After returning from Saudi Arabia I joined Bristow Helicopters which was based in Redhill, southwest of London. I was told that my first job with the company would be flying off-shore supporting the oil rigs in the Arabian Gulf.
I was to operate from an island called Levan but would be living in Tehran. The roster dictated doing fortnightly stints on the island followed by a week off in Tehran. However first I would have to do a conversion course onto the Westland S55 (WS/55). This was a tank of a helicopter with a cockpit high above the passenger cabin area.
Having got the conversion course under my belt and before being let loose on my own I had to complete an off-shore familiarisation phase and obtain my local Iranian commercial flying licence. Tehran was a wonderful city – as long as one kept well away from driving.
An unfortunate turn
But best of all I discovered that about fifty or so miles to the North of the city was the most fantastic skiing. However infrastructure was in its infancy. There was the odd ski-lift but no medical or casualty services. On a Thursday I had finished the lengthy training, obtained my Iranian licence and was due to fly to Levan on the Saturday for my first fortnight operating on my own.
I decided to spend the last day skiing and, travelling with a friend from the British Embassy, we left early on the Friday morning in his Landrover. The weather and snow were perfect and we were almost alone among the most beautiful scenery. Buoyed with enthusiasm for life I took a turn much too fast, fell and broke my left leg in three places. The hour and a half journey back to hospital in the back of Tony’s Landrover over fifth class roads was eternal. It was a month before I could start flying once more.
The company served around eight oil rigs from Levan and one of my first tasks was to carry out a crew change on a British rig called Discovery Three. It was at the limit of the helicopter’s fuel range and that summer the humidity was so high that a permanent mist covered the sea. The only method of finding the rig was to home onto a notoriously unreliable radio beacon.
That morning the mist was particularly dense and I knew that if the radio beacon became unreliable, it would be all too easy to fly past the rig without seeing it. If that happened probably the only outcome would have been to ditch. About 10 minutes from the time I was due to arrive the Morse code signal from the beacon went silent in my headsets. I have relived the next ten minutes many times. By the grace of the Lord I did notice a vague shadow to my right – and there it was.
The Westland S55 helicopter’s cockpit was situated well above the passenger compartment. On one trip out to an oil rig for a crew change I felt the aircraft suddenly behave as if we were flying in air turbulence. The weather was perfect with very light winds. I couldn’t fathom what was happening. After three or four minutes everything went back to normal. On landing my crewman told me that he had to intervene in a fight between two of the oil employees.
News came that the company had bought a brand new helicopter – a Bell Jet Ranger – which was to also to be based in Levan supporting a couple of Italian rigs. The Italian rigs were the most popular as they were the only installations which allowed their workers and visitors alcohol. This magnificent pristine machine arrived on Wednesday afternoon flown by a French pilot. It was quite a different beast from the WS/55. A racing horse compared to a carthorse. Most sensitive of all were the pedals which controlled the pitch on the tail rotor. With the WS/55 it was common to land on the rig, lock down the controls and for the pilot to leave his seat to supervise the loading of passengers or cargo with the rotors still running.
The French pilot took off the following morning after a bottle of champagne had been cracked over the helicopter landing thirty minutes later on the very small landing pad. Without thinking, he did what was usual with the WS/55. But as he opened the door to exit, his foot touched one of the pedals of the Jet Ranger. The helicopter spun violently to the right, rolled over and toppled into the sea. I was sitting in the Levan operations room at the time and heard his now famous call. ‘The new helicopter – it is gooorne!’
A rude awakening
The WS/55 had cargo space under the passenger cabin floor. The cargo space was rarely used since to gain access passenger seats had to be removed. Landing one afternoon from a trip to Dubai I was met by four or five Iranian policemen. As soon as I had closed down the helicopter’s engines, they boarded and told me and my crewman that we were arrested and that a search of the helicopter was to take place. As we stood and watched, they opened the cargo space to find it filled with radios, small televisions and cigarettes. To my intense relief, my crewman admitted guilt, identified his accomplices in Dubai and told them that I had nothing to do with the operation. I was uncuffed and heard no more about it. I gathered later that the Iranian authorities had been watching him for some time.
Another memory stands out. Once in a while we were sent to an island called Kharg to spend three or four days supporting oil rigs in the area while the current helicopter was either being repaired or serviced. The accommodation was a huge block of bedrooms three stories high housing, I imagine, more than two hundred men working in the oil industry both off and on shore. That summer was particularly hot and humid when I took my turn on the island.
A couple of nights after my arrival, we were all woken at around two o’clock in the morning by the building shaking violently. I was thrown from my bed and it took a good five or so seconds to realise that it really was an earthquake. As I headed for the main stairs, we were being thrown from one side of the corridor to the other. And so were the rest of the two hundred of us. Once I was out I looked around to see over a hundred stark naked men.
A lucky escape
News came that the company had a new contact with the Iranian Airforce which was opening a new school for young potential pilots on a small airfield to the south of Tehran and that I was to join the team of instructors. The helicopter on which we had to teach were the early Bell 47 with wooden blades.
Tehran is approximately 4,000 feet above mean sea level so that the air is rarefied and this is exacerbated by the high temperatures of summer. The combination of a small engine and wooden blades under these conditions guarantees a miserable helicopter performance.
The students had been selected with care and they were a joy to teach. However there was one exception. A charming young man with elevated family connections, he was enthusiastic, motivated, optimistic and great company. His only problem was that the coordination between his brain and limbs was – at the very best – appalling.
Progress was glacial with him but finally we reached the part on training which precedes going solo which are ‘circuits.’ Circuits are merely taking-off, flying around the airfield and landing. They are important insofar as, that to be done properly, the student must have mastered speed, height, engine and direction control, landing techniques and emergency procedures.
One summer’s morning I was downwind to land with Ahmed. He was flying the helicopter and we were around 700 feet above the airfield. A large bird (I think it must have been a bustard of sorts) flew in front of us and Ahmed, alarmed, jerked at the throttle in his attempt to avoid the animal. At the same time his left wrist must have turned and in doing so he stopped the engine. To the left of us was Tehran with a thousand buildings, wires, obstacles and lots and lots of very hard things to hit. To our right was the open airfield and miles of flat desert.
As the helicopter started to descend, to my horror Ahmed turned the helicopter to the left. We were headed towards a block of flats and all I can remember is a pair of blue spotted ladies’ pants hanging out to dry on a balcony filling the perspex as I was able to get the engine restarted to climb away. I have no idea how close we were to the building but it must have been inches.