THE owner of a helicopter that ditched dramatically in the North Sea last week has grounded all its Scotland-based fleet after investigations revealed a fault in the aircraft’s gearbox.
Bond Offshore Helicopters extended its suspension of EC225 models of the Eurocopter Super Puma helicopters – one of which came down in rough waters off the coast of Aberdeen while transporting oil industry crew on Thursday – to include AS332L2 models.
The move was announced after an initial Air Accidents Investigation Branch investigation into last week’s incident identified a crack in the EC225’s gearbox shaft. An AS332L2 ditched in the North Sea in similar circumstances in 2009, killing all 16 people on board, after a “catastrophic” gearbox failure.
All nine Bond helicopters operating from Aberdeen to transport oil rig crew are now grounded, along with two for search and rescue.
Trade leaders admitted Scotland’s oil operations would be “significantly” affected by the growing safety restrictions this week, while Bond tries to provide cover using helicopters from as far afield as Norwich.
A spokesman for Bond, which stopped all EC225 flights last week, said AAIB analysis of the latest incident matched its own.
He said: “We’re working closely with Eurocopter to try to resolve the situation and we are trying to help our customers, but our other helicopters do not operate from Aberdeen, they are in Blackpool and Norwich, and they are pretty much fully committed.”
He stressed that safety remained the top priority and rejected earlier suggestions that the incident was linked to poor maintenance.
A spokesman for trade body Oil and Gas UK said: “This (second suspension) will have a significant impact on capacity this week, but we would reiterate that safety remains the top priority.”
Unions remained critical of the growing industry “crisis”, however. Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said: “We are deeply concerned at these revelations of gearbox faults, which back the evidence from our members of mechanical problems with the Bond fleet that do not appear to have been investigated in recent weeks.”
Kevin Stewart, SNP MSP for Aberdeen Central, said: “These helicopters are used on a daily basis by offshore workers and I welcome the speed at which the AAIB and Bond Offshore Helicopters have acted.
“The tragic 2009 crash in which 14 offshore workers and two crew lost their lives is obviously in everybody’s thoughts, and we need to be certain that lessons have been learnt.”
All 14 men on board the helicopter were rescued on Thursday after it underwent a controlled ditching, prompted by an oil pressure warning; two suffered minor injuries.