THIS weekend will mark the 30th anniversary of the Chinook tragedy near Sumburgh, which killed 45 people in what remains the worst helicopter disaster ever to have happened in the North Sea.
British International Helicopters’ incoming Boeing 234LR Chinook plunged into the sea 2.5 miles off Sumburgh on 6 November 1986 as it was returning from the Brent oilfield, leaving just two survivors.
The accident occurred when a transmission failure caused the twin rotor blades to collide, with the helicopter falling 50 metres to the sea.
Pilot Pushp Vaid and passenger Eric Morrans were the only two survivors, with the former smashing through a window to escape the stricken helicopter.
Capt. Gordon Mitchell was in charge of coastguard base at Sumburgh at the time of the tragedy, and his helicopter was first on the scene.
The chopper airlifted Vaid and Morrans from the sea and in a race against time they flew the two men to Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain Hospital.
The coastguard helicopter was already in the area after just leaving Sumburgh on a training exercise.
While they had been told to keep a routine lookout for an incoming Chinook, they didn’t know what was waiting for them.
“We had just taken off from Sumburgh to go on a training exercise, and as we were leaving the airfield we were told there was a Chinook helicopter inbound and to look after it,” he said.
“We couldn’t see it, but when we got clear off the airfield, I looked down and I saw a Dayglo object in the water and I thought, ‘that shouldn’t be there’.
“We went down to have a look at it, and as we got closer, we saw that it was a dinghy which was inflated.
“Closer still, we saw wreckage, and then we spotted two survivors. One was hanging onto a dinghy and one was hanging onto a piece of wreckage. We went in and winched them onto the helicopter. It wasn’t a difficult conditions for it.”
And it was only then that the scale of the tragedy started to become evident, but there was nothing that Mitchell and his crew could do.
“We were anxious to get the two survivors off to hospital, but the problem was that we didn’t want to leave the area incase somebody else popped up on the surface,” the former coastguard man said.
“Fortunately about that time, a fishing boat came around to see what was going on. We asked it if could keep an eye open in case any extra survivors did appear. We then took the two we had picked up to the hospital in Lerwick.
“We went back for a quick look after, but by that time the scene was swarming with other rescue agencies. We were superfluous then and we went back to the hangar.”
Mitchell, who spent a “large chunk” of his life working as a search and rescue pilot, said tasks like the Chinook tragedy unfortunately “come with the job” in areas like Shetland.
“Not long after that, we were involved with Piper Alpha disaster too,” he said.
In 2013, a memorial was erected near Sumburgh Airport to commemorate the 45 people lost in the disaster.
It also paid tribute to the 34 men lost in the 1979 Dan Air tragedy and the helicopter accidents at the Brent Spar installation on 25 July 1990 and at the Cormorant Alpha platform, less than two years later.
Just three months after the memorial was unveiled, four people died when a Super Puma helicopter crashed into the sea off Sumburgh.
Another former coastguard man, David Ellis, who was involved in winching the Chinook survivors to safety, helped organise the memorial.
Pauline Nixon, widow of late Chinook co-pilot Neville Nixon, raised the idea to Ellis when she visited Shetland in 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster.