Helicopter crash left families without fathers, sons, brothers and husbands

PUBLISHED: 08:53 15 September 2014 | UPDATED: 08:53 15 September 2014

RAF rescue helicopter and ambulances at the scene of the 1981 Wessex 60 crash.

RAF rescue helicopter and ambulances at the scene of the 1981 Wessex 60 crash.


After a memorial commemorating the 13 men who died in a helicopter crash near Happisburgh in 1981 was unveiled last month, Lauren Cope looks at the daily struggle their loved ones face to move on.

Remembering air crash victim Stephen Harvey who died in a helicopter crash in 1981. His wife Jill and parents Joyce and Paul Harvey.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.Remembering air crash victim Stephen Harvey who died in a helicopter crash in 1981. His wife Jill and parents Joyce and Paul Harvey. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Talking to the loved ones of the 1981 Wessex helicopter crash victims makes one thing clear – the effects of the tragedy are never far from the surface.

Thirty-three years have passed since the fateful day when 13 men – eight from Norfolk – lost their lives off the coast of Happisburgh when their Westland Wessex 60 Helicopter, operated by Bristow Helicopters, plummeted into the North Sea.

And while widows have found a second chance of love and children have made families of their own, the losses suffered on Thursday, August 13, 1981 have forged a connection not easily pushed aside.

It is a bond strengthened by a lack of finality. Although a memorial commemorating the 13 men was unveiled last month, the details remain vague.

Coming full circle

It was a cruel twist of fate that left five children without their father.

Cabin attendant Adrian Amis, 39, had swapped shifts with a colleague so he could visit his 13-year-old son Kevin in hospital in London after this treatment for leukaemia..

It was a decision he would have taken without question, determined to visit his sick son on the days off he could grasp, but it was one that left him on the doomed Whisky India on August 13..

Sitting in the living room of her Caister-on-Sea home, with tears in her eyes and a photograph on the mantelpiece, his widow Wendy Grant, now 69, reflected on the evening that her world was turned upside down..

“I was in the kitchen getting tea with the children and all of a sudden my father-in-law came in. We didn’t have the television on, and just asked if I knew. To make sure that the kids didn’t hear, he took me into the lounge and told me,” she said.

The shock meant that autpilot quickly kicked in - and Mrs Grant said it wasn’t until a few weeks later that Adrian’s death hit home.

“I suppose with the children and looking after Kevin, going back and forth to Great Ormond Street, I didn’t really have time to mourn. My life became so busy and I just don’t think I had the time.

“We had a bill come in a few weeks later and when I went to get it I remember sitting on the floor and asking him why he left me. That’s when it hit me. Adrian and I grew up at school together, he’d always sorted that side of things,” she said.

A year later the family were dealt another blow when Kevin passed away.

“I missed Adrian when we lost Kevin - I would have loved his support there,” she said.

Kris Amis was just six when his dad died, but the 39-year-old paid tribute to a “popular, well-loved” man, who volunteered on the Caister lifeboat service - despite not being able swim.

Although he admitted that the lack of a father figure during his teenage years meant that he “went off the rails”, now with his own family, Mr Amis, who acted as a bone marrow donor for Kevin, said he managed to turn things around.

“I did get into quite a lot of trouble, but I suppose that it has made me who I am today,” he added.

And the painful memories left their mark on Mrs Grant - “it’s why my hair is so white”, she insists - with her children estimating she has moved house more 15 times since the crash.

But firmly settled in Caister, Mrs Grant is starting to feel as though she has come full circle.

“I have moved a lot, I suppose I couldn’t really get comfortable anywhere. But I am happy where I am now - I think I’ll be staying here,” she said.

The 11 Amoco gas workers, a pilot and cabin attendant were being transported from the Leman gas field on the “bus service” to the gas terminal at Bacton just after 3.40pm.

Take-off was no cause for concern, and it was only after captain Basil ‘Ben’ Breach sent a distress message reporting engine failure that the alarm was raised. His last words were “ditching, engine failure”. At 4.30pm, the helicopter, the Whisky India, plunged 1,500 ft into the North Sea.

Wreckage was spotted off the coast of Happisburgh – and it quickly became evident there were no survivors.

An inquiry was immediately launched and the Department of Trade sent in Donald Cooper, a helicopter expert from Scotland. But human error was quickly ruled out –with Ben described as “probably the most experienced Wessex pilot in the world,” by Alan Bristow, founder of Bristow Helicopters.

Sometimes it’s as if it happened yesterday

It should have been an evening of celebration - a chance to raise a toast to new life.

Mother-of-two Pauline Reynolds was preparing to tell husband Douglas Browne the joyous news that she was six weeks pregnant with their third baby.

But as she waited for 36-year-old Douglas in an Old Catton pub with sons Kirk and Wayne, her sense that something wasn’t quite right began to mount.

A phone call to check on the porter’s whereabouts revealed the devastating news - that Douglas wouldn’t be coming home.

“I didn’t really know what to do - the people at the pub offered me a drink, so we went and sat down and waited. It was surreal. After that I just cried and cried and cried,” Mrs Reynolds, now 57, said.

While her sons were left without a father figure, 32-year-old Karla Browne never had the chance to meet her father.

Mrs Reynolds, of Mile Cross, was thrown into life as a single mother - but said that the accident is always on her mind.

“It was thirteen men who died on the thirteenth, it was nicknamed the unlucky day by some.

“Each time you see a helicopter go over you think about it. Sometimes it’s as if it happened yesterday - it’s never something you will be able to forget. Life moves on and you do have to get on with everything, but it’s always on your mind,” she said.

Although an inquest recorded an open verdict, theories on the crash range from drive-shaft failure between the engines and the main gearbox to a misjudged auto-rotation because of bad visbility.

Bill Olive was working for Amoco at the time of the crash. He flew out to the Leman field on the Whisky India – but, by chance, his return journey was on a Puma helicopter.

“When I got back home I had a neighbour come round and ask if I had returned. He said that there had been a crash – I couldn’t believe that it had happened. It was a real shock to the system. Everybody was pretty shaken up. The atmosphere at work the next day was very sombre. I was very lucky,” he said.

The local men lost in the crash were Bob Phillips, of Wymondham; Adrian Amis, of Caister-on-Sea; Stephen Harvey, of Thurton; Douglas Browne, of Norwich; Basil Breach, of Great Yarmouth; Ian Cullen, of North Walsham; James Faircloth, of North Walsham; and Barry Waland, of Dereham, as well as Gordon Errington, Brian Nalton, Anthony Green, Peter Lawrence and Thomas Smith.

The crash - a timeline

• G-ASWI, the Westland Wessex 60, left the North Denes airfield, in Great Yarmouth, at 1.47pm on Friday, August 13 1981.

• It was carrying out a routine passenger and freight flight between rigs on the Leman and Indefatigable gas fields.

A pilot, a cabin attendant and 11 gas workers were on board.

• At 3.41pm, returning to the landing site in Bacton, commander Ben Breach sent a distress message reporting that he was ditching due to engine failure.

• Just three seconds later, the aircraft was lost to radar.

• A Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Westland Sea King left RAF Coltishall at 3.47pm.

• Ten minutes later, they spotted floating wreckage from the helicopter off the coast of Happisburgh.

Speaking at the time, a rescue worker said: “We saw people on the surface when we got down very low. No movement. We had a doctor on board and for about half an hour we were picking bodies out there.”

• Efforts to recover the wreck were delayed, meaning that it was beyond recovery when the operations started.

• Eventually, 12 out of the 13 men were recovered, with Bob Phillips, of Wymondham, never being found.

• The other local men were captain Ben Breach, of Great Yarmouth, Ian Cullen, of North Walsham, James Faircloth, of North Walsham, Barry Waland, of Dereham.

• An inquest recorded an open verdict, due to a lack of evidence explaining the loss of power or loss of control.

But in what has been an uphill battle for answers and recognition, last month the families received some good news when the commemorative memorial was unveiled at the entrance to Great Yarmouth Minster.

Tirelessly fought for by Paul and Joyce Harvey, who lost their son Stephen in the crash, the memorial finally marks the lives of 13 husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and friends who deserve to be remembered.

Do you want to pay tribute to a loved one? Email


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