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Bristow's 60 years of service

Posted 24 June 2015 · Add Comment

Founded by Alan Bristow on 24 June 1955, Bristow Helicopters is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

What started as a small business to support oil and gas companies looking to transport crews to the rigs in the Persian Gulf, has grown to become one of the largest civilian helicopter companies in the world. Bristow's story is a remarkable, not only because of the vision and  adventurous spirit of its leaders but also the skill and courage of its people.

Alan Bristow
Born in Balham, South London, on 3 September 1923, Alan Edgar Bristow spent his early childhood in Bermuda - where his father managed the Royal Naval Dockyard - before returning with his family to Britain's south coast and attending Portsmouth grammar school.

He was a shrewd businessman, test pilot, inventor and pioneer. Known to be loyal and generous to his employees, he thrived on adventure and was revered by aviators. At one point in his career, he managed a helicopter operation that flew a pair of circus trapeze artists tethered beneath his helicopter up and down the Seine. His circle included industry greats Igor Sikorsky and Stan Hiller, and test pilots Harold Penrose and Bill Waterton.

Bristow received several prestigious honours and decorations throughout his adventurous life, including Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Royal Aeronautical Society's Silver Medal, Britain’s Champion Helicopter Pilot and the Croix de Guerre, for rescuing soldiers under Viet Minh mortar fire.

After flying airplanes and helicopters for the British Royal Navy during World War II, Bristow became Westland Aircraft’s first test helicopter pilot. He later sold helicopters for the company, and used his earnings to lease huts and a hangar and set up his first company, Air Whaling Ltd.

He formed Bristow Helicopters Ltd on 24 June 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, realising that few companies could afford helicopter services, Bristow began looking for work on a global basis and successfully ventured into Iran and Bolivia.

Over the next 30 years, with an unwavering commitment to safety, reliability and treating his staff fairly, Bristow expanded the business worldwide, providing services in the North Sea, Middle East, South America, Africa, Asia, India, Bermuda, Trinidad, Australia and New Zealand. The company provided pilot training, search and rescue services, underslung work and VIP charter transportation, in addition to helicopter transport services, and grew to become one of the largest civilian helicopter companies in the world.

Above: Alan Bristow raising a glass.
Copyright Patrick Malone

Alan Bristow died at the age of 85, on 26 April, 2009.

Tackling the Aberdeen market in the 1960s
Helicopter transportation soon became the preferred alternative to the slower boat service and Bristow worked to capitalise 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 9 March, 1979.

Expanding into 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.

Above: Bristow was awarded an £1.6 billion contract by the Department for Transport in March 2013 and the company has been working to ensure that 10 bases around the UK in areas with high SAR incident rates are in a full state of readiness, with bases at Inverness and Humberside made operational on 1 April 2015 and the rest systematically phased in up to July 2017.

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 finalising 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% 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.

Bristow, stepped down from his leadership of the company in 1985, yet maintained contact with its employees until the end of his life in April 2009.

In addition to helicopters, Bristow flew light aircraft from his own landing strip and was an avid yachtsman. He was appointed Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1996.

Setting high standards
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 recognised 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.

Eastern Airways joins 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% 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.

Bristow in the US
Bristow's long rich history traces back to Louisiana-based Offshore Logistics, which was started by Burt Keenan in 1969 to provide support services to the rapidly expanding offshore oil industry. The company initially used boats to transport workers and materials down Louisiana's bayous to offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, yet as the need for faster service grew, Offshore Logistics started using helicopters to rotate crews working the rigs. Keenan continued to build the company's fleet of vessels and helicopters through the 1970s as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico moved into high gear.

Offshore Logistics was hit hard in the oil bust during the 1980s and was forced to restructure and dramatically cut costs. The company sold its corporate office and some of its aviation and marine equipment, transferring its fleet of domestic supply boats and ships to the US Maritime Administration, yet keeping its fleet of helicopters and international vessels. For the remainder of the 80s, the company continued to sell its ships and boats and buy assets of companies that were also using helicopters for offshore support services, including acquisition of helicopters from a unit of Omniflight.

In 1991, the company committed to solely supplying air support services, selling off the remnants of its marine fleet to get new helicopters. Its air fleet grew to 145 aircraft by March of 1991, with another 15 helicopters on order and plans for 12 more the next year.

With 60% of its revenue coming from servicing existing production platforms, Offshore Logistics was fairly well buffered against swings in the oil industry. It began tapping into more markets abroad, and in the 1990s, operated in a number of international markets, including the North Sea, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Australia, Nigeria and China, in addition to its operations in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

In 1996, Offshore Logistics purchased of a 49% share in Bristow Aviation Holdings Limited, which operated in the North Sea parallel to its service in the Gulf of Mexico, growing its fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing planes to more than 300 by the late 1990s.

In 2001, with headquarters in Lafayette, Louisiana, Offshore Logistics operated one of the largest fleets of commercial helicopters in the world through its consortium of subsidiaries and partially owned affiliates, Air Logistics, Air Logistics of Alaska, Inc., AirLog International, Inc., Grasso Production Management, and Bristow Helicopter Group Limited, providing services to the oil and gas industry, as well as emergency services and support to agriculture and forestry industries.

The company moved its corporate headquarters to Houston in 2005, to "strategically place us in the heart of the international energy industry," according to its then President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Chiles, and re-branded as Bristow Group, Inc. in 2006.

Into Africa
In 1960 Bristow acquired Fison-Airwork, primarily a crop spraying company with business in Central America, England and the Sudan. Fison-Airwork was also involved in supporting some of the first oil exploration work in Nigeria, on contract to the Shell D'Arcy development company, and Bristow seized on the opportunity. In the following years, Bristow would divest itself of the crop spraying business and expand the work with Shell in Nigeria.

The impact of the Biafran War
The Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War, which broke out in 1967, impacted Bristow's operations in the region, as with many other companies operating in Africa. Bristow helped evacuate workers from rigs at the start of the war, reunited them with their families and pets, and flew them to Fernando Po, (Bioko), an island off the west coast of Africa (Bight of Biafra) and now part of Equatorial Guinea. At the time of the war, Bristow had 11 helicopters committed to oil support work, all based at Port Harcourt.

Despite the risks, Bristow managed to keep operating in Nigeria during the war, with a skeleton presence in Lagos and Warri. The war ended in 1970.

Bristow was incorporated in Nigeria on 17 December, 1969. In the early 1970s, Bristow had Wessexes, Whirlwind series 3s, Bell 206s and Islanders in its fleet and its business began to rebuild as oil companies returned to the region. In the early to mid-1970s, Nigeria was Bristow's biggest profit centre and grew through the decade, with contracts from Shell, Mobil, Texaco and others.

By the 1980s, Bristow phased out the Wessexes and its fleet consisted of Bell 212s, Bell 206s and Sikorsky S-76s, among others. In 1982, Bristow operated entirely from client bases.

In 1986, Bristow began training Nigerian pilots at its flying school at Redhill and sponsoring students at the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, (NCAT), Zaria: programmes which continue today.

In the early 2000s, in an interview for the book, Leading from the Front , Allan Brown, then director of Bristow's International Business Unit, described Bristow's operations as a "growth area," with a main base at Lagos International Airport, a hangar, offices and the "renowned BRC" (Bristow Residential Compound).

The company flew two de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter turbo-prop aircraft for Shell crew between Lagos, Warri and Port Harcourt. Later, Bristow flew oil crews from Lagos on Dornier 328 turbo-prop aircraft, which were later replaced by three Dornier 328 jets, to Port Harcourt, Warri and Abuja, and provided crews for six Shell-owned Eurocopter EC-155s and five Bell 212s out of Eket for Mobil. Bristow also operated two Aerospatiale AS355 Twin-Squirrel helicopters for Texaco and ConocoPhillips (Canoxy) out of the Warri-Texaco base. It also operated the Mitsubishi MU-2 and Beech King Air turbo-prop aircraft for ad-hoc charter clients. Bristow was also operating in Ghana, Benin, Mauritania and Togo.

In 2002, Air Logistics acquired Pan African Airlines (Nigeria) Ltd (PAAN). The PAAN acquisition brought Bristow fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, and a major contract with Chevron.

In 2006, Bristow had 48 aircraft operating in Nigeria, including six new Bell 412s. After a tour of the Nigeria Air Force base at Port Harcourt by Bristow's then President and CEO, Bill Chiles, the company made a long-term commitment to invest in infrastructure at the base and focused on improving safety, profitability and business integrity in the region.

Bristow's operations continued to grow through the end of the decade, operating from nine bases in Nigeria. The marketplace - historically concentrated predominantly in the oil rich swamp and shallow water of the Niger Delta - expanded to support deep water exploration. In the late 2000s, Bristow was operating Eurocopter AS332 Super Pumas under contract for Shell, Sikorsky S-76s under contract for Exxon, and in 2009, had acquired two Sikorsky S-92s for a contract with Chevron.

Oppportunities from new Nigerian legislation
In 2011, the enactment of legislation in Nigeria to create more sustainable, stand-alone Nigerian companies in the nation's oil and gas industry prompted Bristow to separate its Bristow Helicopters (Nigeria) Ltd (BHNL) and PAAN operations in 2011. The company also started a new Nigerian entity – BGI Aviation Technical Services (BATS) – to provide technical aviation maintenance services within Nigeria (BHNL and PAAN are the first BATS clients). While committing to continue to apply all key Bristow Group standards and policies, including Bristow's Target Zero safety programme, the new arrangement brought autonomy to BHNL's and PAAN's flight operations, with support from Bristow Group via BATS.

Still going strong in Africa
Bristow continues to operate in Nigeria with a combination of aircraft in Nigeria for major integrated offshore energy companies. BHNL is a joint venture in Nigeria in which Bristow Helicopters owns a 40% interest, unrelated local Nigerian partners together own a 39% interest, a Nigerian company owned 100% by Nigerian employees owns a 19% interest, and an employee trust fund owns a remaining 2% interest as of 31 March, 2014. PAAN is a joint venture in Nigeria with local partners. PAAN provides helicopter services to clients in Nigeria.

BATS provides aviation engineering and technical services to the Nigerian aviation market. BATS headquarters is at GRA Ikeja Lagos, and a service office is located at the General Aviation Area of Murtala Muhammed Airport, including a fully-equipped heavy maintenance hangar and management offices. In Port Harcourt, the company has a full maintenance hangar in addition to its support facilities. BATS also operates from customer bases in Warri, Calabar, Eket and Escravos.

Above: A project started as a donation drive at the school of Eve Baliff, daughter of Bristow President and CEO Jonathan Baliff - originally focused solely on orphans in a Tanzanian village - extended to the entire village when employees in Bristow's Houston, Texas office collected additional supplies to add to the shipment before it was picked up for delivery by a Bristow helicopter.

Bristow began services in Tanzania at the end of November 2013, working closely with its alliance partner, Everett Aviation , with this contract representing the first steps by Bristow into a new market in East Africa.

Bristow today

Above: CEO Jonathan Baliff Commemorates Bristow's 60th Birthday.

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 was awarded the 10 year UK SAR contract by the Department for Transport in March 2013 and the first two SAR bases went live on 1 April, 2015. Under the contract, by summer of 2017 Bristow will deliver the service on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency from 10 coastguard helicopter bases strategically located close to areas of high SAR incident rates.


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