SIXTEEN oil workers and two pilots had an amazing escape last night after their helicopter was forced to ditch in the icy waters of the North Sea, 500 yards from a rig.
All those on board were rescued and reported safe and well following a massive operation involving four helicopters and a flotilla of rescue craft.
Three of those from the Super Puma chopper were rescued by another helicopter. The other 15 were recovered by a platform lifeboat and taken to the installation.
The drama began shortly before 7pm yesterday after the helicopter was forced to ditch in poor visibility 500 metres short of its destination, the BP platform 125 miles east of Aberdeen.
Workers on the platform saw it come down and alerted Aberdeen Coastguard, which immediately sent out a mayday.
At least three emergency flares were set off from the helicopter. But, in a textbook operation involving a Nimrod aircraft from RAF Kinloss, and three other helicopters, including a Coastguard copter and a Sea King from RAF Lossiemouth, as well as a number of vessels, all the men were saved within two hours.
They escaped from the Super Puma on to two rubber dinghies and waited for help to arrive.
Flight Sergeant James Lyne, assistant controller at the Airborne Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC) at Kinloss, said the helicopter landed upright and did not sink thanks to flotation bags which inflated when it landed on the water.
He said the two liferafts were tethered together and equipped with locator beacons, which allowed satellites to detect their position. Those on board the Super Puma would also have been wearing immersion suits and lifejackets, he said.
Three of the men were flown by Sea King to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary last night. All were said to be suffering from cold and shock. The remaining 15 were expected to arrive in Aberdeen harbour at 6am today on board the North Sea standby boat, Caledonian Victory.
Mark Clark, a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) spokesman, said: "They're clearly traumatised and they're cold, but they're walking wounded."
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear. The Air Accident and Investigation Branch (AIBB) said it would launch an investigation and would send nine experts to Aberdeen today.
One of the RAF helicopter crew who touched down with the survivors said: "It was very foggy, very misty."
Mike Mulford, the official spokesman at the RAF rescue co-ordination centre at Kinloss, said: "In very poor searching conditions with a fairly high swell – cold, dark and with very poor visibility – the rescue helicopters were able to find the two liferafts containing the men pretty quickly.
"Three men were winched on to a civilian rescue helicopter and the other 15 transferred to a rescue craft. The three were then transferred on to a Sea King on a nearby platform before being flown to hospital in Aberdeen."
Staff at the accident and emergency department at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary cheered and clapped as the three men walked off the ambulance and into the
Mr Mulford said it appeared that all 18 on board had been saved because of a controlled ditching by the crew. He added: "When we hear the word 'ditching', you do not know if you are talking about a brilliant controlled landing or about flying into the sea. The same word sometimes applies to both.
"The pilots in this case would not have had much time to react and all the training the aircrew do to simulate these things comes into its own. Clearly, all of that came together – the design of the aircraft, the reaction of the crew and the discipline of the passengers.
"At the end of the day, for 18 guys to be going home having survived a helicopter ditching in the North Sea in February has got to be a good story."
A spokesman at the rescue centre said conditions were "reasonable" with light winds and "only" two to three-metre swells. But visibility was poor at less then a kilometre, and the Coastguard said darkness hampered the rescue operation.
Mr Clark added: "This is on the level of the Hudson River incident in the US. It's a very successful rescue. We are delighted to be able to celebrate the fact that they were all safely recovered."
The helicopter involved in last night's ditching was an EC225 – the most modern Super Puma. It joined the North Sea fleet of operator Bond last year.
Jake Molloy, of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers Union, said there were about 50 flights a day between Aberdeen and the various installations in the area. He added the helicopters tended to have a "pretty good record".
A BP spokesman said the 18 men had been rescued in a major operation involving a number of resources, including BP's search and rescue helicopter, also operated by Bond, and rescue and recovery craft.
Alex Salmond, the First Minister, said: "I would like to thank all those involved in this dramatic rescue for their sterling work which averted what could have been a terrible tragedy."
SUPER Pumas are used by more than 37 military forces around the world, as well as by 1,000 civil operators.
They ferry personnel and equipment to and from oil platforms in the North Sea, and have also been modified for use as dedicated search-and-rescue aircraft.
The 11 million machine, made by Arospatiale, has twin engines and four blades.
The first version, the Eurocopter, flew on 13 September, 1978.
Super Pumas can seat around 18 passengers and two crew, though since 2000 most oil companies have banned the use of the middle rear seat, due to difficulties encountered in evacuating through the rear windows in crashes at sea.
Since 1990, military Super Pumas have been marketed as the Cougar.
The helicopter involved in last night's ditching was an EC225, the most modern Super Puma helicopter. It was one of three Super Puma EC225s that joined Bond's North Sea fleet last year.
Heavily used helicopter has record of accidents in dangerous North Sea
SUPER Puma helicopters have been involved in previous crashes in Scotland.
Eleven men were killed in February 1992 when one taking oil workers from Shell's Cormorant Alpha platform to the Safe Supporter "flotel" just 200 yards away crashed into the sea immediately after take-off, 100 miles north-east of Shetland.
A report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) concluded fatigue and frustration may have led to the fatal pilot error by the commander of the doomed Super Puma, Captain Jonathan Shelbourne.
In April 1998, the Department of Transport ordered a safety review after a fault which could have caused a Super Puma to crash with 17 people aboard went undetected for 50 flying hours.
A fatigue crack on the tail rotor meant a serious accident could have been only seconds away. The helicopter, with two crew and 15 passengers, developed problems returning from the North Sea in September, 1995.
In February 2000, a helicopter with 14 passengers and two crew on board was forced to make an emergency landing at Aberdeen airport after developing engine problems shortly after take-off.
The Super Puma was 15 minutes into a flight to the Galaxy installation when a full-scale emergency was declared.
In January 1996, a Super Puma crashed, flinging debris half a mile into the main airport terminal at Aberdeen airport. The helicopter was taxiing to its hangar when it toppled over.
The two crew on board were unhurt in the accident, which happened at 6pm, one of the busiest times of the day. Pieces of its main rotor, spinning at 260 revs per minute, hurtled across the packed airport car park.
Remarkable repeat of an earlier drama
LAST night's miraculous rescue operation was almost a carbon copy of the drama of 19 January, 1995, when 18 men were rescued from the North Sea after a Super Puma hit the water 142 miles north-east of Aberdeen.
The helicopter, 90 minutes into a flight from Aberdeen to Marathon's Brae Alpha platform, had been hit by lightning and the pilot, Cederic Roberts, was hailed a hero after he calmly landed it upright in 14ft waves.
The Bristows' Super Puma, with two crew and 16 oil worker passengers had been flying at 3,000ft when hit. All 18 survivors were recovered within 90 minutes by rescue craft.