THE North Sea’s fleet of Super Puma helicopters, grounded since last October following two offshore ditchings, may finally be set to resume vital crew change flights for Britain’s oil and gas industry.
All 16 Super Puma EC225s operating in the North Sea - one-fifth of the entire offshore fleet - have been grounded since 22 October when a CHC-operated Super Puma EC225 was forced to ditch off Shetland. Another Super Puma EC225 ditched 30 miles off the coast of Aberdeen in May last year.
Both ditchings led to the discovery of “potentially catastrophic” mechanical failures in the gearbox - identical cracks near a weld in the main vertical gear shaft of the workhorse of the North Sea. In both cases, tests have also shown identical problems which resulted in a false alarm being issued over a lubrication system failure.
Eurocopter, the French manufacturer of the Super Puma EC225, has been carrying out a series of detailed tests on the faulty gearbox since last year to determine the exact cause of the potentially catastrophic gearbox problems.
Lutz Bertling, the company’s chief executive, announced last November that the aircraft would not be allowed to take to the skies again over the North Sea until the company was “110 per cent” satisfied that it had identified the root cause of the two problems - the gearbox crack and the false lubrication alarm - and found a solution to both of them.
But today, in a potential boost for the offshore industry, a Eurocopter spokesman announced: “Eurocopter considers that the EC225 technical problems are now fully understood.
“Based on the findings of the investigation, Euro copter is proposing new safety measures to the airworthiness authorities. Eurocopter is confident that, once the safety measures are validated by the airworthiness authorities, the first EC225s can return to full service by the end of June to mid of July 2013.”
The company spokesman stressed: “The authorities still have to give the green light on validation and then it is up to the operators obviously to decide, in their schedules, how they fit all that in.”
Les Linklater, the leader of the Step Change in Safety team at Oil & Gas UK, described the Eurocopter announcement as “encouraging.”
He said: “The Helicopter Safety Steering Group is closely monitoring progress in the EC225 investigation and maintaining dialogue with Eurocopter. We’re encouraged by what appears to be clear signs of progress and the group will take the final decision on a return to UK offshore service, once regulatory approval deems it safe to do so.”
A spokesman for Bond Offshore Helicopters said: “We continue to work with Eurocopter, regulators, other operators and our customers to achieve the earliest safe return to flight for the aircraft.”
A spokeswoman for CHC Helicopters said: “Eurocopter is confident it has identified root cause and contributing factors and this is now being verified by authorities. CHC has been maintaining, and will persist with, appropriate flight readiness and pending regulatory approval. We think it is possible to safely begin resumption of overwater flights in the next several weeks.”