Helicopter safety checks were 'sub-standard'

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SAFETY CHECKS on passenger helicopters have been routinely carried out by unqualified staff, and may have contributed to a series of crashes and scores of deaths, say former Civil Aviation Authority inspectors.

Captain Brian Friend, a former Royal Navy and British Airways pilot, says the CAA sacked him for refusing to make "sub-standard" checks on helicopters. He was only qualified to test planes. "I challenged a culture of arrogance in the regulation and conduct of in-depth helicopter flight safety inspection," he said.

Capt Friend says there is evidence that as recently as last year, the CAA was using inspectors without relevant experience to check helicopters.

Two other ex-CAA safety officers have also voiced concerns to the Independent on Sunday about helicopter checks.

There are about 800 civil helicopters operating in the UK. Many are "workhorses", used for bussing oil workers to North Sea platforms or as air ambulances. But increasingly, private helicopters have become status symbols for the rich.

Eleven people have been killed in helicopter crashes so far this year. Only nine have died in light plane accidents, although there are more than 10 times as many light aircraft in the UK. "It is an appaling record," said Capt Friend, adding that better safety checks could have saved lives.

Capt Friend was recruited by the CAA in 1987. In July 1990 he was ordered to carry out in-depth operational checks at PLM Helicopters, Inverness. He protested that he had no relevant experience.

He was told that the CAA was short of qualified helicopter inspectors, that the CAA would take responsibility, and that other teams were carrying out similar checks without specialists. Capt Friend also claims he was told to complete parts of the report on PLM before he even visited Inverness. "This was to speed up the reporting procedure so that a senior executive could get away on holiday," he claimed. After taking legal advice, Capt Friend refused to conduct the inspection.

"Following my refusal I was eventually dismissed for, as one manager put it, not letting the matter drop," said Capt Friend. "I am now seeking redress." In October, he will confront his former employers in the High Court.

David Mearns worked for the CAA as a safety inspector for eight years until last October. He was aware of several occasions when specialists were not available for helicopter checks and said that Capt Friend was right to refuse. "He did not know one end of a helicopter from the other," said Mr Mearns. The number of helicopter fatalities in recent years was "staggering", he added.

Captain Dick Stewart, another former CAA inspector, called for a public inquiry to be held to stop "the continuing loss of life in an arena which is badly inspected and regulated".

The CAA declined to comment due to Capt Friend's pending legal action, but robustly defended its record. "We have one of the best safety records in the world, in all areas of flying. The CAA would never do anything to compromise safety," said a spokesman.