Alan Edgar Bristow died on April 26 at the age of 85. A former chief executive of British United Airways, he was best known as the founder of Bristow Helicopters, one of the world’s largest helicopter companies, where he served as managing director and then chairman from 1954 to 1985. An astute businessman, test pilot and helicopter pioneer, Bristow’s helicopters played an important role in the development of North Sea oil and operated in nearly every country in the world.
Bristow was born in Balham, South London, in 1923 and was brought up in Bermuda where his father ran the naval dockyard. After World War II broke out on his 16th birthday, Bristow joined the British India Steamship Company as a deck officer cadet. He survived two sinkings, aboard SS Malda by Japanese warships and aboard SS Hatarana by the German submarine U214 while off the Azores. In 1944 he joined the Fleet Air Arm, graduating in the top four of his pilot training course. He was sent to America, where he became the first Briton to fly the pioneering Sikorsky R4 helicopter.
Bristow was hired as Westland Aircraft Company’s first helicopter test pilot in 1947. He later moved to Paris, were he managed a helicopter operation that included flying up and down the Seine with a pair of circus trapeze artists tethered beneath his helicopter. Later, after founding Bristow Helicopters, he became convinced that North Sea gas and oil exploration was a direction the company should embrace. It proved to be a profitable decision.
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. After his departure from the company, Bristow Helicopters passed through several hands before being bought out by an American multinational company, Offshore Logistics Inc., which retained the founder’s name when they changed the company name to The Bristow Group. The company remains a significant player in the helicopter world.
Bristow was an inventor and innovator. He built a rapid transit vehicle for town centers in the late 1980s, and won the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for Agricultural Innovation. During his lifetime he received many awards and honors, including the Order of the British Empire in 1966 for his contribution and services to aviation, and the Croix de Guerre in 1950 for rescuing four wounded French Foreign Legion soldiers in Indochina under mortar fire. He had moved to Indochina in 1949, in an effort to interest the French Air Force in buying Hiller Helicopters to evacuate their wounded. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1967.