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Bristow, Alan Edgar (1923–2009), helicopter pilot, businessman, and inventor, was born on 3 September 1923 at 202 Bedford Hill, Balham, London, the elder child of Sidney Edgar Bristow (1892–1972), an Admiralty clerk and later naval store officer, and his wife, Betsy, née Falconer. The family moved to Portsmouth and in 1933 Bristow started at Portsmouth grammar school, where he excelled as an all-round athlete. While there he formed a firm and enduring friendship with Charles E. D. (James) Clavell, who became a bestselling author and based one of his novels, Whirlwind (1986), on Bristow's escape from Iranian revolutionary forces in 1979.

Aged sixteen, following the outbreak of the Second World War on his birthday, Bristow joined the British India Steam Navigation Company as a cadet, where he made a name for himself as an unbeaten exponent of shipboard boxing, in which opponents are tied together at the ankles. He was sunk twice, once by a Japanese warship and a second time by a German U-boat before, in 1944, jumping ship to join the Fleet Air Arm. There he learned to fly helicopters and, on 6 September 1946, by now a lieutenant, he earned the distinction of being the first pilot to land a helicopter, a Sikorsky R4B Hoverfly, on the deck of a naval escort vessel at sea. He had, on 14 July 1945, married Jean Catherine Bevis (1921–2006), the daughter of Arthur Bevis, a steward at the Royal Thames Yacht Club. They had a son, Laurence, and a daughter, Lynda, but the marriage ended in divorce.

On demobilization Bristow found employment as a test pilot with Westland, the Yeovil-based helicopter manufacturer. During his time with the company he won the Aeronautical Society's silver medal for dropping supplies to the lighthouse keepers at Wolf Rock, off the Channel Islands, when supply ships had failed to get through; and in July 1948 he made the first roof-top landing on any building in Britain, landing a Westland S-51 on a building near Olympia, London. At that time about one in four test pilots died every year. Despite many accidents, including six engine failures in one afternoon, the short-tempered Bristow survived, only to be fired in 1949 for punching Westland's sales manager.

From Westland, Bristow went to Paris to find work. Among other activities he trained helicopter pilots, did crop dusting, and performed publicity stunts in his helicopter, one of which nearly ended in disaster when the trapeze of a circus act became entangled with the tail rotor. In 1950 he set off to Indochina to sell Hiller helicopters. While there, in addition to selling eight aircraft, he rescued four French soldiers under attack from the Viet Minh. The rescue earned him the Croix de Guerre. In 1951 he joined a pirate whaling operation in the Antarctic run by the Greek shipowner Aristotle Onassis. The plan was to use helicopters to spot whales, but the expeditions were fraught with danger, and on at least one occasion he was forced to land on an iceberg when the rotors iced up. He was, however, attracted to the big money in whaling and set up his own operation, Air Whaling, to offer helicopter services to the industry. He also invented a humane harpoon, and managed to sell the patents. In 1953 he changed the name of the company to Bristow Helicopters.

In the early 1950s Bristow met up with the war hero Douglas Bader, who ran Shell Oil's aviation operation. This relationship marked the turning point for Bristow Helicopters, which worked first in the Persian Gulf but later took advantage of the opportunities presented by the opening up of North Sea oil and went on to specialize in serving the oil industry worldwide, growing to be the largest helicopter operation in the world outside the United States. Most of his pilots were recruited from the armed forces, but even these tough characters both feared and respected ‘the old man’. It was said that Bristow would never ask anything of his pilots that he would not himself be prepared to undertake. In 1969 he was named Britain's champion helicopter pilot after a contest including cross-country navigation and precision flying tasks.

With the success of the helicopter business Bristow became a tax exile in Bermuda, where he was visited by Freddie Laker with an offer on behalf of a joint venture company backed by several blue chip companies including British and Commonwealth, the flagship company of the Cayzer family, to buy the company. Bristow agreed to sell them a stake, and the final price was settled by the toss of a coin after a good lunch. As part of the deal Bristow joined the board of British United Airways in 1960 and in 1967 took over from Laker when the company ran into trouble. After sorting the company out he oversaw the sale of British United Airways to Caledonian Airways in 1968. He rejoined Bristow Helicopters, but in 1985 sold out completely to Lord Cayzer after an argument over Bristow's proposal to offer a seat on the board to Bobby Suharto, son of the then president of Indonesia. Bristow Helicopters was subsequently subsumed within various companies before being bought by an American firm, Offshore Logistics Inc., which changed its name to the Bristow Group.

In 1986 Bristow was back in the headlines with an offer to buy the struggling Westland Helicopter manufacturing group, but withdrew when he discovered that Westland had taken a £41 million loan from the British government. Eventually, after two cabinet resignations (those of Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan), Westland was taken over by the American manufacturer Sikorsky. In the late 1980s Bristow spent over £8 million developing Briway, an ultimately unsuccessful rapid transport vehicle for town centres. In 1997 his ‘waterbed’ for dairy cows received a duke of Edinburgh's award for agricultural innovation.

Bristow enjoyed being a wealthy man and, with his second wife, Heather June, a former hotel executive, was a frequent and generous host at his Surrey estate near Cranleigh. He also owned Baynards Park, whose Elizabethan manor house was left empty for eleven years before being destroyed in a fire in 1979. A staunch Conservative, he loaned his helicopters free of charge to Mrs Thatcher during her election campaigns. He was a friend of the duke of Edinburgh, with whom he shared a passion for four-in-hand carriage driving. He had been appointed OBE in 1966. He died at St Helier Hospital, Carshalton, on 26 April 2009, of a chest infection, and was survived by his wife, Heather, and son, Laurence; his daughter, Lynda, predeceased him.

David Brewerton

Sources  

The Times (29 April 2009); (30 April 2009); (5 May 2009); (21 May 2009) · Daily Telegraph (30 April 2009) · The Guardian (5 May 2009) · General Aviation (June 2009), 40–1 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. [1945] · d. cert.

Likenesses  

Keystone, group portrait, photograph, 1963?, Getty Images, London · photograph, 1980, Getty Images, London · photograph, 1980, Photoshot, London · N. Marriner, photographs, 1981, Rex Features, London · photographs, 1985–6, Rex Features, London · R. Open, photograph, Camera Press, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£8,064,541: administration, 28 Aug 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales