Home study for the CAA licence and a successful 1179H flight check by Tim Carbis permitted me to leave the RAF with a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (Helicopters) with type rating for the Gnome Whirlwind. I sought employment with Bristow Helicopters based at Redhill in Surrey, the World’s largest operator of helicopters. They had purchased the Gnome Whirlwind for operations in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. I accepted the offer of a job instructing at Middle Wallop, reasonably convenient to our bungalow in Basingstoke. Bristow’s had a contract providing ab initio pilot training for the Army Air Corps using the Hiller 360 B and 360 C.
Working life was very much akin to the RAF. We even lunched in the officer’s mess. The students were drawn from many different Army units and were of all ranks from sergeant to major. The manager of the operation was Brian Shaw with Bob Brewster, Chief Pilot, both first class men and pilots. Having just returned from the jungles of Borneo I considered myself somewhat adept at limited power operations. However, sitting next to Bob as we slowly rose up the side of a 50 foot tree and then heading straight forward into the tree foliage was frightening until we felt the bite of the translational lift taking us up and over the top of the trees with inches to spare. Bob was masterful with the Hiller 360! With his instruction I completed the assistant instructor’s course.
The Hiller 360 was an ideal aircraft for ab initio helicopter instruction. It was very simple with no vices except, perhaps, its limited power. Hovering over corn fields when the stalks were long could dissipate the ground cushion making it impossible to move off from the hover before gaining translational lift. It had been known for an instructor to offload his student in order to climb away and reposition to a more favourable location. An essential lesson to be taught is engine-off landings, viz. throttling back the engine to idle, entering autorotation and completing a safe landing without power. Like all flying instruction exercises one briefs the student in the crew room before the flight, one demonstrates the exercise in the air AND THEN ONE HAS TO ALLOW THE STUDENT TO HANDLE THE CONTROLS AND REPEAT THE MANOEUVRE! I have to admit that teaching engine-off landings was always a white knuckle experience!
It was at the end of the course when I received the phantom phone call from Alan Green, Operations Manager at Head Office in Redhill aerodrome. “Proceed to Iran next week. Accommodation will be available for your family in Tehran in two months’ time. You will work a cycle of one week on duty on Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and one week off with the family in Tehran.” Having just left the disciplined world of military service and very new into that of civilian life, it did not occur to me to protest at this sudden change of assignment. Also, there was the interest of living abroad with my wife and child, something that had not been possible in the RAF. I managed to squeeze an extra week for a short family holiday to Majorca then flew by BOAC Comet to Abadan at the north end of the Gulf.
At that time, the Bristow operation in Iran was based at Khorramshahr, some 10 miles north of Abadan on the Shat al arab river which divides Iran from Iraq. Three weeks after my arrival the base moved to Kharg Island. The company operated under the name of Iran HeliTaxi which was, like so many companies, somehow tied in with the Shah’s family. This was long before the toppling of the Shah and the arrival of the Ayatollahs.
Kharg Island is a small island located a few miles off the east coast of the Gulf. It had a small population of locals living in a village. All over the island were, and probably still are, oil installations and huge pipes bringing the oil ashore and leading to tanker jetties. There were a few sad looking palm trees and little else in the way of vegetation. Iran HeliTaxi were contracted to the Iran Pan American Oil Company (IPAC). Food in the American style mess was good. We lived initially in a long bungalow type building but after a few weeks contractors were banished to huge Houston trailers which had the benefit of air conditioning – an absolute necessity in that hot and humid climate.
Our little group consisted of Bob Balls – senior pilot, Jock Fletcher – licensed engineer, Wilf Shepherd – avionics engineer, John French – fitter, Alfie Hill – fitter, and three local Iranians, Abdullah, Henry and another whose name I forget. Bob Balls and I alternated our periods of duty – one week on and one week off. During the week off one was free to leave the Island and this meant boarding the Iran Air DC6 and spending a grinding 2 hours flying to Teheran. In my case, the week in Tehran was time to spend with my family. We had two Gnome powered S55/Whirlwind helicopters so one was in the unusual position of having only one pilot but two machines. The aircraft were mounted on two huge air-filled rubber floats. This gave a feeling of over-water safety but since the Gulf was packed with sharks – one could count hundreds in a 45 minute flight to the rig – a ditching would prove rather exciting if a curious shark or two decided to rub against the rubber!
There was a sort of golf course with the hazard of ricocheting a ball off the oil pipes. The only other entertainments were films in the IPAC mess or alcoholic drinks (really only the local beer) and very old films in the Seaman’s Club. The seamen employed by IPAC were mostly German. The helicopter team were all British. Watching episodes of “War in the Air” night after night had its amusing side. When a German aircraft was shot down the British would applaud and the Germans boo and vice versa. It was all done in fun without any bad feeling. The Seaman’s club seemed to have one film only – Burt Lancaster in the French Foreign Legion. Wilf Shepherd, could mouth the words before the actors spoke!
After arriving at Abadan airport I was met and driven to the base at Khorramshahr. My arrival permitted Alastair Gordon, one of Bristow’s most senior pilots to depart. Alastair became one of the most respected figures in the helicopter industry. I had at that time some 1,500 hours in the Gnome Whirlwind due to my RAF experience. As Bristow had only recently purchased this machine, my experience was considerably greater than that of any Bristow pilot. Nevertheless, as is normal practice, it was necessary that I be checked out by a qualified Bristow check pilot. So Alastair and I took off for familiarisation of the local area and the check. All proceeded well until we came to perform simulated computer failure which, as explained in the section on my 225 Squadron experience, involved the check pilot suddenly retarding the rotor speed select lever. This would isolate the control of the rotor rpm by the computer and cause the engine to quickly run down to ground idle speed. Such action would necessitate the pilot being checked to very quickly lower the collective lever in his left hand to prevent rotor “decay” (meaning loss of rotor rpm) and, with his right hand, simultaneously pull a bicycle brake type lever mounted at the top of the cyclic stick (held in the right hand). This latter action would give him control of the engine by means of the twist-grip throttle on the end of the collective lever. Then, the pilot would need to gently twist the throttle open to increase engine speed to regain power so that the collective lever could be raised, increasing pitch on the main rotor blades, and recovering the height lost. Now I was very aware that Bristow’s had not installed the Flight Idle Stop which we had in the RAF to prevent the engine speed decreasing below 18,000 rpm and into the prone to stall region. Frankly, I was surprised we were attempting this exercise without the protection of the modification so my handling of the throttle was very gentle. Alastair commented after my first attempt that I had lost too much altitude. After my second attempt he made a similar criticism. During my third attempt the inevitable happened and the engine stalled. I entered autorotation and swung round into wind preparing for an engine-off landing on the Shat al arab river. Alastair took over the controls and I transmitted the Mayday call. Now soon after take-off Wilf Shepherd had left his post at the radio and so no one heard my Mayday call back at the oil company base. My call was heard, however, by the pilots of the BOAC Comet who had delivered me to Abadan the evening before. They actioned the call and alerted the authorities. Alastair executed a perfect landing on the river. We climbed down from the cockpit and, kneeling on the sponsons, inflated the lifejackets to use as paddles to prevent us drifting into Iraq – an event that would have had serious consequences. Eventually, the Iranian navy arrived in motorboats and towed us back to base. I was very relieved when no criticism was directed at me for burning out an almost new and very expensive engine. Within a month all the aircraft were fitted with the Flight Idle Stop!
The two rigs in use were the PANINTOIL 1 and the PANINTOIL 2. Both spent their time on location to the west of Kharg Island. Most flights were to and from these two rigs with occasional excursions elsewhere.
One very notable excursion followed severe flooding on the mainland east of Kharg. A helicopter was loaded with provisions and I set off with an admiral in the cockpit – the brother-in-law of the Shah. We flew to Bushehr, half an hour south-east of Kharg island. Here I hovered whilst food was thrown out to a crowd of locals being blown around by the rotor downwash. We flew onwards during the next couple of days to other locations then returned to Kharg.
Another memorable flight was to an oil depot at the top eastern end of the Gulf to collect a piece of machinery. The memorability of this flight was twofold. One, the soak temperature on the gauge on the windshield just prior to starting up was over 50 degrees centigrade necessitating a very prayerful take off! Two, the long flight to the rig took its toll in that I was very tired and unbearably hot. There was no source of relief except to hold one’s hand in the slipstream outside the cockpit window and divert air to the face! Again, we experienced the problems of a totally unstable aircraft (n.b for the technically minded – a helicopter is both dynamically and statically unstable) with no auto stabilisation and no means of cooling (or warming) the pilot and passengers.
After two months on Kharg Island, my incredibly brave and loyal wife arrived at Tehran with our baby son and we moved into the third floor of an apartment rented by the company north of the centre of the city. She was the first Bristow pilot’s wife to arrive and was aged 23 years! Public executions by hanging from street lamp posts ceased a week before her arrival! The view from our apartment was of bland modern buildings but the waste ground around the apartment block contained families living in tents. The local bakers was a few yards down the street. The bread looked like large naan bread and was quite tasty. The baker would wipe the flies off before handing it to his customers. We found the Iranians generally to be pleasant except for some of the taxi drivers who could become nasty to the point that my wife has had to run to avoid being run down by refusing to pay excessive fares.
After 11 months in the Gulf, I decided to leave the employ of Bristow’s and gave the requisite three month’s notice. Before departing my wife gave birth to another daughter who, unlike her older sister, our first child, lived! Fortunately, the obstetrician and hospital gave her good treatment and all went well.
At the back end of 1965 the airlines of the World had entered one of the cyclical peaks in demand for pilots. There were dozens of jobs advertised in the aviation magazines. I felt that I had a choice. A particular favourite was Ansett Helicopters in Australia; the job – flying a holiday route between the east coast and Hayman Island. A friend and former RAF colleague, Andy Pryde, was employed there and was confident that a vacancy would arise shortly. Acting in good faith we had all our few possessions in Tehran crated up and shipped to Australia. The job never materialised and a year later we recovered our property from the bond in Sydney harbour and had it shipped to England. Only one glass was broken and one saucepan bent – a tribute to the Iranian shippers!
Bristow’s were very keen to retain my services and, even though they knew that I was searching with other employers, offered me a posting where I had started with them, instructing at Middle Wallop. I spent my last six months with Bristow’s thoroughly enjoying the role and learning a great deal. My only regret was a certain student, Lieutenant Fane-Gladwin. He was an excellent pilot and quick learner but I heard subsequently that, after graduating from the ab initio course with me and progressing to the advanced rotary course, he was killed after flying into a power line – an ever-present hazard when low flying in helicopters!