Leaders: Super Puma | Free Fringe

WHEN a particular make of helicopter servicing the North Sea oil rigs experiences 16 fatalities in four ditchings in as many years, the case for a full enquiry is beyond question.

When a fifth crashes into the sea killing four the questions are wider and all the more pressing. What exactly is wrong with the Super Puma? What causes these sudden and catastrophic losses of power and gearbox failures? And why, given the manifest doubts occasioned by those crashes, is this helicopter still operating at all in the North Sea?

In October last year a Super Puma fell into the sea off Shetland. All 19 on board were rescued safely. The problem was said to be a cracked shaft in the main gearbox. In May last year 14 people had to be rescued after a Super Puma came down some 30 miles off the coast of Aberdeen during a flight to an oil rig. In April 2009 all 14 passengers and two crew on board a Super Puma lost their lives after it came down in the North Sea. And in February 2009 a Super Puma ditched in fog a short distance from a BP oil platform, 125 miles east of Aberdeen. All 18 people on board survived. Crew error and a faulty alert system were blamed.

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It was a Super Puma carrying 16 passengers and two crew which crashed two miles west of Sunburgh Airport early on Friday evening with the loss of four lives – testimony, if any more is needed, to the continuing hazards surrounding the harvesting of our “black gold” in the North Sea. CHC, the company which operated the helicopter, has grounded its UK fleet and some models world-wide. That the Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG) has now advised grounding all models of the Super Puma series for all commercial passenger flights to and from offshore oil and gas installations within the UK other than for dire emergency – something all three major helicopter firms have agreed to – speaks to the severity of the questions that have arisen over both this and previous incidents.

There have been inquiries in the past. Every time these have been held, reasons are advanced for a specific and particular failure. There is then an interval and the helicopters are put back into service. But this is no longer good enough.

Super Pumas are the North Sea work horses, operating in extreme climatic conditions. The company has sought to find the source of previous problems and put in hand rectification. But in the wake of the latest tragedy only a full and thorough investigation will merit their return to service with any degree of confidence. Until that is complete and these models should not be allowed back into service. Such an outcome is the least that North Sea rig workers should expect.

About 26,000 people work for more than 100 nights a year offshore on our oilfields, and altogether 55,700 work offshore. They deserve the fullest safety and care in their transit to and from the rigs to undertake their already hazardous work.

Free Fringe a fine reinvention model

No Edinburgh Festival Fringe is complete without arguments over the quality of events and charges of a sell-out to marketing and commercial interests. Thus, as if on cue, the comedian Steve Coogan has attacked what he sees as the commercialisation of the Fringe since he began his own rise to fame 20 years ago.

And a big talking point has been concern that many acts are priced out of coming to Edinburgh because of the cost of playing in major venues, as well as ever rising accommodation and marketing bills.

Such complaints have been aired since the Fringe came into existence. Partly this is due to its own success. The number of events and participants has multiplied as performers seek discovery and a take-off of their careers. Demand for venues has soared, inevitably driving up hall hire rates. As for accommodation, there is scarcely a spare room to be had, resulting in the installation of “snooze boxes” on abandoned building sites.

As for the charge that talented artists and performers are being priced out, it is fitting that Mr Coogan should identify and hail the antidote – the success of the Free Fringe in helping to “redress the balance”. Indeed, it claimed two of this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

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This relatively new phenomenon is a vivid example of how the Fringe constantly reinvents itself. Indeed, the Free Fringe could be seen as the Fringe’s fringe – challenging the already established performers and putting downward pressure on those ever-rising ticket prices. Mr Coogan is right to identify this as a valuable force working for its constant adaption, innovation and refreshment of its parent.