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What happened to the old British Airways Helicopters fleet?

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Earlier this month, Bristow Helicopters and Era Group merged to create a dominant player in global helicopter services.  This seemed like a good excuse to re-run the story of British Airways Helicopters, in which Bristow played a marginal role.

Some of our readers may be old enough to remember British Airways Helicopters and the Airlink service between Heathrow and Gatwick.

For those who aren’t, it may come as a surprise that British Airways even owned helicopters at one point.  The idea of taking a helicopter between Heathrow and Gatwick to catch your connecting flight also seems, to me at least, an odd one.

From 1947, British Airways precursor British European Airlines had five helicopters that it used initially for mail services in East Anglia.  This expanded rapidly and by the 1950s it was operating a passenger service between various cities including Cardiff, Liverpool, Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Southampton.

BEA Helicopters sikorsky

In the early 1960s the division was renamed BEA Helicopters and operated shuttle services to the Isles of Scilly and, in 1965, it began offshore oil support flights. In 1974 British European Airlines became British Airways and the helicopter division became British Airways Helicopters.

In addition to flying workers to and from oil rigs, British Airways Helicopters was a shareholder in the high-frequency Airlink service between Heathrow and Gatwick from 1978 to 1986.  This was back in the days before the M25 opened and getting between the airports was more complicated than it is today.  (You can learn more about Airlink on this Wikipedia page.  It was a joint venture between the airport, which actually owned the helicopter, British Caledonian, which operated it, and BA Helicopters which initially provided crew.)

Here is a promotional poster (click to enlarge):

Airlink Heathrow Gatwick poster

….. and here is a timetable from 1979:

Old Airlink Heathrow Gatwick timetable

In 1981 British Airways Helicopters acquired six tandem-rotor Chinooks, a type more frequently associated with military helicopter operations. They looked rather fetching in the 1980s British Airways livery (click to enlarge):

Briitsh Airways Helicopters Chinook

The Chinooks were used for offshore oil support flights. In 1986 one flight ended in tragedy when, returning from the Brent oil field, the forward transmission failed and de-synchronised the two rotors causing a collision. 45 people lost their lives whilst only two survived.

Not long after the accident the helicopter division was sold off and renamed British International Helicopters, which phased out the Chinooks and sold them to an American company, Columbia.

Back in 2018, we thought that the old Chinooks were about to make a return to British operations following the planned merger between the Bristow Group and Columbia.  Bristow, which has a very large North Sea operation, said that it saw more potential to use them outside the US.  The merger eventually collapsed and Bristow paid a $20 million termination fee to Colombia.

Following the failure of the Colombia merger, Bristow merged with Era Group.  The deal completed three weeks ago.  This means that the chances of the old British Airways Chinooks coming into Bristow’s control and flying again in this country are now slim.


how to earn avios from credit cards

How to earn Avios from UK credit cards (April 2021)

As a reminder, there are various ways of earning Avios from UK credit cards.  Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses.

There are two official British Airways American Express cards:

British Airways American Express card

British Airways American Express

5,000 Avios for signing up, no annual fee and a companion voucher for spending £20,000 Read our full review

BA Premium Plus American Express card BAPP

British Airways American Express Premium Plus

25,000 Avios and the UK’s most valuable credit card perk – the 2-4-1 companion voucher Read our full review

You can also get generous sign-up bonuses by applying for American Express cards which earn Membership Rewards points, such as:

Nectar American Express

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold

Your best beginner’s card – 20,000 points, FREE for a year & two airport lounge passes Read our full review

American Express Platinum card Amex

The Platinum Card from American Express

30,000 points and an unbeatable set of travel benefits – for a fee Read our full review

Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which earn Avios. This includes both personal and small business cards.

If you have a small business, we especially recommend Capital On Cap’s Visa card which comes with a generous bonus worth 10,500 Avios:

Capital On Tap Business Rewards Visa

The most generous Avios Visa or Mastercard for a limited company Read our full review

(Want to earn more Avios?  Click here to visit our home page for our latest articles on earning and spending your Avios points and click here to see how to earn more Avios this month from offers and promotions.)

Comments (15)

  • Gruntfuttock says:

    Flew Pan Am Sikorsky from JFK to Manhattan pier in ’76, amazing!

  • Anyone wishing to learn more about BEAH/British Airways Helicopters [1966-1986] and a little about two Bristow operations [Middle Wallop and Iran] is invited to peruse my website http://www.ashpole.org.uk. It includes the most comprehensive account of the Gatwick/Heathrow Airlink available, also some RAF helicopter squadron history [1959-1964].

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