OIL industry, trade union and helicopter company leaders last night agreed to allow the entire fleet of North Sea Super Pumas to take to the skies again while the investigation continues into the Sumburgh Head disaster which claimed the lives of four oil workers.
But the L2 version of the helicopter – the model involved in last Friday’s crash – will only be allowed to fly on what has been described as “non passenger revenue operations” while the Super Puma L1s and the EC225s resume normal crew- change flights.
After a second day of marathon talks in Aberdeen, a crisis safety summit of of the oil industry’s Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG) decided to end the temporary grounding which had left Britain’s oil and gas industry facing an unprecedented logistical crisis.
There had been fears that, in the face of a shattered workforce confidence in the safety of the Super Puma fleet, oil giants and helicopter companies would have been left with no choice but to keep the fleet grounded until the cause of the crash – the fifth incident involving a Super Puma since February 2009 – had been established.
The various marques – the L1, the AS332L2 and the EC225 – the model involved in two non-fatal ditchings last year – account for almost 70 per cent of the North Sea helicopter fleet. But, in a surprise move, the steering group announced that flights by all models will return to the air in various roles while they begin a major campaign to restore workforce confidence in the North Sea workhorse.
Les Linklater, the spokesman for the steering group, said there was “no evidence” to support a continuation of the temporary suspension.
“As a consequence,” he said, “the HSSG supports the return to active service of all variants of the Super Puma fleet.”
But he stressed: “In recognition of the obvious sensitivities around the immediate return to service of the L2 fleet, this type will be initially reintroduced for non-passenger revenue operations only, maintenance, positioning and training flights.
“The individual helicopter operating companies will now work with their customers to ensure information and confidence-building communication is available and sensitive to the individual needs of the offshore workforce, before returning to full commercial passenger service.”
Mr Linklater added: “Helicopter operators have reviewed their own safety management systems and processes and are satisfied that there is no reason to believe there is an inherent mechanical problem with any of the helicopter types.
“The European Aviation Safety Agency and Civil Aviation Authority have not issued any airworthiness directives or operational directives on these airframes, which positively affirms there are no safety reasons that support a suspension of flying.
“Balpa, the pilots’ union, has given its full support to the fleet and positively affirmed that they have no safety concerns with regard to the affected airframes.”
Malcolm Webb, the chief executive of Oil & Gas UK, the pan- industry trade organisation, said: “Oil & Gas UK is in complete alignment with this agreement, including the decision to return the aircraft in question to flight in a phased and proper manner and to engage with the management and workforce to rebuild trust and confidence.
“In that regard, I wish to make it absolutely clear that, as a result of these arrangements, no-one unwilling to fly will be forced to do so.”
Pat Rafferty, the Unite union’s Scottish secretary said: “The decision should be approached with caution and sensitivity.
“Confidence has been shattered and the industry needs to provide substantive evidence – not opinion – to its workers, demonstrating the airworthiness of the helicopters that are now returning to operations.”
Meanwhile, as the vital “black box” flight data recorder was finally recovered from the seabed, the first special bulletin on the crash, issued by the government’s Air Accident Investigation Branch, revealed the Super Puma was “intact and upright” when it struck the sea.
Black box recovered
Divers have recovered the black box flight data recorder from the Super Puma helicopter which crashed in the North Sea.
The transmitter was recovered from the sea near Garths Ness. It will be a major aid to air accident experts in their investigation in the cause of the disaster.
An AAIB spokeswoman said this afternoon: “The combined voice and flight data recorder from the AS332 L2 Super Puma helicopter has been successfully recovered and will be transported to the AAIB HQ in Farnborough later today.”
Frank Doran, the Labour MP Aberdeen North, today called for a public inquiry, on the scale of the Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, to be held into the Super Puma tragedy off Shetland.
Mr Doran said: “Every day there are 100 helicopter flights transporting North Sea oil and gas workers to and from installations. This is the fifth crash or ditching of a helicopter carrying oil and gas industry personnel to and from offshore installations in the North Sea, in the last 4 years. Two of these incidents resulted in multiple deaths, 16 deaths on a Super Puma MK2 helicopter which crashed off Peterhead in April 2009, and 4 deaths off Shetland on 23rd August.
“This has caused huge uncertainty amongst the workforce. From my discussions with industry representatives it is clear that there has been a collapse in morale in the industry.”
Mr Doran, who has made his call for an inquiry in a letter to Patrick McLoughlin, the Secretary of State for Transport, added: “Whilst we do not know the cause of the most recent incident,
I believe that it is of paramount importance to ensure safe working systems in transport for offshore workers.
“The only way to ensure this and begin to rebuild confidence is a ‘Cullen Inquiry’ to look into every aspect of transportation, including maintenance and all safety systems. Therefore I have written to the Transport Secretary today urging him to give serious consideration to establishing such an independent Public Inquiry.”
Mr Doran claims in his letter to Mr McLoughlin that there has been a “collapse in morale” amongst North Sea management about helicopter safety.
He states: “It is quite clear that there has been a collapse in morale amongst workers and management - even although management will not admit this - about this latest event.”
Mr Doran continues: “It is perfectly understandable that the workforce has lost confidence in the helicopter service and it will be very difficult, much more so than before, to rebuild confidence.
“There is massive disruption in the industry every time one of these incidents occurs and each of these has far reaching consequences in many different areas. Paramount, however, is the need to ensure we have safe working systems in transport for workers employed in the industry. Nobody believes that we have this at the moment and we need to find a way to rebuild confidence. In my view the only way we can do that is by properly scrutinising every aspect of helicopter transport in the North Sea industry.”
Mr Doran adds: “There are 100 helicopter flights per day in the North Sea. Because of the very hostile environment ship to installation transfers are extremely dangerous and have never been considered by the industry as a safe option.”
In the AAIB’s first aviation alert on the disaster, the AAIB revealed that the CHC-operated Super Puma AS332L2 had been on its approach to Sumburgh airport when the aircraft suffered a sudden reduction in airspeed accompanied by an increased rate of descent.
But the aircraft had travelled a mile towards the shore before it eventually struck the water and then capsized.
The bulletin states: “On 23 August, an AS332 L2 Super Puma helicopter crashed into the sea whilst on approach to Sumburgh Airport in the Shetland Islands. Four of the 18 occupants lost their lives. The AAIB immediately despatched a team of investigators and support staff to Aberdeen and the Shetland Islands.
“In accordance with the normal protocols the AAIB invited representatives from the French accident investigation authority (BEA), the helicopter manufacturer, and the engine manufacturer to participate in the investigation.”
The statement continues: “Preliminary information indicates that the approach proceeded normally until approximately three miles from the runway when there was a reduction in airspeed accompanied by an increased rate of descent.
“The helicopter struck the sea approximately two miles west of the Runway 09 threshold. The evidence currently available suggests that the helicopter was intact and upright when it entered the water. It then rapidly inverted and drifted northwards towards Garths Ness”
The AAIB state: The helicopter was largely broken up by repeated contact with the rocky shoreline. Some items of wreckage have already been recovered and will be transported to the AAIB’s HQ in Farnborough. Attempts to recover the Combined Voice and Flight Data Recorder, together with other wreckage items, are continuing. This is a challenging operation due to the nature of the environment in which the wreckage is located. The investigation is ongoing and at this early stage it is not possible to identify the causal factors leading to the accident. “
A summit meeting on offshore helicopter safety broke up last night without agreement on the way forward amid claims that Norwegian authorities are to resume Super Puma flights, based on information they have about the cause of Friday’s Sumburgh Head disaster.
The confidence of North Sea “bears”, already reeling from the two ditchings last year involving the Super Puma EC225 models, has been left shattered by the tragedy off Sumburgh Head, in which a Mark 2 model of the aircraft – the AS332L2 – crashed on its approach to Sumburgh airport, claiming the lives of one woman and three men.
Saturday’s decision to suspend all Super Puma flights in the British sector of the North Sea will continue at least until the safety summit resumes in Aberdeen this afternoon.
But one leading British offshore union leader disclosed last night that he had been told unions and helicopter companies in Norway had already decided to resume flights of the L2.
The Norwegian Helicopter Co-operation Forum is understood to have held an emergency meeting yesterday, with representatives of the country’s aviation authority, petroleum authority, unions and oil firms, to discuss the Norwegian Super Puma fleet’s immediate future.
Jake Molloy, offshore organiser of the RMT union, revealed: “We were told this afternoon by one of our Norwegian colleagues that a decision has been taken to put the L2s back in the air in Norway, based on information they have about the causal factors of Friday’s event.
“They have seem to have information that we didn’t have.”
Mr Molloy stressed that there had been no pressure from oil company representatives at the meeting for an early resumption of flights in the British sector.
But he admitted: “There are different views as to how we should move forward. But from a union perspective, we maintain the line that it is impossible until we know what happened.
“We need information about the cause of Friday night’s accident in order to make an informed decision about what, if anything, flies.”
Mr Molloy said there were A spokeswoman for Oil and Gas UK, the pan-industry body, said she was unable to comment on Mr Molloy’s claims.
Meanwhile, a plan to send wreckage recovered from the crash site from Lerwick, on Shetland, to the Farnborough headquarters of the Air Accident Investigation branch has reportedly been delayed, after divers found more debris last night.
The Super Puma wreckage is to taken by sea to Aberdeen for onward transport to Farnborough. But it is understood investigators have still to recover the helicopter’s “black box” flight data and cockpit voice recorder, housed in the tail section, which will play a crucial role in establishing the cause of the crash..