Bristow Helicopters Ltd. - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on Bristow Helicopters Ltd.

Redhill Aerodrome
United Kingdom

Company Perspectives:

As part of the Offshore Logistics Group, Bristow Helicopters strives to conduct all of our business in an atmosphere that emphasizes trust, integrity, respect and results. We work together with a firm commitment to safety, reliability and value for our customers.

History of Bristow Helicopters Ltd.

Bristow Helicopters Ltd. (BHL) is one of the world's top helicopter services companies. BHL provides transportation to offshore oil rigs, search and rescue operations, and other services, including training for military pilots. The company's worldwide fleet numbers about 120 helicopters. Bristow has a headquarters in Surrey, a European unit based in Aberdeen, and about a dozen bases overseas. The company is affiliated with Offshore Logistics, Inc. (OLOG) of the United States. Together, the two firms offer a truly global reach.


Bristow Helicopters Limited dates back to 1953, when Air Whaling Ltd. was founded by Alan Bristow, a former Royal Navy helicopter pilot. After World War II, he became the first helicopter test pilot employed by Westland Aircraft Ltd. He then went to work for the newly formed Compagnie Helicop-Air in Paris for another two years. He left when French unions objected to a foreigner holding this position. Next, Bristow joined the French Foreign Legion and won a Croix de Guerre for helping the French Army set up a helicopter squadron.

Bristow then formed his own company. He leased a hangar from the Royal Navy at Henstridge Airfield in Somerset, England, and set up Air Whaling Ltd. on June 6, 1953. The firm specialized in spotting whales for the whaling industry. Alan Bristow credited Ted Wheeldon, who had helped him get his Westland test pilot job, with arranging Air Whaling's sideline as a distributor of Westland helicopters to the whaling industry.

According to company literature, the firm has a long history of innovation. For example, it was Bristow's request for an offshore refueling method that prompted Flight Refuelling Ltd. (part of Cobham plc) to develop one of the aerial refueling systems used by modern military aviators.

The company spent considerable effort developing a technology for harpooning whales by helicopter. However, the firm's prospects for this were scuttled by International Whaling Commission regulations in the mid-1950s.

The company soon built up a trade ferrying men and material to and from oil rigs in the North Sea, its first small contract coming from the Shell Oil Company in 1955. A new company called Bristow Helicopters Ltd. (BHL) was created. Working for British Petroleum brought Bristow into the Persian Gulf in 1957. This contract allowed the company to buy its own helicopters for the first time, two Westland Widgeons. Bristow also ventured into Iran and Bolivia that year (the original Bolivian adventure lasted till 1962). The limited number of companies that could afford helicopter services prompted the firm to look for work on a global basis, said Bristow in the company history Leading from the Front.

Acquired by Airwork in 1959

BHL relocated from Henstridge to Redhill Aerodrome in the late 1950s. By 1959, BHL employed 100 people and had more than 14 helicopters in the field. That year, the business--which then included Bristow Helicopters (Eastern), Bristow Helicopters (Bermuda), and Helicopter Rentals--was sold to Airwork Ltd. Airwork had been maintaining aircraft for the Royal Air Force since before World War II. It had acquired several operators before buying BHL, which it combined with helicopter operator Fison-Airwork. Fison had extensive experience in Nigeria, where it performed crop dusting and other jobs.

In 1960, Airwork merged with Hunting-Clan to create British United Airways (BUA), which the next year merged with Silver City Airlines and then British Aviation Services. Air Holdings was created as a holding company.

Alan Bristow and three of his colleagues acquired a 49 percent holding in two of the subsidiaries, BHL and Airwork. Helicopter Contractors, later Bristow Helicopter Group Ltd., was formed to oversee these interests.

Bristow began training helicopter pilots for the Royal Navy at Redhill in 1961. This was followed by contracts from India, Australia and New Zealand. The company had started its training operations in Kuwait several years earlier. By the end of the 1960s, BHL had also established a training joint venture in Iran.

George Fry became head of BHL in December 1967 as Alan Bristow began a two-year stint as joint managing director of British United Airways. During Fry's tenure, the fleet grew to 80 helicopters. BHL's stature was such that it was able to buy 15 state-of-the-art Jet Rangers from Agusta Bell. The company was also putting new turbine engines in its older Whirlwinds. Operations expanded to Trinidad, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia.

BHL was also becoming active in the North Sea. It began its first tentative operations from Aberdeen in 1969 and established a base there two years later. BHL began flying large Sikorsky S61Ns that could carry two-dozen passengers. Another workhorse was the 15-passenger Bell 212.

1970s Rescues

BHL set up a school to train its own pilots at Redhill in 1970. This business was contracted out to a U.S. firm in 1998. Another important service was begun in 1971--search and rescue (SAR) over the Straights of Dover. Public outcry caused this duty to be reassigned to the Royal Air Force within three years. The civil-run approach eventually prevailed, however.

BHL's North Sea operations led to rescue work. In 1974, the company evacuated 150 people from two rigs that had come unmoored. BHL also participated in the massive rescue of more than 500 crew members from the derrick barge Hermod on December 15, 1979.

Since the mid-1970s, a number of countries had been nationalizing the helicopter services once provided by BHL. These included Abu Dhabi (1975), Malaysia (1983), and Dubai (1984). In the case of Malaysia, BHL retained a management contract to run the operation for several years.

Operations in Iran, where BHL had been active since 1957, came to a more dramatic end. By 1979, BHL's Iran-based operation employed 300 people and 23 helicopters. After the Shah of Iran was deposed following the revolution headed by the Ayatollah Khomenei, BHL was able to start removing these assets and the expatriate personnel. However, seven aircraft worth $15 million and 22 people had to be surreptitiously evacuated on March 9, 1979 in "Operation Sandstorm," a dramatic rescue that made tabloid headlines in the United Kingdom.

Busy in the 1980s

BHL acquired a small operator, British Executive Air Services (BEAS), in 1978. By 1980, Bristow's operations had spread to the Gulf Coast of the United States and the fleet numbered about 170 helicopters. It was flying about 150,000 passengers a year in the early 1980s.

The Gulf of Mexico operations were started in 1979 with Bristow's acquisition of Texas-based Offshore Helicopters Inc. Renamed Bristow Offshore Helicopters Inc. (BOHI), the operation closed down within two years, however.

BHL kept its fleet up to date with the newest helicopter types. In 1980, this meant the Sikorsky S76, followed in 1982 by the Aerospatiale 332L Super Puma. Bristow ordered $100 million worth of Pumas specially modified for oilrig crew transport. These were dubbed "Tigers" by BHL.

The company's innovative engineering was not limited to the Tigers. BHL had developed a number of unique technologies to meet its operating needs, that is, auto-hover systems. It was also a pioneer of Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS), which monitored for unusual vibration on various components in order to prevent accidents.

BHL was kept busy in the early 1980s supporting military operations in the Falklands (BHL maintained a presence there through the late 1990s). Another, smaller southern hemisphere mission was the support of the British Antarctic Survey in 1984. Unfortunately, one of the two Jet Rangers dispatched was wrecked on the ice on the way back to its ship.

Consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s

The company began a relationship with China's CITIC Offshore Helicopter Co. Ltd. in the mid-1980s, soon before oil was discovered in the South China Sea. Times were leaner elsewhere. A plunge in oil prices in 1986 in particular led to a thinning of the ranks of helicopter services companies. Bristow managed to survive, acquiring British Caledonian Helicopters in 1987. By 1990, Bristow was flying more than 200 helicopters and 40 fixed-wing aircraft. It employed 2,000 people. The oil industry accounted for more than two-thirds of revenues.

Financial services company British & Commonwealth Holdings acquired BHL in June 1988 through its Bricom unit. British & Commonwealth was bought out by Sweden's Gamlestaden group in July 1990. A 1991 management buyout left Caledonia Investments and Morgan Grenfell Development Capital each owning about 45 percent of shares.

Offshore Logistics, Inc. (OLOG) of Lafayette, Louisiana acquired a 50 percent stake in Bristow Helicopters in December 1996. OLOG had 159 helicopters in its fleet and after the acquisition was second in size only to Norway's Helikopter Service A/S. At the time, Bristow operated 145 aircraft as far abroad as the Falkland Islands, Australia, Nigeria, Trinidad, and Vietnam. Helicopter News pointed out that Bristow had become a partner in Irish Helicopters Ltd. with Offshore Logistics rival Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.

Bristow formed a helicopter joint venture with FR Aviation (Flight Refuelling) and Serco Defense Ltd called FBS Ltd. In late 1996, FBS won a 15-year contract to train pilots for Britain's Ministry of Defence.

Restructuring for the 2000s and Beyond

BHL got a new CEO in 1999, former finance director Keith Chanter, who replaced Steve Palframan. Bristow was restructuring, shifting more responsibility from its Surrey headquarters to its European unit at Aberdeen and the International and Technical Services business units based at Redhill. The technical services unit was incorporated as Bristow Technical Services Ltd. in January 2002.

Industry consolidation continued. In 2000, lower oil prices had led to the merger of Bristow's British rivals, Bond and British International Helicopters. CHC Canadian Helicopter had controlling interests in both of these. By this time, Bristow had acquired a 49 percent share in Norsk Helikopter AS.

Around 2003, the Helicopter Operations Monitoring Programme (HOMP) was being developed as a successor to HUMS. HOMP included Flight Data Recorder information as well as data on the aircraft's mechanical components.

As of 2005, the company had a fleet of 120 aircraft. It was the leading operator of the 18-passenger AS 332 Super Puma. The 12-passenger Sikorsky S76A+ was the company's workhorse for the southern sector of the North Sea. Other helicopter types were used, including a specialized Sikorsky S61N for search and rescue. Bell 212, 412, and 214ST aircraft were also in the fleet.

Principal Subsidiaries: Bristow Technical Services Ltd.; Norsk Helikopter AS (Norway; 49%).

Principal Divisions: European; International; Technical Services.

Principal Competitors: CHC Helicopter Corporation; Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.


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