Great Yarmouth Heliport launches with a Whirlwind
PUBLISHED: 22:38 18 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:05 22 June 2015
WHAT goes up must come down, it is said. Sadly, that is an apt phrase to apply to the Caister Road pleasure-tripping airfield which evolved into the the principal heliport to serve the offshore industry when exploration for sub-sea oil and natural gas in the southern North Sea altered the face and economy of Great Yarmouth a half-century ago.
There can be few folk who did not glance at the airfield/heliport as they passed along that busy road. It is now a pointless exercise, for flying there has ceased and become part of our history.
I am grateful to Peter Allard, of Mallard Way, Bradwell, a former heliport employee, for allowing me to incorporate liberal extracts about its history from his painstakingly researched feature published in the Great Yarmouth and District Archaeological Society’s annual journal in 2011.
When exploratory rig Mr Cap began drilling in the southern North Sea in December 1964 and Yarmouth was chosen as the chief supply base, it was obvious that helicopters would be necessary for quick and straightforward transportation to offshore installations.
Bristow Helicopters was contracted by Gulf Oil to fly personnel and equipment to the drill ship Glomar IV, and the North Denes airfield (from which there had been fixed-wing pleasure flying since 1950) was selected for a heliport, two caravans providing the first facilities although work quickly began on building permanent units.
The arrival of the first helicopter, a Whirlwind, on April 22 1965 attracted considerable attention from passers-by on the main road, traffic jams occurring over the weekend. The first operational flight to Glomar IV came a week later. Contracts to supply the drilling rigs of four oil giants resulted in the North Denes Whirlwind fleet rising to six.
The discovery of considerable gas reserves in the North Sea and increased exploration resulted in the provision of a second hangar. Staff numbers rose to over 50.
Bristow, one of the world’s largest helicopter companies, had its 100th “chopper” arrive at Yarmouth heliport in 1969, an event celebrated by a special lunch and a flight to the Amoco C platform.
In the early 1970s the heliport became extremely busy, and there were 14 pilots. Bristow was serving over 30 offshore installations, some quite distant but the nearest only 20 minutes’ flying time away. Over 5000 passengers a month were being carried from North Denes.
Also, there was a short contract by Trinity House to trial crew changes to lightships using helicopters, the first to the Smith’s Knoll lightship 15 miles off Yarmouth.
Bristow’s main 1970s contract was with Amoco, but helicopters from elsewhere working for other companies regularly came into North Denes to pick up passengers and supplies.
From 1974 the offshore gas search slowed.
A variety of helicopters operated by Bristow and others used North Denes in the 1980s, but usage soared from 1983 as a result of the company’s successful bid for the Shell contract, an additional 27 staff being hired. Further upgrades to accommodation and facilities were provided.
As Bristow’s lease had many years left, it was shocked in 1984 when competitor Management Aviation bought the North Denes Aerodrome (run by L G “Wilbur” Wright and his wife, Joyce).
Thereafter the heliport was busy with upwards of 10 helicopters based there. Also, there were regular daily flights into the airfield by British Airways helicopters and visitors included the search-and-rescue helicopters from RAF Coltishall.
Well over 100 personnel were employed and, together with associated firms connected with supplies, transport, accommodation and refreshments, the local economy profited considerably.
Bristow, Management Aviation and British Airways flew for all the major oil companies working out of Yarmouth and Lowestoft. There were also regular flights for BP and occasionally Dutch oil companies.
Management Aviation and its Scottish subsidiary re-branded the company as Bond Helicopters.
Despite Bristow losing the Shell contract to British Airways in 1986, the company remained busy at North Denes, using spare helicopters for contracts to drilling platforms on short-term contracts.
A £300,000 passenger lounge was completed for Bristow and, at its opening it was announced that the last year had been its busiest ever in terms of flights and the passengers. The lounge had its own snack bar, appropriately named Choppers, which also catered for offshore workers on the satellite platforms where generally no canteen facilities were provided.
The closure of flights into the Bacton gas terminal in 1989 meant an increase in passenger numbers using North Denes to depart offshore. Bond’s helicopter passenger terminal adjacent to Caister Road was upgraded and a control tower added to meet the needs of increased flying and new aviation regulations.
Bristow celebrated 25 years in Yarmouth with a party in a hangar in 1990 and a line-up of the helicopters it had used used over the years.
During the Nineties the heliport continued to be busy with other oil companies doing exploratory work, but the gas-producing fields of Arco, Amoco, Philips and Shell were the mainstay of the helicopter work, ferrying passengers to and from their several fields.
Bristow records reveal that in 1990 the company carried 181,377 passengers, 1810 bags and 1356 tons of freight. This included inter-shuttling of passengers and freight between platforms and rigs.
From 1997 Bristow began operating from Norwich International Airport and Den Helder in the Netherlands, working for Shell and using Sikorsky helicopters. All flying and maintenance personal were initially supplied from Yarmouth. By 1999 Bristow was employing as many as 22 staff at Norwich. The year 1999 proved pivotal for Bristow at North Denes. Several main contracts had nearly expired and, with some oil giants merging, the autumn looked bleak. Bristow announced it was terminating the site lease and moving its remaining helicopters to Norwich.
This was a blow for the 94 staff; redundancies were inevitable although some did relocate to the Norwich premises. Bond Helicopters, having acquired most of the Bristow contracts, became the main operator out of North Denes from 2000 but was acquired by CHC Scotia which moved across the airfield to the Bristow site.
By 2009, an estimated 30,000 passengers were passing though the terminal annually, creating employment for local firms as well as the operator’s 74 staff.
The heliport’s closure in 2010 was announced, but CHC changed its mind about a Norwich move and stayed at North Denes, a decision warmly welcomed hereabouts. But it transpired that it was only a stay of execution, because closure and the move to Norwich has recently happened.