There is something exhilarating about watching, particularly turbine-powered, helicopters as they carry out their many missions both military and civil. Often working close to the ground, sometimes in unfavourable weather, they seem to create their own micro-environment: the cold gale from the rotor downwash; the thunderous clatter of the blades; the shimmering mirage of the hot exhaust stream. All this is sometimes set against a backdrop of mountain blizzards, brown-outs from swirling desert sand, or tumultuous seas. They make exciting subjects.
Mountainous North Wales, where Peter is based, is a hub of helicopter activity. The Search and Rescue Training Unit is based at nearby RAF Valley, instilling high-quality tuition into the next generation of rescue pilots and winch crews. In the past, 22 Squadron's "C" Flight operated from there too, regularly performing heroic rescues. Many other helicopters use the area for training, aerial work and filming. Much of this activity has been captured in Peter's art and photography.
This view of an RAF Sea King helicopter performing a rescue in demanding conditions, was commissioned as a gift for a winchman who worked on the type. Delivered in Autumn 2009, the painting is 3ft. long and captures the prevalent swirling, misty, rain clouds that can envelop the peaks, making rescue work hazardous. Peter's intention was to portray both the majestic presence of the giant Sea King and its powerful influence on its mountain realm (with the rotor downwash battering a nearby tree) whilst also demonstrating its own vulnerability in the presence of the raging headwind, ominous clouds and rocky crags.
Of course, while many former aircrew go misty eyed at the memories of earlier rugged workhorses such as the Sea King, there is a whole civil helicopter community operating a new generation of aircraft to the North Sea oil and gas fields. This work is also demanding and some of the aircrew are ex service personnel. Modern civil helicopters have benefited from significant technological advances in recent years. "Glass cockpits" (electronic screens instead of old-fashioned gauges) and greater design emphasis on safety, make for a more relaxing environment for crew and passengers. Despite this, there is always the slightly unnerving prospect of ever-present rolling seas just below on the long flights to the rigs, platforms and drill ships. Few aircraft better typify this newer generation than the Agusta Westland (now Leonardo) AW139. The requirement for fewer offshore workers has led to a rise in popularity of slightly smaller machines such as these. With its sleek Italian styling and high speed, the AW139 is very much a Ferrari of the skies. And whilst the Ferrari analogy might have been complete when Bond's aircraft wore their original red livery, the newer blue, white and gold makes these arguably the most attractive of all the current North Sea helicopters. The offshore world is a turbulent environment both literally and metaphorically. Exploration for oil reserves can suddenly end when prices fall; types can go out of favour and staff have to constantly adapt to new challenges. Peter was keen to capture a typical day in this exciting branch of commercial aviation. Yet from the planning of the painting to its completion, further consolidation in the industry has occurred and the Bond name has now disappeared (for the second time) to become part of the Babcock group. Let's hope they keep that stunning paint-scheme.
Peter's image of the AW139 shows this modern workhorse as it breaks cloud over remote Wick airfield, Caithness, Scotland. Art gives us the opportunity to "fly" with the aircraft and get a privileged view not usually afforded to bystanders. The helicopter, full of immersion-suited oil-workers, is descending beneath typically cold northern skies. Its five-bladed fast-turning rotor disc forms just a blur when viewed from the side as at this angle. Likewise the notably angled tail-rotor. A glint of the North Sea is visible beneath the horizon as the helicopter slows and banks: "turning down the wick" you might say.
When the gales are raging over the cold, dark, North Sea swell, many would be reluctant to leave the warmth and security of a base on dry land to risk their lives in such a hostile environment. It takes a special kind of person to crew such Search and Rescue aircraft. Imagine then, if even your base was a tiny windswept, semi-submersible accommodation-rig (or Flotel), which itself was already being buffeted with heaving seas! This was the lot of Bristow crews for many years while operating the dedicated Search and Rescue service for Shell Expro in the Brent oilfield. Operating from tiny hangars on Flotels such as Treasure Finder and Safe Gothia, the dedicated engineers also deserve recognition. The machine of choice was the Bell 212. It was found that the Huey-derived, twin-engine helicopter was particularly well suited to the task, as its twin-blade rotor could be parked fore-and-aft, which made it sufficiently slim that at maximum up to five such aircraft could be stored in one small hangar. The 212 was the workhorse for inter-rig shuttles in this busy area of production platforms, tanker "spars" and exploration rigs. Referred to as "buses" by the offshore workers, they were the welcome link to return them to a relatively safe mess and accommodation block, a bit like the Huey had been for the troops in Vietnam. The distance of the Brent field from land (it's parallel with the Shetland Isles!) was the main driver in creating a dedicated offshore-based Search and Rescue unit, which was available to the Coastguard Rescue Co-ordination Centre 24 hours a day. This meant that as well as assisting with oilfield accidents and helicopter ditchings, it was also available to come to the aid of vessels in distress and other emergencies. The Brent field 212s, two of which were assigned to the SAR role on stand-by, pioneered many innovative SAR technologies such as the Louis Newmark LN450 auto-pilot. This enabled automatic transitions down to a stable hover over rolling seas. A similar unit was later fitted to the company's larger S-61 rescue aircraft in Stornoway and Shetland. The 212s were early users of FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) cameras for detecting the heat of victims in the water and they were a welcome reassurance for those whose business took them to this harsh location.
Many people are unaware just how long Bristow have been in the SAR business. They had been pioneers in training Royal Navy personnel to use helicopters in the early 1960s and operated Coastguard contracts in the following decades using Wessex, S-61, Bell 212 and S-92, AW189 and AW139 aircraft over the years. There will be few more demanding postings than the offshore-based fleet however and that's why Peter's painting of G-BFER (one of the longest-serving Bristow SAR aircraft) lifting into a violent storm over a rain-lashed deck is an evocative tribute to the crews who risked their lives to keep others safe. Many of these personnel were themselves highly experienced ex-services SAR experts. Ironically, "Echo Romeo", the 212 portrayed, eventually made the transition the other way, "enlisting" in the Army Air Corp. for contractor-supplied duties overseas in locations where Britain has jungle-warfare bases. It is one of the oldest airframes of its type. It is shown here, in the hover above the rain-soaked ridged deck, across which is strung a cargo-net (common-practice to protect helicopter, crew and deck; paticularly by ensuring the aircraft doesn't skid off the side); strobe flashing; exhaust heat shimmering and landing-light piercing the gloom. Sleet showers descend almost to sea-level in sweeping curtains across the ominous sky. The rig-landing lights reflect as the spray is wafted by the thudding rotor. No land is visible, just two distant production platforms in the vastness of the stormy sea. Who would envy them venturing out on such a day? Hats off to the crews: if they haven't already been blown off by that fierce rotor down-wash.
Also derived from the famous and venerable "Huey", these sleek Bell Griffin HT1 (Bell 412) aircraft are a far more sophisticated upgrade, with twin-engines, four-blade rotors and more advanced avionics. They can often be seen around the North Wales mountains where they are used by the Defence Helicopter Flying School. Duties include search and rescue training, pilot instruction on multi-engined helicopters and mountain flying techniques. These studies of Valley-based aircraft were done shortly after their introduction in the late '90s. They now have colourful safety stripes on the rotor-blades. Perhaps an excuse to re-visit the subject when time permits?
Military helicopters often make exciting subjects when maneuvering hard in war-zones or on exercise. However, sometimes an aircraft just gently cruising home through the wintry mountains at low-level, with the evening sun glinting off the fuselage, can create a stunning spectacle as it passes. You can almost feel the thud of those giant twin rotors on this Chinook.
"Shaken not stirred" - Bond rig-shuttle braving the storm.
Oil and gas rig shuttle-flights operate in extremes of weather day and often night. Yet this skilled and demanding flying is only witnessed by a few offshore workers. Helicopters in this environment must, like their ground-staff and crews, be robust. Often based offshore on the windswept North Sea platforms or battling the turbulent conditions in Morecombe Bay (Irish Sea), the Bond Dauphins are typical of the breed. Bond, in their first incarnation under that name, operated the C model with skids rather than the more common wheeled undercarriage. This enabled the pop-out emergency flotation-bags to be attached to the skids. Peter says: "I preferred these skid-equipped versions. They gave the aircraft a sleeker, lower, more purposeful appearance. They also looked less top-heavy than the later AS365N and EC155 Dauphins, having less structure above the engines. I was lucky enough to get to film one at Blackpool airport in their heyday and always intended to use the pictures as a basis for an atmospheric scene in harsher conditions. Re-discovering the photos recently prompted me to begin a small picture. Demands of work elsewhere meant I had to leave it unfinished for a while and I only returned to it much later ...by which time the storm was really raging :-) . In some ways they are quite a challenging aircraft to paint, as virtually no two adjacent panels seem to be in the same plain. They're very curvacious with some parts disappearing from view at certain angles. That leads to all sorts of reflections striking the fuselage. I knew what effects I was trying to achieve but the process of creating the blown spray, reflections, wind-blown wave-crests, etc. (all the satisfying bits) only comes in the last few minutes after hours of more boring ground-work; which probably accounts for why it took so long!"
Another sleek example of medium-sized, twin-turbine helicopter, this Sikorsky S76 typifies North Sea gas-rig operations just a few years ago in the operator's former livery. Seen here lifting for a return run to "The beach", this painting shows a CHC owned aircraft along with an exploration rig and its support vessel.
This painting entitled "Lifting the Spirit", shows another S-76 Spirit (an older A+ model) in the distinguished livery of British International. It is climbing away from a southern North Sea gas platform whose flare-stack can be seen below. The rig safety vessel, a converted trawler, was also typical of such 1980s operations. Though there is still some low sunlight on the horizon, it looks like the flight home may be entering some poor visibility and showers. Some of the oil and gas production platforms are many stories high with a raised helipad on top. Take-offs and landings also require careful negotiation around derricks, cranes, flare-stacks, etc. which reach even higher. "VCX" was one of several BI machines working for a time out of the tiny Beccles Heliport in Suffolk. Located deep in rural Broadlands, this must have been a peaceful haven for the offshore workers to make landfall. Here the aircraft can be seen nosing-over and transitioning to forward flight, before lifting its retractable undercarriage to make those aerodynamic exterior lines even more sleek.