Obituary: Bristow pioneer and former whale hunter dies, aged 85

Hardly a day goes by when, above us, passes the sound of a helicopter either en route to an oil rig or on search and rescue duties.

The name on the side of the aircraft is usually “Bristow”, a name that has been part of Shetland life since the discovery of oil in the North Sea.

Bristow Helicopters started oil flights from Aberdeen via Shetland in 1971 before moving a large part of its operation into two new hangars built at Sumburgh Airport from 1975, thereby giving the company a permanent location in the isles.

The company provided employment to many Shetlanders, though the oil-related flights moved airport location to Unst in the 1980s and then to Scasta in the 1990s. Other helicopter operators have come and gone, such as BEA, BA and British Caledonia Helicopters, North Scottish and BEAS.

The founder of the company was Alan Bristow who started his flying career, and his association with Sikorsky Helicopters, in the Royal Navy in 1943. He was the first navy pilot to land a Sikorsky R4 helicopter on the main deck of HMS Helmsdale in 1946.

Later that year he joined Westland Helicopters at Yeovil, Somerset, as a test pilot, flying the Sikorsky S51 (Dragonfly) and the newer Sikorsky S 5 (Whirlwind) helicopters.

However, after a serious disagreement with the Westlands sales manager (Alan thumped him) he left the company in 1949. Then followed an adventure with the French forces in the Indo-China campaign, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Alan next headed to the Antarctic to join the whale hunters in 1950 and during this time he formed his first company – Air Whaling Ltd – using a S55 (Whirlwind) helicopter.

The company changed names to Bristow Helicopters in 1953 when Alan was awarded his first oil-related contract in support of Shell exploration off Doha, Qatar, by the renowned fighter pilot Douglas Bader – head of Shell aircraft – and so what began in 1950 as Bristow Helicopters remains today and operates Worldwide.

Alan Bristow died on 26 April at the age of 85. KM


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