Fleet grounded after helicopter ditches in North Sea
A LEADING helicopter company has grounded its entire fleet of Super Puma EC225 helicopters after one of the aircraft, with 19 people on board, was at the centre of a dramatic rescue in the North Sea.
A total of 17 passengers and two crew were rescued after the helicopter was forced to ditch 32 miles south of Shetland on Monday afternoon.
Operator CHC Helicopters announced it would temporarily suspend flights using the EC225, as offshore unions voiced fresh fears about the safety of North Sea crew change flights.
The two pilots were praised for carrying out a textbook controlled ditching, with the 17 oil workers on board all reported to be safe and well. They were airlifted to safety following a massive rescue operation involving three lifeboats, three search-and-rescue helicopters and a fast rescue craft from an oil tanker in the icy seas.
It was the fourth serious incident involving versions of the Super Puma – the workhorse of the North Sea – since February 2009.
In April 2009, two pilots and 14 oilworkers on another version of the Super Puma, the AS332L2, manufactured by
Eurocopter, were killed when the aircraft, operated by Bond Helicopters, crashed into the North Sea after suffering catastrophic gearbox failure.
CHC operates a total of five Super Puma EC225 aircraft, including the chopper that ditched into the North Sea on Monday, representing a quarter of its entire North Sea fleet.
Oil industry leaders have announced plans for an emergency meeting of the helicopter task group, set up three years ago after the Super Puma disaster which claimed the lives of all 16 people on board.
Jake Molloy, the regional offshore organiser of the RMT union, said: “This will inevitably put the spotlight on North Sea helicopter safety yet again.
“This is the fourth incident involving Super Pumas in little over three years and it is vital that the operators, CHC, communicates at the earliest possible opportunity what forced this helicopter down.
“I am obviously relieved that all 19 people on board are safe and well. But we need to have what happened made public as soon as practicably possible to provide assurance, not only to the workforce, but to their families that the means of travelling to and from their work is safe. It’s not just a reassurance issue
– it’s a critical confidence issue.”
He said: “The fact is that yet another Super Puma helicopter, manufactured by Eurocopter, is in the spotlight again. It may be, as happened in the last ditching, that there was an instrument failure and the pilot has erred on the side of caution, and he should be applauded for that, if that is the case.
“But we need to know why the ditching happened – that’s the bottom line.”
Mr Molloy also warned that it was inevitable that some oil workers would refuse to fly on Super Pumas today while the reason for the ditching
The latest North Sea drama began shortly before 3:30pm, when Shetland Coastguard picked up a mayday message from the crew of the Super Puma EC225, which was forced to ditch into the icy North Sea, 15 miles from Fair Isle and 32 miles south of Sumburgh Head at the tip of the Shetland mainland.
The incident happened during a routine crew change flight.The helicopter was en route from Aberdeen to the West Phoenix drilling rig, being operated on behalf of Total.
Shetland Coastguard immediately launched the lifeboats from Lerwick, Aith and Kirkwall. The Coastguard helicopter from Stornoway, a Sea King search-and-rescue helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth and the Bond rescue chopper from Sumburgh – were also scrambled.
A Coastguard spokeswoman said an oil tanker, the Nord Nightingale, had launched its fast rescue craft (FRC).
She explained: “The people on the helicopter had got on board their life rafts. The FRC from the Nord Nightingale picked the people up and took them on board the tanker.”
Seven were flown to Sumburgh, while another 12 were taken to Kirkwall on Orkney.
Mr Molloy warned: “We simply can’t have four incidents in four years. And we need to know urgently why this helicopter ended up in the water.”
Richard Toomer, a spokesman for the pilots’ union Balpa, said: “We will be working with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) to ensure that the causes of today’s incident are fully and thoroughly investigated, especially in light of the fact that this is the second such ditching in six months.”
Oil and Gas UK confirmed late on Mondayh that an emergency meeting would be held this week of the industry’s Helicopter Safety Steering Group.
Les Linklater, the team leader of the industry’s Step Change in Safety team, said: “Step Change’s Helicopter Safety Steering Group, which comprises representatives from industry, regulators and trade unions, will meet as soon as possible in the very near future.”
First Minister Alex Salmond said: “It will be a huge relief to all of the friends, family and colleagues of Scotland’s offshore workers that each one of the 19 people aboard the helicopter have now been accounted for and are safe and well.
“Once again, the response to this incident by our emergency services was fantastic and their continued bravery and expertise will bring great reassurance to every offshore worker who is required to use helicopters in challenging conditions regularly throughout their working lives.”
A spokeswoman for CHC Helicopter said: “CHC’s primary
objective is always the safety of our passengers and crew, and our pilots’ actions today are consistent with that.”
She added: “The appropriate authorities have been informed and a full investigation will be undertaken to determine the cause of the incident. Plans are under way for the recovery of the aircraft.”
Lewis Macdonald, Labour’s justice spokesman and North east MSP, said: “This is a reminder of just how hazardous it is to work in the North Sea.”
He added: “The safety of our workers is paramount, and if these helicopters have to be grounded while the Air Accidents Investigation Branch does its job, then so be it.
“Safety comes first. One helicopter ditching in the North Sea is one helicopter too many.”
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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