A NORTH Sea helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 14 oil workers and two crew might have been prevented, a fatal accident inquiry has found.
The 16 men died when a Bond Super Puma plunged into the waters off the Aberdeenshire coast on 1 April, 2009.
After a six-week inquiry, Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle said yesterday that the aircraft’s operator had failed to follow maintenance procedures days before the crash. He said a “fundamental rule”, that maintenance must be done by the book, had been broken.
That prompted relatives of the dead to call on the Crown Office to review its decision not to pursue a criminal prosecution against Bond. They are seeking a meeting with the Lord Advocate.
The sheriff said the tragedy might have been the result of a failure to detect a significant fault in the helicopter’s gearbox.
He found Bond had failed to follow the aircraft maintenance manual six days before the crash, after a fragment of metal was found in the gearbox. Bond failed to ensure communications with manufacturer Eurocopter were carried out according to procedure, with the result that “misunderstandings arose between the parties” and contributed to the failure to carry out the maintenance properly.
The sheriff said that while it was “certainly possible” the gearbox would have been replaced if Bond had carried out the maintenance, that had not been proved “on the balance of probabilities”.
He said: “The essential fact is that everyone in the company well knew that maintenance must be done by the book. On one occasion, that fundamental rule was broken. It resulted in the failure to detect a significant fault in the helicopter’s gearbox, which possibly – but only possibly – resulted in the crash.”
The inquiry heard a witness account of how the helicopter fell from the sky “like a torpedo”, followed separately by its detached rotor blades.
Audrey Wood, who lost her son Stuart in the crash, said: “We, the families, feel let down by the system. We just wanted answers. We will never have closure – this will go on and on for us.
“We are asking to meet with the Lord Advocate to try and convince him that the case against Bond helicopters needs to be looked at again.”
She added: “No more families should have to go through what we have been through.”
Lorraine Doyle, from Cumbernauld, whose father Raymond was killed, said: “Basically, this could have been avoided. We’ve always known it, but now it’s in black and white.
“It’s almost cruel what we’ve had to go through. You can’t move on, you go through day to day existing, it’s always at the back of your mind. To put us through it for this length of time is cruel. And to get the outcome we did, it’s not fair.”
Solicitor advocate Tom Marshall, who represented relatives at the inquiry, said: “There were numerous opportunities for Bond to have prevented this awful tragedy. Had they followed the correct procedure for these craft, then the fault in the gearbox would have been properly dealt with.
“It’s an appalling state of affairs where 16 men can lose their lives while simply returning from work and yet no-one has yet been prosecuted.”
The families have joined trade unions in calling for a full public inquiry into offshore safety in the North Sea.
The Crown Office said it would meet relatives but insisted the decision not to prosecute was “correct”.
In a statement, it said: “For a criminal prosecution to have taken place, the Crown would have to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. The sheriff principal makes clear a reasonable doubt remained over the technical cause of the crash.
“The evidence presented during the FAI has not altered the insufficiency of evidence, therefore the decision not to hold criminal proceedings remains the correct one.”
An earlier Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) report found the helicopter had suffered a “catastrophic failure” of its main rotor gearbox.
Jim McAuslan, general-secretary of pilots’ union Balpa, said: “The operator’s maintenance failures are the main lesson for the industry – maintenance must never be treated lightly.
“Sadly, this accident was preventable, but not survivable, and the pilots had no chance to save the lives of the passengers due to the mechanical failures.”
Bond Offshore said: “We have always accepted that we made mistakes through honest confusion over telephone calls and e-mails.
“Lessons needed to be learned, lessons have been learned and lessons continue to be learned. We are absolutely committed to continuing to drive safety improvements across the business.”
Manufacturer Airbus Helicopters, previously known as Eurocopter, said it would analyse the inquiry’s recommendations.
A spokesman said: “This accident and resulting loss of life was a tragic event that deeply saddened everyone at Airbus Helicopters.
“Airbus Helicopters takes note of the FAI’s three recommendations that involve rotorcraft manufacturers. They will be analysed in depth with other concerned parties, including regulatory authorities, as part of the company’s continuous drive toward safety improvement.
“These recommendations are in line with the company’s research programmes related to materials, surface treatments, manufacturing processes and monitoring devices.
“The company took immediate action following the accident to understand the contributing factors and to enhance the safety of the fleet. Airbus Helicopters are confident that the actions implemented to date remove any risk of such a dramatic event recurring.”
The crash claimed the lives of captain Paul Burnham, 31, from Methlick in Aberdeenshire, and co-pilot Richard Menzies, 24, from Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire.
Five men from Aberdeen died – Alex Dallas, 62, James Costello, 24, Stuart Wood, 27, Vernon Elrick, 41, and Brian Barkley, 30 – along with two from Aberdeenshire: Leslie Taylor, 41, from Kintore, and Warren Mitchell, 38, from Oldmeldrum.
The other victims were Raymond Doyle, 57, from Cumbernauld; David Rae, 63, from Dumfries; Gareth Hughes, 53, from Angus; Nairn Ferrier, 40, from Dundee; James Edwards, 33, from Liverpool; Nolan Goble, 34, from Norwich; and Mihails Zuravskis, 39, from Latvia.