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‘They know what they have to do: launch the life rafts and get out’

The Herald
19 February 2009

The dramatic rescue of all 18 people aboard a helicopter that ditched in the North Sea appeared to have been a textbook operation, the RAF said last night.

Spokesman Michael Mulford said it looked as though the crew’s training and way the helicopter had come down in the water had ensured a positive outcome.

“The design of the helicopter, the ability of the crew and the training of the passengers all would have contributed,” he said. “The passengers will have gone through this training and heard it 100 times and will have known they will never have to use it – until tonight.

“What people tell us from previous incidents is that the training just takes over. They know what they have to do – launch the life rafts and get out of there as quickly as possible.”

He said that three men were winched from one life raft and 15 in another life raft were taken aboard a rescue vessel.

Three men, understood to be the three who were winched to safety, were being flown to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary by the Lossiemouth rescue helicopter. The other 15 were understood to travelling ashore by boat.

Sadly, not all helicopter ditching incidents in Britain’s offshore oil industry have had such a fortunate outcome.

In December 2006 five gas workers and two pilots died when their helicopter plunged into the Irish Sea in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire.

The SA365N Daughin had been making an early-evening trip between gas platforms, picking up workers, when it crashed as it approached the North Morecambe rig.

Jake Molloy of the OILC union admitted last night that he feared a repeat of the Morecambe Bay tragedy when news broke of the latest accident.

He said helicopter safety was always to the fore of the minds of North Sea workforce but that the industry had enjoyed a good safety record in recent years.

“It is a huge sigh of relief tonight,” he said. “When they said it had gone in close to a platform I immediately thought to Morecambe Bay in December 2006.

“The Air Accident Investigation Branch said that unfortunately the pilot had lost the horizon because of the time of the evening and had made too sharp a turn and had gone in hard into the sea. When helicopters go in hard of course there are fatalities.”

An Air Accident Investigation Branch report into the Morecambe Bay crash said fears for his co-pilot may have distracted a helicopter captain in the moments before the aircraft crashed.

In July 2002, a Sikorsky S76 helicopter was ferrying personnel between a platform and a drilling rig, both owned by Shell, when it ditched about 25 miles north-east of Great Yarmouth, killing all 11 on board. It is understood the aircraft remained afloat after ditching.

Other tragedies affecting North Sea helicopter operations in recent years include August 1981 when 13 people were killed when a Wessex helicopter crashed off the Norfolk coast.

Britain’s worst helicopter disaster was in November 1986 when 45 died after a Boeing Vertol 234 Chinook crashed into the sea near Shetland.

In March 1991, six men were killed when a Sikorsky S61N struck a crane on a Shell oil platform and plunged into the sea 116 miles east of Lerwick in Shetland. In August the same year, a Bell 212 crashed with the loss of three men while on maintenance work in the Ekofisk field.

Last September, 15 offshore workers and a two-man crew aboard a Super Puma survived after the aircraft, almost 200 miles home, landed safely after being hit by lightning.

The aircraft, owned by Bond Helicopters, was flying from the Bruce Field in the North Sea to Aberdeen when its rotor blade was “damaged beyond repair” by the lightning strike.

Mr Molloy added: “It has been a long time since the dark days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when there were a lot of incidents.

“Technology has moved on and the advances have been remarkable as regards the hardware – the helicopters themselves.

“On top of that you have an enhanced survival system now with everything from lifejackets built in to the survival suits right through to a rebreather kit which gives you a breath of air should the helicopter turn turtle when it goes in the water.

“There have been significant improvements really since the ditching in 1992 – the Cormorant Alpha incident when 11 were lost. Their record since then has been very good.”


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