Nick Sills: Northern Divers, jet aircraft, and a ticket into outer space

After graduation in 1969, Nick Sills got his professional start with Hull’s Northern Divers. This experience was a formative one, and led to an extraordinarily successful career characterised by inventiveness and an entrepreneuralism. He has several world-changing patents to his name, holds a ticket to space with Virgin Galactic, and has extensive experience in jet aerobatics.

Nick Sills with his Hunter high res
Nick Sills with his Hawker Hunter

I left Hull in 1969 with a 2/2 in Zoology which at the time was a crushing disappointment as I had a place in Townsville Uni.,  Australia to do a PhD in Marine Zoology on the barrier reef – BUT subject to achieving a 2/1.  I had started the Hull Uni., Sub Aqua Club and was deep into diving which I had hoped to continue in Australia.

As it turned out getting a 2/2 was the best thing that ever happened to me as it changed the entire direction of my life from academia (to which I was not best suited) to one of amazing adventures where I have met many of my heroes, beneath, upon and above the sea – and achieved riches to boot.

Wondering what to do in 1969, I thought I might join the RAF and become a jet fighter pilot – (but my eyesight proved a barrier)  then I thought the Navy as a diver (“you’ll never make a Navy Diver, Navy Divers are big tough people, they don’t have degrees”!) but the navy recruitment officer took pity on me and sent me to see some pals of his who had started a commercial diving company – Norther Divers Ltd of Wright Street in Hull (that’s a whole book full of adventures) .

I spent 11 year eventful and exciting years with them working in Docks, Abattoirs, Sewers, Rivers, Canals, Nuclear Power Pits, Bridges, recovering bodies, cars, helicopters, planes etc., and then as the North Sea Oil and Gas Industry opened up offshore, got into deep mixed gas and saturation diving, designing and building a fleet of Diving Support Ships and was eventually recruited by Shell International as the Diving Adviser to the Company’s Directors. (They couldn’t find a doctor with commercial diver experience so they hired the next best thing –  a commercial diver with a Zoology degree!).

With the mighty Shell Company behind me I met and worked with many of the world’s leading Diving Physiologists and attended (on their behalf) all the worlds deep diving experimental programs going on in the 70’s and early 80’s to over 2,000ft. This also brought me into contact with NASA Astronaut training programs and people as they used the same facilities and expertise. That’s the first time I met Buzz Aldrin. I also met the likes of Jacques Cousteau.

I then spent 4 years in the commercial marine cargo salvage and Underwater Archaeological Shipwreck  business digging up and recovering all sorts of treasures and ships around the world– (another book), and became the first “expert” in the use of explosives in historic shipwreck excavations.

After that around 1984-ish I set up my own company with some colleagues in the underwater excavation business inventing, patenting and commercialising all sorts of machines to dig up ships, service oilfield equipment, clear well heads, trench and  bury pipelines etc., – my biggest machine system weighed 600 tons and at 10,000horse power was the biggest deep water excavator in the world! . (another book). After losing 3 companies to unscrupulous partners and smart lawyers (and around about £5m) I finally set up a forth underwater excavation company SeaVation Ltd., , invented new subsea excavation systems with a long term friend, Boris, and made (and more importantly kept), a fortune when we sold the company in 2006?.

Then seeking further adventure in 2007 I bought a ticket into space with Richard Branson’s (now a mate) Virgin Galactic  – since joining I’ve met a further bunch of extraordinary people including Buzz Aldrin again.

My wife threw me out of the house at that time as I didn’t know what to do with myself “in retirement” so I went up to my local airfield (Kemble in Wiltshire) and ended up buying into a company (Delta Jets) that owned and flew private Hawker Hunters, Folland Knats and Jet Provost military fast jets. To learn to fly the jets I had to get my lapsed PPL back and ended up buying an old RAF training aircraft (a Bulldog) and learning aerobatics, formation flying and various other skills in retraining. Then took on the Hunter – the Display Practice routines we flew were better than sex.

Through a chance conversation with Richard Branson I joined up again with an old buddy of mine from my diving career, Graham Hawkes of “” who builds the most advanced sport and scientific submarines (numbering some 250 to date). We ended up on various submarine expeditions and finally decided to try underwater aerobatics (hydrobatics!) with his “Super Falcon” submarine – this was and still is particularly good fun and as we are the only two people in the world to have done it and remained alive – it’s quite an achievement. (Sadly the our other friend Lee Behel – probably the best underwater hydrobatic pilot died in a Reno Air Race crash earlier this year).

What am I doing now? –  well developing electric contra rotating aircraft propulsion systems of course – what else would I do with my spare time (have a look at  and still waiting for my trip into space – I would love to go to the IISS but can’t yet afford it.

So I guess Hull University and the city of Hull  (my daughter achieved a 2/1 in Drama travelled the world and is now working for James Dyson)  proved to be a pivotal place in my life.

Who knows, maybe with a lot of luck I might become the guy known for inventing Electric Contra Rotating Propulsion Systems on reaching my sell-by-date and paralleling (in small way) another hero of mine – Frank Whittle the inventor of the jet engine.


One thought on “Nick Sills: Northern Divers, jet aircraft, and a ticket into outer space

  1. We old Bembridgians sure gained a sense of adventure!

    Nigel Peter Lovely’s eventual biological loss was clearly sub-aqua’s and aviation’s gain. What a great life.


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