Shetland helicopter crash: Investigators search seas for black box recorder from aircraft that ditched killing four oil workers, as operators ground Super Puma helicopters

Helicopter Safety Steering Group urged precautionary flight ban until there is 'sufficient factual information' to resume

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The Independent Online

Crash investigators are continuing to search the sea around Shetland in the hope of finding the black box recorder from a helicopter that plunged into the water on Friday, killing four oil workers.

The aircraft’s operator, CHC, has grounded all Super Puma helicopters in the aftermath of the crash, with fellow operators Bond Offshore Helicopters and Bristow also enforcing a temporary suspension of non-emergency flights.

The groundings follow a recommendation by the offshore industry's Helicopter Safety Steering Group which urged the precautionary measure until there is “sufficient factual information” to resume flights.

Specialist sonar equipment has been transported to the crash site in an effort to trace the missing black box, which was located on the aircraft’s tail section when it ditched on approach to Sumburgh airport on the southern tip of Shetland on Friday evening.

Once traced, the recorder will be transported to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch headquarters in Hampshire for examination, while the rest of the wreckage is due to be transported to a mainland port.

The Super Puma was carrying 16 passengers and two crew from the Borgsten Dolphin platform when it crashed into the sea, killing three men and one woman.

Rescuers recovered three bodies in the aftermath of the incident and the fourth is expected to reach the mainland today.

Tributes have been paid to the victims, who were named as Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, County Durham; George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Hampshire; Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Moray; and 59-year-old Gary McCrossan, from Inverness.

Duncan Trapp, vice president for safety and quality at CHC Helicopter, said the crash would be “painstakingly investigated” to find out what went wrong.

“The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) will be reviewing information including debriefs with pilots and passengers, air traffic records, technical data and records, and the aircraft and its on-board systems,” he said.

“We are fully supporting the early stages of the investigation into the incident and will continue to give our full co-operation to this process.”

The pilot of the helicopter is recovering in hospital with back injuries, while the co-pilot is recuperating at home, he said.

Around 80 representatives of oil and gas operators and major contractors attended a “sombre” meeting in Aberdeen yesterday to discuss contingency plans following the suspension.

Oil & Gas UK chief executive Malcolm Webb said the summit had endorsed the Helicopter Safety Steering Group's recommendation to temporarily ground CHC helicopters.

Options being considered to ease the problem of flight delays and backlogs include the use of alternative helicopters, making better use of available flights and the possibility of transferring workers by boat.

Mr Trapp said he understood that emotions in the offshore workforce were “raw” after the crash.

“There has been a huge amount of work by everyone involved in safety in the offshore oil-and-gas industry to mitigate the risks of working in and travelling to offshore installations,” he said.

“Consultation and collaboration between helicopter operators, the oil and gas companies and the unions representing pilots and offshore workforce has led to technical advances, improved predictability and the mitigation of the risks flying in the North Sea presents.

“My message and commitment to offshore workers and everyone with an interest in our industry is that we will continue to do everything humanly possible to ensure we get them to work and get home safely every time.”

The Unite union has called for an emergency debate on offshore health and safety when the Scottish Parliament reconvenes next week.

It also urged the Scottish Government to support the fast-track of Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) reforms, which are currently under public consultation.

Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said: “On Thursday we vented our anger over the current FAI process and the ridiculous delays in starting the FAI into the 2009 Super Puma crash, the agony this is causing victim's families and the fact that we do not have legally enforceable outcomes from the process.

“This will be of no comfort to the families impacted by Friday's catastrophe but we need these reforms to our civil justice system in Scotland and we need them now.”

There have been five North Sea incidents involving Super Pumas since 2009. In April that year an AS332 L2, operated by Bond, went down north-east of Peterhead on its return from a BP platform, killing all 14 passengers and two crew on board.

The other three ditchings involved the EC225 model which saw flights temporarily suspended. CHC returned the model to commercial service only earlier this month.

An investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch found that two of the incidents were the result of gearbox failure and new advice on checks for the EC225 were issued as a result. A fatal accident inquiry is expected to be held into the 2009 fatal AS332 L2 crash in Aberdeen next year.

Additional reporting PA