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.

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  1. I used to work at Shetland Radar on Unst – I remember the speedbirds – BA30A (the letter increased incrementally with the flights) going to the Magnus Field (rarely would there be more than 1 a day) from Sumburgh and BA32A+ going to the Brent field.

    Im sure there was another crash of a BA Chinook in the Basin, can’t remember the details but it happened just before I started

    I still have a pic somewhere of me on the North Cormorant standing next to a BA Chinook whilst on a liaison visit

    Blimey, wasn’t expecting that walk down memory lane

  2. Waribai says:

    As an 8 year old, I was fascinated by those Chinooks and was desperate to get aboard. I might even have wrote to Jim’ll Fixit. Luckily, he never replied to find out how desperate I was!

    • Oh! Matron! says:

      A little late, but you should have joined the Air Cadets! Got to fly on 2 Chinooks across Salisbury Plane on Annual camp at 7 sqn RAF Odiham in the 80s

      A truly amazing experience!

  3. Gruntfuttock says:

    More ATC memory lane, I used to talk to the Heathrow – Gatwick service at London ATCC in 1981, callsign LINK 1 & LINK 2. Was on the frequency for about 3 minutes each way. BA used to allow ATC staff on board for familiarisation, ahhh, happy days….

    • Spongthrush says:

      Reminds me of the day when ‘someone’, lets call him Billy, was being trained on FIR South and gave traffic information to LINK2 ‘traffic is an opposite direction S61, same altitude, opposite direction’.

      (There was only one helicopter shuttling between LHR and LGW as LINK1/2 – but Billy didn’t know this – and had forgotten to remove the previous trip’s strip, hence calling a potential conflict)

  4. A dedicated helicopter service started to the Isles of Scilly again this year – looking forward to flying on it for the first time on Monday

  5. Concerto says:

    I remember that Chinook accident. My father worked out there at the time and the one thing he was terrified of was those helicopters. I heard details of the accident and, with de-synchronized rotor blades, they weren’t pretty. Another horrible incident I remember living through was the Piper Alpha disaster.

  6. Also, I’m being a bit pedantic but BEA was British European Airways not Airlines.

  7. Nick_C says:

    And Cambrian and Northeast.

    I remember flying out of Speke Airport to Dublin on Cambrian.

  8. Nick_C says:

    Not as many deaths, but the helicopter fatality at the top of the Pan Am building in ’77 was rather gruesome,


    Shame, as flying from JFK to Grand Central must have been amazing.

    • Gruntfuttock says:

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

  9. BA Helicopters had already been sold and were called British International Helicopters when the Chinook crashed in 1986. The company was bought by Robert Maxwell.

  10. 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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