Digest>Archives> July 2010

Rare Photo Recounts First Use in History of Helicopter for Emergency Drop at Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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In the winter of 1948, storms along the coast of Cornwall, England were ferocious, so much so, that the high waves smashing against the Wolf Rock Lighthouse prevented a relief ship from reaching the lighthouse that sits on a rock surrounded by water.

Storms like this are not uncommon in this area, which was one of the reasons that it took an amazing nine years to build the lighthouse. But, in the past, the three keepers stationed at the lighthouse always had enough food to weather any storm until the relief ship could make it to the lighthouse. That was until February of 1948. This time the keepers had waited 26 days for food and now their supply was gone. Things were getting desperate.

That’s when helicopter pilot Alan Bristow received orders from Trinity House, the organization that oversees all lighthouses in England, that he needed to make an emergency flight to Wolf Rock Lighthouse to deliver 300 pounds of desperately needed food. Something like this had never been done before, at least not in England, and perhaps not in the world. Since a helicopter had never delivered emergency supplies to a lighthouse before, the pilot and his crew made one trial flight and practice drop over land in hopes to prepare themselves for the actual rescue delivery. This resulted in a few minor changes and then they were off to the lighthouse.

Captain Bristow recounted that day, “By 8:24 in the morning of the seventh we were airborne with the provisions. The route was over land from Culdrose to the Coast Guard Station at Lands End and from there over eight miles of sea directly to the Wolf Rock Lighthouse. We made the sea crossing at about 100 feet and approached the lighthouse on the north side at about the same height, the weather at this time being: wind 34 to 40 knots, gusting to 45 knots, with very turbulent air at the lighthouse. The gallery of the lighthouse on the north side was obstructed by a wireless post, aerials, flag staff and ventilator.” One false move could get the wire cable caught and bring the helicopter down, crashing into the lighthouse.

Bristow continued, “During hovering over the lighthouse, which lasted some four minutes, considerable gusts were encountered in the vicinity of the lantern room and this made the task of accurate positioning extremely delicate and dangerous although we had wire cutters to cut the hoist cable should it have become fouled up during the operation.”

Interestingly, the helicopter had no communication with the lighthouse keepers during the drop; they were guided by radio from planes of the Royal Air Force, one of which took this historic photograph.

Although they had made history, the helicopter crew said it was just part of the job and they were glad that the mission was completed without disaster. The keepers were also happy. As the helicopter flew off, the lighthouse keepers could be seen dancing and shouting with joy on the outer catwalk of the lantern room at the successful delivery of the much needed food.

Interestingly, in the early 1970s, in a true engineering feat of its time, the Wolf Rock Lighthouse became the first lighthouse in the world to have a helipad built on top of the lighthouse. No longer would keepers and others have to risk their lives getting themselves and supplies on and off the lighthouse. Although the lighthouse keepers were removed forever from Wolf Rock Lighthouse in 1998, the helipad is still used to service the automated beacon.

We wish to thank Edward Jones of Austin, Texas for sending us the original photograph of the helicopter bringing supplies to the lighthouse that led to the development of this story. Another part of the amazing history of lighthouses has now been brought back to life in the pages of Lighthouse Digest.

This story appeared in the July 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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