The gold rush for the black stuff


This week’s Looking Back supplement pays special tribute to one of our most popular nostalgia writers, former RAF pilot Mike Holmes, from Chichester, who has died at the age of 84, with a final series of his articles.

Regularly we hear that the world’s oil supplies are running low and there is now very little left in the North Sea fields.

This always amazes me as in the early 1970s, I was involved in support of oil exploration work there and well remember often being told there was masses of the stuff, nearly enough to put us on equal footing with Arabia. It seems that was a vain hope, just part of the excitement of the time.

In the early 1970s, when the exploration started, companies realised there was an opportunity to make masses of money in the north. All the airlines with suitable aircraft tried to get contracts with the oil companies, and Dan-Air, with whom I was then an Avro 748 skipper, started by getting a contract with Conaco.

The job was to fly rig crews from Aberdeen, where the industry’s main offices were located, to Sumburgh, a wild and rough little airport on the southern tip of the Shetland Isles. From there, they were taken by helicopter to the rigs out in the North Sea.

Their stint on the rig lasted for two weeks, and we would fly back from Sumburgh with the crew that had been relieved.

I was then based at Bournemouth, flying to and from the Channel Islands, together with bus-stop commuter routes up and down the UK.

However as soon as Sumburgh had been checked by our training captain, I was sent to Aberdeen in order to start the service.

I arrived there late on a foggy evening and got a taxi to the airport hotel, where I would be based. It was named the Skien Dhu and had been built to cater for oil industry support, and as soon as I entered, I found myself in a new world.

At once, I felt I was part of what I thought of as a gold-rush atmosphere, entirely different from anything I had known during my normal airline flying. I waited my turn to check in, among a group of oil workers who had just arrived from Texas.

Though the outside of the building gave the appearance of a flimsy, temporary structure, the inside was done up to look like a solid Scottish castle. The receptionist had a message for me; I was to operate a flight to Sumburgh early in the morning and must be at our flight office at 7am.

There was a massive bar, crammed with oil men and pilots. Through the smoke, I recognised one or two old friends I had not seen for years, so I soon joined the party.

It was still cold and dark next morning, with flakes of fine snow blowing hard, as I walked out to the temporary cabin which was our office. I didn’t really feel like going flying. The aircraft stood nearby with the engineers getting it ready. They were superb, having to work in the open all the time, in every sort of weather, with no way of keeping warm.

Our cabin was one of a row, all used as airline offices, and our aircraft stood among many others. Some companies owned just one old Dakota and were there on the chance of picking up any odd bit of work.

Clad in warm boots and bulky parkas, which took up most of the cockpit, the co-pilot and I went through the checks, and for the first of many such occasions, watched the huddled lines of ‘Oilies’, as we came to call them, being led out to us.

They looked a tough but cold and hungover bunch, who would sit passively throughout the outbound flight. In the cabin, we had two super hostesses who were normally based at Newcastle, operating the company’s commuter flights. This would be very different for them.

We took off into heavy, low cloud and picked up ice straight away, a common experience with northern flying. The weather in the Shetlands could vary a lot. Often it would be low, grey Atlantic sleet or drizzle, blown in on a great wind, but at other times we could experience the total clarity and wonderful light found only in the north. Sometimes it could go out completely in thick sea fog.

Sumburgh airport was a wartime RAF station and had not changed at all since then, except to be partly used as a golf course. A friend, who had been based there flying Hurricanes, recognised it at once, when I described it to him.

There were three short runways, one of which was now used as an aircraft park; another had the sea lapping at either end, while from the third, you took off straight towards a high hill, so had to make a sharp right turn, like a scrambling fighter. A group of dilapidated huts lay to one side, containing the offices and a waiting room.

The latter teemed with damp people and served hot soup in large quantities. Quite what the soup was 
made of, I never really discovered, but it was green in colour and outside was a large tank which could have been filled with an eternal supply of the stuff.

The sky above Sumburgh was never quiet, but full of the non-stop roar of helicopters going to and from the rigs, plus the engines of the fixed-wing aircraft. Overall was an atmosphere of excitement, eager expectation and hard work.

As soon as the Oilies arrived back from the rigs, they were shepherded from the helicopters into the aircraft that would take them to Aberdeen. They were a tough bunch, and itching to find their way to a bar, but alcohol was strictly forbidden. Police had to stop them dodging away.

I wondered how our two girls in the cabin would cope with them, but they were superb and soon quashed any trouble.

I enjoyed my time in the north.