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Coastguard chopper grounded before 100mph storm

One of the Sumburgh based search and rescue helicopters exercising with the Aith lifeboat - Photo: Bristow Helicopters

SHETLAND politicians have demanded a full and open investigation after it emerged the Sumburgh-based search and rescue helicopter was grounded for 24 hours last week due to crew shortages.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) confirmed on Thursday that their Inverness-based chopper had to take responsibility for the Shetland area during the build up to last week’s storms.

However the agency insisted that the islands had at no time been left without emergency cover.

The downtime took place from Thursday to Friday immediately prior to Storm Gertrude bringing winds in excess of 100mph to the isles.

Chairman of Shetland’s community safety and resilience board, councillor Alastair Cooper, said he was ‘gobsmacked’ when informed by Shetland News.

“We depend on the coastguard helicopter for much around here; it is a highly utilised facility,” he said.

“I am amazed that we had an outage for such a long period as they (Bristow Helicopters) must have been able to bring staff in to cover for such a situation.

“Last Friday was a particularly bad day, but this is when you need the helicopter.

“We knew that Friday was going to be a bad day; so there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to bring in coverage on Thursday before the wind set in.

“I think it is something that needs to be further investigated and we need to ensure that there are systems in place that it doesn’t happen again.”

His views were echoed by Shetland MSP Tavish Scott who described the situation as “unacceptable”.

“Inverness is an hour’s flying time away. If there had been an incident in Unst requiring a helicopter it would have taken significantly longer to get there,” he said.

“That would have had implications for coastguard volunteers, police and any other emergency service.

“I want to have the assurance that at the very least the MCA made the other emergency services aware of the fact that Sumburgh was unavailable.”

However when asked, Shetland area commander chief inspector Lindsay Tulloch said he had not been informed.

In a statement the MCA said: “Search and rescue helicopter operations for Shetland were covered by our Inverness aircraft between Thursday and Friday due to short notice absence amongst the Shetland crew.

“At no time during this period was Shetland left without cover.

“The MCA for its part will be discussing the matter with Bristow to make sure that the impact of such absences in the future is similarly reduced.”

Bristow Helicopters operates the search and rescue helicopters on behalf of the MCA.