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New Straits Times, Malaysia: High seas drama: Helicopter crashes off Bintulu, nine rescued, one missing

Helicopter

31 Jan 2007
Firdaus Abdullah, Dennis Wong and Adrian David

KUCHING: For the second time in three months, a helicopter en route to an offshore oil facility has crashed into the sea, this time off Bintulu.

A 26-year-old technician remains missing while seven others and the Super Puma L2’s two pilots were rescued in choppy waters about 40km out in the South China Sea yesterday.

The high seas drama started when the transport helicopter, chartered by Petronas Carigali and operated by Malaysian Helicopter Services Sdn Bhd (MHS), crashed in bad weather on its way to the B18 platform in the Bayan Balingian oilfield.

Seven of the eight passengers and the two pilots were found by two Petronas rescue vessels sent from Miri but there was no trace of Irwan Fasla Aini Salihin as of Press time.

The survivors have been sent to the Bintulu Hospital for observation.

Fasla Aini is a technician with Dettech (M) Sdn Bhd, a Petronas contractor from Miri involved in maintenance work on the unmanned B18 mini-platform.

 It is understood the twin-engined aircraft experienced technical problems while on its landing approach and risked crashing into the platform.

Sources told the New Straits Times that the helicopter was minutes away from the platform when the pilot announced an “emergency” and ditched the aircraft.

“Such emergency procedures are standard practice and those who are required to fly to oil platforms must undergo such safety courses.

“Shortly before ditching the aircraft, the pilot had prepared the passengers for a crash landing at sea.

“The missing passenger might have been swept away by strong currents or he might have failed to get out of the helicopter before it sank,” the source from Bintulu said.

Department of Civil Aviation regional director Huang Tiong Poh said the helicopter was initially carrying 16 passengers heading to platforms D35 and B18.

“The helicopter departed from Miri airport at 1.08pm heading to the D35 oil platform to drop off eight passengers and was heading towards the B18 mini-platform when it lost contact with the control tower in Kota Kinabalu at 2.40pm.

“The copter never reached B18,” Huang said, adding that a search and rescue operation was immediately mounted by MHS, Petronas and Shell teams from Miri and Bintulu.

According to the Meteorological Department, sea conditions at the crash site were stormy with wind speeds of between 40 to 60 kilometres per hour, and waves of up to 4.5 metres.

A brief Petronas statement confirmed the ditching of the aircraft, that one passenger was missing and search and rescue operations were still going on.

MHS and Petronas officials declined further comment.

Federal Marine Police chief Senior Assistant Commissioner II Datuk Jalaludin Abdul Rahman said search and rescue operations were launched three hours later, after police were informed of the incident by Petronas Carigali officials in Kuala Lumpur.

“We immediately alerted our marine base in Sarawak which despatched PA29 speed-boats to the scene. By that time a Petronas Carigali tugboat had already picked up the nine survivors, who were then transferred to our boats.”

Jalaludin said owing to failing light, police would continue search and rescue operations today with the assistance of scuba divers and additional boats.

“If need be, we will summon the assistance of other agencies to find the missing person and recover the wreckage of the helicopter for the investigating team,” he said.

Department of Civil Aviation director-general Datuk Kok Soo Chon said a probe team was being assembled to investigate the cause of the crash.

Yesterday’s crash was the fourth in just over a year involving helicopters belonging to MHS.

On Nov 5 last year, 20 men were plucked from the sea after the Super Puma helicopter they were in, which was chartered by ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Malaysia Inc, went down near an oil rig.

The co-pilot, Ismail Bakar, 43, was among those rescued but pilot Captain Mohd Salleh Teguh from Johor perished in the crash.

The helicopter was believed to have developed technical problems while approaching the company’s Tapis B platform, about 103 nautical miles off Dungun in Terengganu. It crashed at 11.45am.

The helicopter had taken off from the Kertih Airport in Kemaman an hour earlier.

On Feb 23, the engine of a Super Puma helicopter caught fire as it was about to take off from Miri airport.

All the 14 oil rig workers and the pilot were unhurt.

On June 18 last year, a similar helicopter crashed in the South China Sea while flying to the B11 oil platform off Bintulu. There were no casualties.

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