‘Great frustration’ over Clutha manufacturer, inquiry hears

A senior aviation maintenance director has told of his “great frustration” over how the manufacturer of the helicopter involved in the Clutha disaster dealt with the problem of water entering the aircraft’s fuel system.

The wreckage of the helicopter is lifted from the crash scene in Glasgow. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA
The wreckage of the helicopter is lifted from the crash scene in Glasgow. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA

David Price, who was director of engineering at Bond Air Services - the helicopter operators - at the time of the tragedy, said Eurocopter had promised to resolve the issue for a decade before the fatal crash.

He said the problem of the helicopter’s hydro mechanical unit (HMU) “sucking water in” through the driver seal drain line had been flagged up in June 2003, but felt it was not treated as a priority.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

A Fatal Accident Inquiry into the crash was shown an email Mr Price sent to Ralph Nicolai at Eurocopter in March 2005 in which he detailed his misgivings over how the firm was dealing with the problem.

He wrote: “I am somewhat concerned that from my perspective, what was and still is a flight safety issue has not been prioritised in the manner I feel it should have and the manner we have come to expect from Eurocopter and Turbomeca [the engine manufacturer].”

He added in the email that the issue was not isolated to any one aircraft, but was a “world wide fleet issue.”

Mr Nicolai replied the same month, adding that Eurocopter had had a service bulletin in preparation for “quite some time already” which would prevent the HMU from sucking water out of the drain cluster.

He explained that the service bulletin had been “idling” for a “considerable time” due to other priorities, but said the company’s design department will “pick it up now again and process it ASAP.”

Despite some amendments, it took a further nine years before there was a “final solution” to the service bulletin, Mr Price told the court.

The inquiry also heard how in May 2013, just four months before the crash, which claimed the lives of 10 people, he was contacted by Eurocopter asking if Bond could make modifications to the helicopter.

The 56-year-old told the inquiry: “There was a feeling of great frustration on a number of occasions. Over ten years there was a promise to resolve this using a combination of Eurocopter’s and Turbomeca’s designs. It is fair to say this was a very frustrating response.”

Mr Price, who is now head of maintenance and engineering at Babcock aviation group, added it was his belief that, as the flight certificate helicopter, it was Eurocopter - now known as Airbus - who were “ultimately responsible for the continued airworthiness of their fleet.”

The inquiry was shown another email sent on the morning of the crash on 29 November 2013 in which Jorg Stuiver, a technical support specialist at Eurocopter, told Mr Price he hoped a service evaluation would be carried out by the following February, after which time a solution would hopefully be issued via a service bulletin.

“Airbus were still reviewing this phenomenon and hadn’t come to a final conclusion,” Mr Price told the inquiry.

Last month, the inquiry heard there was no water found in the twin engine aircraft’s fuel tanks.

More than 100 people were at the Clutha Vaults pub when the Police Scotland helicopter, returning to its base on the banks of the River Clyde, crashed through the roof.

Pilot David Traill, 51; PC Tony Collins, 43; and PC Kirsty Nelis, 36, lost their lives in the crash along with seven customers who were in the bar on Stockwell Street.

They were Gary Arthur, 48; Joe Cusker, 59; Colin Gibson, 33; Robert Jenkins, 61; John McGarrigle, 58; Samuel McGhee, 56; and Mark O’Prey, 44.

The inquiry before sheriff principal Craig Turnbull, which is being held at a temporary court at Glasgow’s Hampden Park, continues.

For all the latest Scottish news, sport and features click here, or head to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.