Fatal North Sea Super Puma crash that killed 16 ‘could have been prevented’, inquiry finds

Families of men who died now call for criminal inquiry to be launched

An inquiry into a North Sea helicopter crash that killed 16 men has found that the accident could have been prevented.

All 14 oil workers and the two crew members on board died when the Super Puma aircraft, operated by Bond Offshore Helicopters, came down in the waters of the Aberdeenshire coast on 1 April in 2009.

Aberdeen’s Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle has carried out a six-week fatal accident inquiry, and concluded that the incident may have been avoided were it not for a number of failures by Bond.

The relatives of the 16 men have now called for a criminal inquiry to be opened into the crash.

An Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) probe found that the aircraft suffered a “catastrophic failure” of its main rotor gearbox, causing the main rotor to break away and its “tail boom” to severe from the fuselage.

Sheriff Pyle said that Bond had failed to replace a part of the gearbox just a week before the crash – a task specified in the aircraft maintenance manual – because of a failure in communication with the manufacturer.

He said that “spalling” in the gearbox – the fracturing of metal – was the most likely cause of the crash, and that the AAIB was “overcautious” in not coming to the same conclusion.

Lawyer Chris Gordon, representing some of the families, reiterated calls for a public inquiry and asked the Crown Office to revisit the question of whether there should be a prosecution.

“We are calling upon the Lord Advocate to look again at the evidence and do what the Crown did not do here, and that is consider the evidence as a whole and revisit the question as to whether or not there should be a prosecution.”

Audrey Wood, whose son Stuart died in the crash, said: “Safety is absolutely paramount and everything must be done by the book. There can be no excuse for not doing this.

“The length of wait of nearly five years has been intolerable for all the families and we, the families, feel let down by the system.”

In his findings Sheriff Pyle said: “Predictably, during the course of the inquiry there was much discussion about the circumstances which led Bond not to follow the clear terms of the maintenance.”

But the sheriff said that while it was “certainly possible” that if Bond had carried out the maintenance task they would have removed the gearbox, “on the evidence that fact has not been proved on the balance of probabilities”.

He concluded: “The essential fact is that everyone in the company well knew that maintenance must be done by the book. On one occasion, that fundamental rule was broken. It resulted in the failure to detect a significant fault in the helicopter's gearbox, which possibly - but only possibly - resulted in the crash.”

A statement from Bond Offshore said: “Although Sheriff Principal Pyle has indicated that spalling was, on balance, the most likely reason for the catastrophic gearbox failure which caused the accident - a view not shared by the independent Air Accidents Investigation Branch - he did not find that this was proved beyond reasonable doubt.

“Additionally, he determined that even if we had followed the correct procedure it is by no means certain that the gearbox would have been removed, as there may not have been sufficient evidence of particles to warrant its removal.”

It continued: “Lessons needed to be learned, lessons have been learned and lessons continue to be learned. We are absolutely committed to continuing to drive safety improvements across the business, and will study the Sheriff Principal's recommendations carefully, along with our industry colleagues.”

The crash claimed the lives of captain and co-pilot Paul Burnham, 31, from Methlick in Aberdeenshire, and Richard Menzies, 24, from Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire.

Five men from Aberdeen died: Alex Dallas, 62, James Costello, 24, Stuart Wood, 27, Vernon Elrick, 41, and Brian Barkley, 30; and two workers were from Aberdeenshire: Leslie Taylor, 41, from Kintore, and Warren Mitchell, 38, from Oldmeldrum.

The other victims were Raymond Doyle, 57, from Cumbernauld; David Rae, 63, from Dumfries; Gareth Hughes, 53, from Angus; Nairn Ferrier, 40, from Dundee; James Edwards, 33, from Liverpool; Nolan Goble, 34, from Norwich; and Mihails Zuravskis, 39, from Latvia.

Additional reporting by PA