British International - first to Scilly
The highly successful route to Scilly was the world's longest established scheduled passenger helicopter service.
The British International helicopter service from Penzance was the direct descendant of the first scheduled operator to the Isles of Scilly in 1937.
It traced its links back through British European Airways (BEA) established in 1947 and before that Great Western and Southern Air Lines.
Almost incredibly this continuous service has been operated by only three main types of aircraft - the de Havilland Dragon, de Havilland Dragon Rapide, and the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter. There can be few places with such a record.
The helicopter service was the effective way of meeting the demands of a very complex operational and economic situation, and quite rightly was seen as a lifeline by the people of Scilly. To the visitor it provided the novelty of a relatively unusual mode of transport to an idyllic holiday destination.
The flights to St Mary’s or Tresco took only 20 minutes, and were flown at 120 knots between 500 feet to 2,000 feet according to operational requirements. The large windows of the S-61N gave an excellent view, the seating was comfortable, and noise and vibration levels low.
As an introduction to helicopter flight it was ideal, and the short walk to the pad from the terminal and car park at Penzance demonstrated yet a further advantage of helicopters!
Penzance Heliport -
Gateway to the Isles of Scilly
The purpose-built heliport at Penzance opened in September 1964 and was the first of its kind in Europe, specifically designed to be a completely self-contained passenger terminal and maintenance base.
Penzance heliport was capable of operating up to six helicopters and had extensive engineering and maintenance facilities. As well as passengers British International was able to carry out a wide range of other operations, including cargo, offshore oil support, and ad-hoc charters.
The heliport site also had a very special place in the history of Cornwall - in July 1910 the first aeroplane flight in the county was made close by from what was then Poniou Meadow. In October 2012 the site was sold to the Sainsbury's supermarket group.
The helicopter success story -
65 years of experience
Scilly is different, and its main postwar air service was unique. No other part of Britain depended upon a scheduled air service operated by helicopter.
The service to Scilly was inaugerated on 1 May 1964 by BEA Helicopters (BEAH) and closed on 31 October 2012 after 48 years when British International ended the route to Scilly.
Rotary wing operations were not new to BEA. In 1947 it had formed a Helicopter Experimental Unit (this was only two years after helicopters had come into service in the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy), and operated the world's first sustained scheduled passenger helicopter service in 1950 using the Sikorsky S-51 between Liverpool and Cardiff.
There were changes of name over the years. BEA Helicopters became British Airways Helicopters (BAH) in 1972 following the merger of BEA and BOAC, and then British International Helicopters as part of the Maxwell group, before becoming simply British International (Brintel Helicopters) from 1994.
During late 1999 Brintel and Bond Helicopters merged, becoming Scotia Helicopter Services and forming part of the Canadian Helicopter Corporation group. In 2000 following further restructuring and the sale by CHC of a number of UK operations the Penzance-Scilly air link became British International.
2004 saw the 40th anniversary of the start of the service in May 1964. This, and other significant anniversaries, formed part of the helicopter success story over the years. The 4,000,000 passenger milestone was reached in 2010. By the time the service closed in October 2012 some 4,250,000 passengers had been carried on the route. From Penzance the route operated to the airport on St Mary's, and in 1983 it was extended to the heliport established on Tresco. In the summer months there were usually two S-61Ns on station at Penzance, allowing a capacity of more than 1,000 passengers a day and more than 133,000 a year.
As well as the Sikorsky S-61N which was been based at Penzance from 1964 to the close in 2012 other types of helicopters were been operated on the route, including the Sikorsky S-58T, Sikorsky S-76A, Westland 30, Agusta A.109A, and Aerospatiale Dauphin 2.
text, 40 year logo and Penzance heliport photographs © Mike Ingham
S-61N on St Mary's photograph © T J Ingham
logo block, helicopter logo and world graphic © British International
S-61N helicopters heading photograph © GKN Westland Helicopters
this text is based on an extract from the book Atlantic Helicopter © 1989
and subsequent published works © Mike Ingham
this page last updated 10 November 2012
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