Review: Alan Bristow’s autobiography

Alan Bristow, Helicopter Pioneer: the autobiography, by Alan Bristow and Pat Malone, Pen & Sword Aviation 2009 £25. Hardback, 384 pages

Whole books have been based on lesser stories than the selection of Alan Bristow’s hair-raising adventures apparently given away in the opening chapter of this fantastic autobiography, written with the assistance of Pat Malone, today a regular columnist in this magazine. Was his eponymous helicopter company not so well-known, you could be forgiven for taking Bristow’s story as the invention of an action thriller writer: it’s a ripping yarn of the sort this reviewer has not enjoyed for years — wonderful knock-about stuff that is better than any fiction.

Fed up at being sunk in merchant navy ships, Alan Bristow joined the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot, his flying career taking a new direction when he was diverted from fixed-wing flying to join the new (and not wholly enthusiastic) cadre of pilots chosen to fly the Allies’ first operational helicopter; the Sikorsky R4. After the war, by virtue of his rotary-wing experience, he secured a job as a helicopter test pilot with Westland, curtailed after Bristow — an amateur boxer in his youth — punched out a sales manager. This unhappy incident led to him being shunned temporarily by the British aircraft industry, but led to a period of demonstrating and selling Hiller helicopters abroad. He pioneered medevac operations in French Indochina and then ventures in air whaling (hard to credit in 2014) and oil exploration.

Of course there is much, much more to the restless Alan Bristow’s life story than this and, no doubt thanks to co-author Pat Malone’s brilliance with words, it is all set out here in fine style. This is one of the best flying books you will ever read. PW