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The perils of North Sea air travel
FRIDAY night’s helicopter crash off Shetland was not the first fatal accident involving aerial transport to oil rigs, and unless something is done to improve the aircraft, many fear it will not be the last. Duncan Leatherdale looks at the commute that is so fraught with danger.
HOURS after the tragic news that four people had died while returning to Shetland from the North Sea oil rigs, many people’s initial shock quickly turned to anger.
The question in many minds was how, in an age of elevated health and safety, can such a horror happen?
Many are blaming the helicopter, the Super Puma AS332 L2, and it is not the first time the model has been embroiled in tragedy.
In April 2009, two crew and 14 passengers on board a Super Puma helicopter died after a catastrophic failure of the gearbox caused it to plunge into the sea 11 miles off the coast of Peterhead.
That flight had been operated by the Bond company, and just six weeks before a Bond Super Puma with 18 people on board ditched in the North Sea as it approached a production platform owned by BP. Everyone survived that accident.
Fourteen people were rescued in May last year after a Super Puma EC 225 ditched off the coast of Aberdeen while another 19 people were rescued after the same model of helicopter experienced difficulty off the coast of Shetland in October.
The October 2012 incident had involved CHC, the company involved in last night’s incident.
But tragedies involving transport to the perilous North Sea oil rigs are not new.
The worst of all the crashes was in 1986, when 45 people died in a Chinook helicopter accident. The twin-rotor aircraft, whose three crewmen were ferrying 44 oil workers from Shell platforms in the Brent fields, plummeted into the North Sea only two miles and one minutes flying time from Sumburgh airport, Shetland.
In 1990, six men died when a Sikorsky helicopter struck the Brent Spar oil storage platform in the North Sea.
In 1992, 11 men were killed when a helicopter crashed into the North Sea during a routine 200-yard flight, taking workers from Shells Cormorant Alpha rig to an accommodation barge nearby.
Six people on board survived the crash, one of whom was found a mile from the crash site.
In 1995, after their helicopter was hit by a bolt of lightning, 18 men had to endure huge waves and gales before being rescued.
They had been travelling from Aberdeen to the Brae Field, 150 miles off the Scottish coast, and all survived unhurt.
Back in 1988, a Sikorsky S-61N ditched into the sea en route from a drilling rig 70 miles off north-east Scotland, rescue teams managed to save all 13 passengers and crew on board.
In 1997, the weather was calm when a helicopter ditched into the North Sea while flying to a Norwegian oil rig.
After the October 2012 incident, CHC as well as operators Bond and Bristow suspended scheduled flights with the EC225 Super Puma model, and their fleet has been grounded once again after Friday’s crash.
The aircraft in October was forced to ditch due to a gearbox failure, according to a report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) which will be looking into the latest incident.
Earlier this year it was announced that a fatal accident inquiry was to be held into the April 2009 crash, after prosecutors ruled out criminal proceedings.
It was announced that the inquiry into the circumstances of the crash will take place in Aberdeen in October this year.
The 1988 tragedy when 167 people were killed following an explosion on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea led to a tightening of safety regulations.
All oil workers were required to undergo an intensive training course before they can set foot on oil installations.
The course taught them, using a simulator, how to free themselves from a helicopter that is under water.
Helicopter passengers wear life jackets and have emergency breathing apparatus, which gives them a few extra minutes of air.
The main risk once they have escaped the helicopter is hypothermia, which in the North Sea can set in within minutes in winter.
On online tribute pages to the latest that have lost their lives, many with friends and family working the rigs said they dread when their loved ones have to make the commute.
Martin Mitchell said he left the rigs after 12 years due to safety concerns, and said the helicopters endanger lives every time they go up.
Yvonne Cockburn, whose partner works the rigs, said: “How many people have to be killed before something is done?”
It is a question that many will want an answer for as soon as possible.
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