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Shetland helicopter crash: Union protest cancelled

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  • by FRANK URQUHART
 

An offshore union has cancelled a protest targeting the operator of a helicopter which crashed into the North Sea, killing four people.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said it had secured a “massive breakthrough” on access to the workforce on platforms and at heliports.

It had planned to protest near the Aberdeen heliport of CHC, the operator of the Super Puma helicopter that came down off the southern tip of Shetland on Friday night.

The crash was the fifth incident involving Super Pumas in the North Sea since 2009.

A rally will instead be staged outside the union’s headquarters in the city’s Crown Street calling for safety improvements.

General secretary Bob Crow said that Oil and Gas UK had met the union’s demand of guaranteed access to offshore workers.

He said: “This means we can speak to our workers and find out what their concerns are and relay them back. It gives them a voice.

“The rally will let people offshore know that we are doing everything possible to try and secure safety for them and their families.”

Relatives of those killed as a result of offshore safety failings are expected to attend the event at 11am tomorrow.

A search for the aircraft’s black box data recorder, which was in the helicopter’s tail section, is being carried out by salvage experts at the site of the crash using specialist sonar equipment.

There were 16 passengers and two crew on the Super Puma AS332 L2 travelling from the Borgsten Dolphin support vessel when it crashed into the sea, killing three men and one woman.

The victims were named as Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, County Durham; George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Hampshire; Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Moray; and 59-year-old Gary McCrossan, from Inverness.

Three of the bodies from the crash arrived in Aberdeen by ferry on Monday morning and the fourth reached the city, also by ferry, by 8am today.

It emerged today that workers on the Borgsten Dolphin were given a briefing by senior staff from CHC and oil giant Total on the safety of Super Pumas on August 8.

During the talk, CHC chief pilot Will Hanekom and Total head of logistics Christophe Barbier sought to reassure staff concerned about the safety of the EC225 helicopter model, according to the Press and Journal newspaper.

In a recording of the briefing obtained by the paper, a Total manager is reported to have told staff not to work offshore if they could not live with the risk of flying in helicopters.

Workers were also told by a pilot that “at some point we have to put our big-boy pants on”, the paper reported.

A Total spokesman said the remarks had been made during one of a series of offshore visits ahead of the re-introduction into service of the EC225 helicopter.

He said: “We wanted to explain to the workforce the comprehensive package of new safety features the authorities and the helicopter operators had introduced, and to listen to their views and any concerns.

“These briefings related exclusively to the EC225 model helicopter, which is a completely separate model to the one involved in last week’s tragic accident.”

A spokeswoman for CHC said the pilot’s comments had been taken out of context.

“If people heard the whole recording they would understand this pilot was trying to get his message across as a fellow North Sea worker and not a corporate spokesperson,” she said.

“This was his genuine, personal endorsement of the aircraft. He was demonstrating his confidence in the EC225. He acknowledged the risks facing them all in getting to, working on and getting home from rigs. He spoke about his family and how he wouldn’t risk his own wellbeing - and neither should they.”

CHC has temporarily held all flights of the three types of Super Puma helicopter that it operates - the L, L2 and EC225.

Fellow operators Bond Offshore Helicopters and Bristow also enforced a temporary suspension of all Super Puma flights except emergency rescue missions.

It follows a recommendation by the offshore industry’s Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG) which urged the precautionary measure until there is ‘’sufficient factual information’’ to resume flights.

It is hoped information on the flight recorder, once traced, will help establish what caused the crash.

The wreckage of the helicopter is due to be transported to a mainland port on the Bibby Polaris salvage vessel.

Total has chartered boats to transport workers to offshore platforms following the crash.

Four vessels are being co-ordinated to operate between three oil producing platforms and other offshore drilling facilities in the North Sea while Super Puma helicopter flights are suspended.

There have been five North Sea incidents involving Super Pumas since 2009. In April that year an AS332 L2, operated by Bond, went down north-east of Peterhead on its return from a BP platform, killing all 14 passengers and two crew on board.

The other three ditchings involved the EC225 model which saw flights temporarily suspended. CHC returned the model to commercial service only earlier this month.

An investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch found that two of the incidents were the result of gearbox failure and new advice on checks for the EC225 were issued as a result.

A fatal accident inquiry is expected to be held into the 2009 fatal AS332 L2 crash in Aberdeen next year.

Lack of confidence

Meanwhile an oil and gas industry website revealed today that a

snapshot survey of over 1000 oilworkers, taken after Friday’s crash, showed that 89 per cent of those who responded believe that the Super Puma should be taken out of service, and other helicopters considered for flights , such as the Sikorsky S-92. The S-92 helicopter, already in use in the British sector, was introduced widely in Norway after oil unions put pressure on companies to improve helicopter safety.

The survey by Oilandgaspeople.com, the world’s largest oil and gas jobs board, also shows that a lack of confidence in the way the industry deals with helicopter safety issues is widespread.

A spokesman for the website company said: “Eighty per cent feel that companies are putting money before profits and safety is genuinely being compromised. Fifty six per cent feel that their opinion regarding helicopter safety matters isn’t taken seriously by their current employer, while 59 per cent feel that the offshore oil and gas industry doesn’t do enough to raise helicopter safety.”

He continued: “Since the crash, 53 per cent don’t feel safe flying offshore, with 33 per cent saying they will no longer travel on Super Pumas. Fifty seven per cent believe that other methods of crew transfer should be considered, including boats.”

Temporary arrangements

Oil companies were today beginning the task of sharing helicopter resources, bringing in additional aircraft assets from overseas, and chartering vessels to take oilworkers to and from their platforms as the Super Puma crisis intensified.

There are mounting concerns that offshore production could eventually be affected by the grounding all the Super Pumas operating in the UK Continental Shelf.

A spokesman for oil giant BP said: “The suspension of all Super Puma flights will have a major impact on offshore activity. BP uses Sikorsky helicopters in the North Sea, as well as Super Pumas, and so will be looking to maximise their use and acquire more of these aircraft types to minimise the disruption.”

He added: “We are also actively managing demand by asking each facility to review activities that are not essential in the short term.”

A spokeswoman for Shell said: “We operate with Sikorsky S-92s so we are not directly impacted. But of course, with the pressure on the system, I suspect we are going to be helping other operators where we can.”

Body recovered

The body of the fourth oil worker, killed in last Friday’s Super Puma disaster, arrived in Aberdeen harbour this morning on board the NorthLink passenger ferry MV Hrossey.

The remains of the disaster victim were later driven in a private hearse, under police escort, from the harbour to the Aberdeen City Mortuary of Police Scotland. The body had been trapped in the main fuselage of the doomed aircraft and was only recovered on Sunday night from the wreckage of the Super Puma AS332 L2 after it was raised onto the deck of the salvage vessel Bibby Polaris.

The bodies of the three other victims of the Sumburgh Head tragedy had arrived in Aberdeen yesterday on board another NorthLink ferry, the MV Hjaltland

Meanwhile specialist sonar equipment has been deployed in the seas off the southern tip of the Shetland mainland in the search for the vital “black box” flight data recorder.

The cockpit voice and flight data recorder is housed in the tail section of the aircraft which is believed to have sheared off from the main fuselage after the impact

David Learmount: Grounding Super Puma is sensible – but it will fly again

There are more than 800 Super Pumas in service across the world. The RAF had them in service in the early 1970s, and since then the Super Puma has seen some pretty good and varied service across the world, and it has been a pretty good workhorse for the oil and gas industry.

Over its lifetime, and generally speaking, its safety record has been excellent.

If you were to look at the Super Puma over its lifetime of service, it has as good a safety record as any other helicopter carrying out the same sort of task.

But, if you were to look at the past four years, that would not be true. And we have to ask questions about why these incidents did not happen before and are happening now.

However, you cannot get a helicopter which is as safe as an airliner – besides which, they are operating in such an unfriendly environment in the North Sea.

Helicopters are phenomenally – I cannot overemphasise this – much more mechanically complex than fixed wing aircraft. And the more bits you have doing mechanical jobs in a device, the more you are going to get mechanical problems happening from time to time.

However, I do not think this latest accident had the same cause as the crash in April 2009, in which 16 people died.

If the cause had been the same – catastrophic gearbox failure – nobody would have survived this incident either.

The helicopter in Friday’s incident would have been flying at about 1,000 feet. Yet most of those on board survived, and some did not even need to be taken to hospital for treatment. Those who died, I suspect, did not die from the impact.

The cause was something different. It might be gearbox-related but it was not catastrophic.

Would I fly on a Super Puma right now? The answer is no, and I am not a nervous flier.

But, as soon as I find out what caused this latest accident, then I will fly in one of them again.

The point is that the Super Pumas have not been grounded because they are the absolute pariahs of aviation and will never fly again. They have been grounded because they don’t know what caused this incident and they are not going to fly again until they know what did cause this accident. And that is only sensible.

• David Learmount is operations and safety editor at Flightglobal magazine.

First Minister’s tribute

Speaking after he signed the book of condolence at the Kirk of St Nicholas, First Minister Alex Salmond said: “Today, the thoughts and prayers of everyone in Scotland will be with the families and loved ones of George Allison, Sarah Darnley, Duncan Munro and Gary McCrossan, who lost their lives in the tragic offshore helicopter incident on Friday.”

He continued: “Thanks to the outstanding efforts of our emergency services, all of the bodies have now been recovered and three are already back in Aberdeen. With the fourth expected to be brought back to the mainland tomorrow, I hope it is some comfort to the families of the deceased that they will now be able to begin the process of grieving their terrible loss.2

Mr Salmond continued: “I know that the entire community will pull together to support those families, and the book of condolence that is now opened by the Oil and Gas Chaplaincy will provide an opportunity for people to pay their respects to those who have died.

“The safety of our offshore workers is of paramount importance, and it is therefore entirely appropriate that, on recommendations of the Helicopter Safety Steering Group, Super Puma flights are suspended while the Air Accidents Investigation Branch takes forward its inquiry into this tragedy.

“Understandably, with an incident of this magnitude there is a great deal of speculation as to the cause. This is understandable but not always helpful and it’s better that the AAIB are given the time and space to pursue their enquiry. With the wreckage to be brought to the mainland, and both pilots amongst the survivors there is every reason to believe that the AAIB will be able to reach a determination and the industry can learn the lessons of this tragic accident and improve the safety of those brave men and women who work offshore.”

 
 
 

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