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Helicopter instruments not monitored before crash

The Super Puma helicopter which ditched into the sea with tragic consequences in August 2013.
The Super Puma helicopter which ditched into the sea with tragic consequences in August 2013.

AN INVESTIGATION into the tragic Super Puma helicopter crash off Sumburgh in 2013, which claimed the lives of four offshore workers, has concluded that flight instruments were not adequately monitored by pilots in the minutes before it crashed into the sea off Sumburgh.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) has issued a detailed 266-page report containing further safety recommendations designed to avoid a repeat.

A lack of monitoring meant that a reduction in air speed was not noticed by the pilots when the CHC-owned helicopter was approaching Sumburgh Airport on 23 August 2013.

The helicopter’s commander attempted to recover the aircraft before it crashed into the sea but by the time the problem was noticed it was too late.

A total of 28 safety recommendations – including some relating to aircraft certification, flight data monitoring and offshore helicopter survivability – were include in the report, though many of those have already been brought in follow previous AAIB bulletins.

Four passengers – Sarah Darnley from Elgin, Gary McCrossan from Inverness, Duncan Munro from Bishop Auckland and George Allison from Winchester – died in the crash just over two and a half years ago.

The helicopter, crewed by two people, was carrying 16 offshore workers from the Borgsten Dolphin platform in the North Sea. It had been due to stop at Sumburgh Airport for refuelling before continuing on to Aberdeen.

Tuesday’s AAIB report outlines that pilots did not notice the helicopter’s speed slowing until it had reached a “critically low” state.

For a critical period of 30 seconds the flight instruments “were not adequately monitored” and the airspeed continued to reduce.

The four who lost their lives in the crash.

A “check height” alert sounded when the helicopter had descended to only 300 feet above sea level, but the pilots’ last-ditch effort to rescue the situation failed.

When it hit the water, the helicopter upturned and 14 people were eventually saved from the water.

The report also outlined how the four passengers died. One of the deceased had been unable to escape from the cabin and had attempted to use the emergency breathing system. Another escaped the cabin but drowned, while a third died from a head injury during the impact.

A fourth died in a liferaft from a chronic heart condition which was likely to have been exacerbated by the stress of the evacuation.

In response to previously-published AAIB bulletins, in February 2014 the Civil Aviation Authority announced a series of measures aimed at improving offshore helicopter safety following an inquiry into the crash.

The AAIB investigation found that there were “similarities between this accident and previous accidents resulting from ineffective monitoring of the flight instruments by the flight crew”.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for pilots union BALPA said the incident had been “a tragedy for all those involved”.

“Any accident, especially those resulting in loss of life, needs to be examined extremely carefully so that all the lessons can be learnt and similar accidents avoided in the future,” she said.

“Many safety improvements have already been made to helicopter operations since this tragic accident but pilots and safety experts will be examining the report to identify what more can be done to avoid a repeat.

“The challenge will be to drive up industry-wide standards at a time when the drive to reduce contract prices puts those standards under pressure.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said: “Helicopter operators and all other parties must ensure that the recommendations of today’s reports are complied with, in particular in providing training on instrument scan techniques for pilots.

“This was a very serious incident involving the tragic loss of four lives. Everyone flying to and from Shetland, as well as the rest of Scotland, must have complete confidence in the airworthiness of all aircraft and in the training regimes followed by pilots.”