirty S-61N daily flights flew from Sumburgh Airport, supported by a 24-hour maintenance operation.

By 1975, Bristow was operating from Aberdeen and Sumburgh with 18 S-61Ns, a Wessex 60 and a Bell 206 Jet Ranger, along with acquiring ten ex-military piston-engine Sikorsky S-58s. Each of the helicopters was averaging 100 hours per month, flying anywhere from the East Shetland Basin to the Danish coast.

At the end of the decade, Bristow's operations in Iran came to a dramatic end. After the Shah of Iran was deposed following the revolution headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Bristow began removing helicopters and employees from the country, which culminated in a dramatic rescue, "Operation Sandstorm," on March 9, 1979.

Ready within 15-Minutes; expanding to search and rescue services
Bristow's North Sea operations led to rescue work and the company began its long history of providing civilian search and rescue (SAR) services in the UK in 1971, when military Whirlwinds were replaced by Bristow S-55 helicopters at RAF Manston in Kent. The idea of a private company conducting search and rescue services for the UK government was an entirely new concept at the time. Bristow held the contract for about three years, until continued public dismay and intense lobbying efforts resulted in the contract being turned back over to the British RAF Coastal Command.

The company would eventually win back the business. Bristow commenced SAR helicopter operations on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) from Sumburgh Airport in 1983. The company held the contract until 2007 and secured it again in June 2013. Bristow conducted SAR operations at Stornoway on behalf of MCA from 1987 to 2007, and again in July 2013. From Lee-on-Solent, the company provided SAR operations on behalf of the MCA from 1988 to 2007, and from Portland from 1995 to 2007.

Over the years, Bristow's SAR units were involved in some major incidents affecting the oil and gas industry, including assisting in the rescue efforts of survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster. The incident was followed by the Cullen Inquiry, which marked a dramatic step change in the oil and gas industry's approach to safety.

The Bristow 'Tigers' make their mark
During the 1980s, Bristow continued to grow to become Aberdeen Airport's largest single employer, with personnel in Aberdeen increasing a hundred-fold, operating the vast majority of offshore flights in the North Sea. In 1980, nearly 400,000 passengers and more than 2,300 tons of freight passed through the Bristow terminal in Aberdeen.

The Sikorsky S-76, formerly known as the Spirit, entered service in the 1980s, with four of these aircraft based in Aberdeen. Bristow was the first European operator to put this second-generation type into commercial service.

The first Super Pumas for the oil and gas market were introduced in 1982. Bristow worked with Aerospatiale (known today as Airbus Helicopters) in consultation with the oil and gas industry, to design a bespoke, commuter helicopter with the oil and gas market in mind. Bristow's design included space for baggage stowage behind the cabin, a more flexible seating system, customized avionics, bigger windows and better flotation devices. On finalizing the design with Aerospatiale, Bristow placed an order for 35 helicopters, making it the largest civil helicopter order ever made. The record still stands today.

Alan Bristow christened this bespoke fleet the Bristow 'Tigers' and he accepted the keys to the first Tiger in March 1982, with the first one arriving in Aberdeen on April 9, 1982. It went into service on schedule for the British National Oil Corporation in the Thistle Field.

Within its first month of operation, the Tiger met 95 percent of its planned commercial flight departures. The helicopter could make the journey from Aberdeen to the Thistle Field in one, two-hour leg, reducing work time lost and passenger and crew fatigue.

Over the years, Bristow has continued to set and achieve high safety and quality standards, which has resulted in several of its modifications setting new industry standards and influencing regulatory changes since the 1980s. These technologies and innovations have been adopted by leading manufacturers and competitors, including Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCASII), Integrated Health and Usage Monitoring System (IHUMS), and Sky Connect.

Bristow was recognized with the prestigious Queens Award for Innovation for the development of the dual-hoist system and worked with aircraft manufacturers, hoist manufacturers and SAR crew to hone the technology. This equipment brings a new level of industry-leading, life-saving technology to SAR operators around the world.

Offshore Logistics buys a stake
In 1996, Offshore Logistics, which had operations in the Gulf of Mexico parallel to Bristow’s North Sea operation, purchased a stake in Bristow. In March 1998, Bristow operated a fleet of 73 aircraft in the UK and Europe, mainly in the North Sea offshore market. Offshore Logistics rebranded as Bristow Group Inc. in 2006.

The Tigers mark their end and Eastern Airways comes into the fold
In 2010, Bristow invested in a new pilot training facility in Aberdeen with full-flight simulators for the H225 and S-92 aircraft. The simulators were among the first to be deployed anywhere in the world and Bristow was the only operator in Aberdeen to host this state-of-the-art technology, which included exact cockpit replicas, and high-level mapping of airports, coastlines and offshore fields.

In September 2014, after 32 years of commercial service, Bristow marked the end of the Tiger where it had been the mainstay of North Sea operation for three decades. In addition to the standard form of offshore work, the Tiger had been used for SAR, underslung work, offshore shuttling and VIP charter transport to major sporting events, such as Silverstone Grand Prix and the Open Golf tournament.

In 2014, Bristow acquired a 60-percent strategic interest in Eastern Airways, the UK’s leading provider of fixed-wing air services for the oil and gas industry. Bristow was now able to provide point-to-point scheduled and charter transportation services, combining fixed-wing with rotary-wing services to its North Sea clients. In that same year, Bristow saw the first commercial flight of the new generation of AgustaWestland AW189 helicopter. Bristow was the first helicopter operator to introduce the AW189 and worked closely with AgustaWestland to design the new twin-engine aircraft with the latest safety technology, 140-nautical-mile range and capacity of 16 passengers and two crew members.

Present day
Today, Bristow’s Europe Caspian Region comprises operations in Europe and Turkmenistan, and includes oil and gas transport services, SAR support services to oil and gas clients and SAR services on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Based on the number of aircraft operating, Bristow is one of the largest providers of helicopter services in the North Sea, where there are harsh weather conditions and geographically concentrated offshore facilities. The offshore facilities in the Northern North Sea and Norwegian North Sea are large and require frequent crew change flight services. In the Southern North Sea, the facilities are generally smaller, with some unmanned platforms requiring shuttle operations to up-man in the morning and down-man in the evening.

Bristow Helicopters Limited provides helicopters and crew at two HM Coastguard bases, in Shetlands and the Western Isles, under the Gap SAR contract. By summer of 2017, under the UK SAR contract, there will be 10 coastguard helicopter bases around the UK. All of these bases will be operated by Bristow Helicopters Limited on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.