THE MCA has confirmed that Shetland Coastguard's Sikorsky S92 helicopter was back in service late on Tuesday afternoon after the entire global fleet was stopped from flying earlier in the day.
Sikorksy grounded the helicopters while mandatory inspections of tail rotor blades - and repairs where necessary - were carried out.
Inspection of the whole fleet is likely to take several days, leading to widespread disruption for offshore flights in the North Sea, but the MCA said at teatime on Tuesday that its helicopters at Sumburgh, Stornoway and Inverness had been assessed and swiftly brought back into service. Other coastguard Sikorsky helicopters will also return to service shortly.
Confusion reigned for much of the day as the MCA's press office was unable to explain what contingency plans it had put in place for Shetland and Orkney in the case of emergencies that could not be dealt with using the lifeboat or cliff rescue teams while the helicopter was out of service - prompting Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael to call for a proper explanation.
MCA assistant director Damien Oliver, who has responsibility for aviation, described it as a "highly unusual situation" but said the coastguard service "were prepared and we pulled out every stop when we were told about it at 0800 this morning".
"We had provision for crews to fly other aircraft if needed and - of course - we have a huge number of resources available in this country for search and rescue operations in addition to our helicopters - coastguard rescue teams, the RNLI, mountain rescue to name but three."
Oliver added: "Over the coming months, we will be mixing our fleet of aircraft so that we will always have a contingency option in the event of a fleet grounding."
Manufacturer Sikorsky grounded the S92s following an incident when a helicopter lost control during an emergency landing offshore at the end of December.
Carmichael had earlier said: “Obviously if the whole fleet of S92 helicopters across the world has been grounded then the ones operated by the coastguard have to be treated in the same way. We cannot operate them if they are not safe.
“That, however, does not mean that it is acceptable to leave the isles without proper coverage, especially as the weather is expected to be bad later this week and over the weekend.
“The coastguard helicopter is also often needed to cover for air ambulance duties. That may not be its primary function but it remains crucially important for us. I want better and more detailed answers than the MCA has given us so far.”
Step Change in Safety executive director Les Linklater said on Tuesday morning that Sikorsky had issued an alert service bulletin “requiring a onetime visual inspection of the tail rotor pitch change shaft and bearing assembly on the worldwide S92 fleet prior to the next flight”.
"The decision made by Sikorsky is a precautionary measure to ensure continued safe flight operations and we are aware that helicopter operators are working to assess the impact of this requirement, while investigating all opportunities to limit the effects on the flying program.
"Currently the duration of the inspections is expected to take up to 11 man hours, which means this will cause some short term delays.”