Belfast Telegraph

How Sycamore chopper grew on its critics to have high-flying career in Northern Ireland

If you paid attention to one senior RAF officer, you might come to the conclusion that the Bristol 171 Helicopter – otherwise known as the Sycamore – should never have been invented.

"She is underpowered, too small, unreliable and unsophisticated by today's standards," Wing Commander Colin Cummings is quoted as declaring in a new book about the bright yellow machine, which was first seen in Northern Ireland skies way back in 1954, when it attracted a lot of attention as part of a Royal Navy exercise at Eglinton.

However, Cummings, who spent many hours in a Sycamore during his career, had to admit to author Guy Warner: "But she did the business."

Which is why Warner, of the Ulster Aviation Society and an authority on anything to do with military aircraft, has gone to the trouble of writing Sycamores Over Ulster, the absorbing story of how this unheralded little helicopter gave invaluable support to the security forces during the IRA border campaign of 1956-62.

He loves this picture, too, which I reproduce from the book, of Father Christmas about to get back on his Sycamore after delivering toys to children in a Barnardo's house at Whitehouse 30 years ago. Mind you, I don't think Santa was the pilot that yule-tide.

There was also a more serious side to the Sycamore in the province, where the helicopter was involved in many search and rescue operations along the coastline and in bad winters was out there helping farmers in trouble and carrying patients to hospital from remote homes.

But here's a question Guy Warner and I would love to have answered: where is Pamela Grey?

Back in July 1960 she was an attractive 20-year-old Wren, to whom the late Lord Mountbatten gave a lift to Sydenham in the two-engined Devon aircraft bringing him to the airport, where a Sycamore was waiting to fly him on to Bangor.

Here's the mystery: did Pamela also hitch a ride on the helicopter on her way to her family home in Co Down? Or did her parents pick her up in the car? "I'd love to hear Pamela's story," said Guy. And so would I.

The Sycamore made a little bit of history in February 1960 when three machines carrying RUC personnel to an operation near Magherafelt were fired on by terrorists armed with Thompson sub-machine-guns.

No one was injured, but it was the first time in Northern Ireland that a helicopter had been engaged by fire.

The Sycamores first arrived at Aldergrove RAF station in 1957 as 275 Squadron, which was followed by 118 Squadron, a former fighter outfit flying Spitfires and Mustangs, which was reformed in 1959. Most of the security and rescue operations were carried out by 118 Squadron and its Sycamores.

Belfast Telegraph


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