THE fatal flaws that led to one of Scotland’s worst helicopter tragedies have been laid bare by air crash investigators.
The operator of the ill-fated Super Puma flight 85N ruled against replacing a rotor gearbox just days before the unit suffered a “catastrophic failure” – causing the aircraft to plunge 2,000ft into the North Sea, killing all 16 on board.
Dramatic details of the crew and passengers’ final moments were also revealed in today’s report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).
An alarm sounded on the Bond-operated helicopter at 12.54pm on April 1, 2009. Just 23 seconds later, all contact with the aircraft was lost.
In today’s long-anticipated report, it emerged that a magnetic particle was found on part of the main rotor gearbox – known as the second stage planet gear – a week before the Eurocopter Super Puma crashed.
This prompted Bond Offshore Helicopters to initiate a plan to remove the gearbox and replace it with a unit from another helicopter.
However, the piece of debris was dismissed after a “misunderstanding” between Bond engineers and manufacturer Eurocopter.
The appearance of the particle is seen as an early warning of a possible gearbox failure.
The Super Puma operator had asked for help from Eurocopter about the gearbox problem and, after further examination, the particle was misidentified as “unimportant”.
The AAIB report said: “The gearbox was declared serviceable by the operator and its planned replacement cancelled.”
It was the second-stage planet gear that failed as a result of a fatigue crack, causing the main rotor to break away from the helicopter 50 minutes into its flight to Aberdeen from the Miller platform in the North Sea.
The report revealed for the first time that, earlier in the day, some passengers on the 85N’s outbound flight had reported hearing a bang just minutes before landing. They did not report the noise to the crew.
The Super Puma set off on its return flight just after noon and had been due to arrive at 1.14pm.
A crewman on the Norwegian vessel Normand Aurora, which was about two miles from the crash site, reported seeing and hearing the helicopter as it fell from the sky.
He first saw the main rotor blades, which had separated from the aircraft, fall into the water.
He then heard two “bangs” close together. After the helicopter struck the water, a cloud of grey smoke appeared and soon turned black.
A few seconds later, he heard what he thought was an explosion.
Rescuers were on the scene within minutes and came across a scene of devastation. They saw debris from the helicopter, two liferafts and eight people floating on the water, wearing survival equipment. There were no signs of life.
Accident investigators ruled that the helicopter had been flying at 2,000ft and crashed into the water at a “high vertical speed”.
The tragedy happened just weeks after another Bond-operated Super Puma plunged into the North Sea. All 18 on board survived the crash.
The AAIB has issued 17 safety recommendations to organisations including Eurocopter, the European Aviation Safety Agency, the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US.
Last night, Bond Offshore managing director Bill Munro said: “We worked closely with the AAIB throughout its thorough and lengthy investigation, which reflected the very complex circumstances of this tragic accident.
“The report contains no recommendations for action by Bond. Following earlier interim recommendations by the AAIB, the manufacturer’s procedures have been strengthened and Bond, along with others in the industry, implemented those changes immediately.
“We take a rigorous approach to safety and will continue to do so as technology and best practice evolve.”
He added: “Our thoughts remain with the families of those who died, and their loss is a constant driver in our commitment to the highest standards of safety.”
A Eurocopter spokes-man said: “Eurocopter has full confidence in the various measures that have been implemented following the accident, including methods of information sharing, maintenance and inspection procedures, and technical improvements in particle-detection capabilities, and are convinced that they are sufficient to strengthen the means already in force to prevent accidents.”
He added: “At Eurocopter, safety is and has always been the number-one priority and the group continuously works to improve its safety standards, requiring suppliers to do the same and sharing this culture with customers.”
A spokesman for the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service said today’s findings would be considered fully by its health-and-safety division.
“The division and Grampian Police have been engaged in this investigation since the tragedy occurred and will continue to progress lines of inquiry and carry out such investigation as is necessary in order that a decision may be taken in relation to the form of any proceedings,” he said.
“The liaison with the nearest relatives of the 16 men who lost their lives will also continue and the division will keep them advised of significant developments.”
Robert Paterson, health-and-safety director for industry body Oil and Gas UK, said: “With today’s publication of the report, we remember, first and foremost, all those who lost their lives in this tragic accident and give our sincerest respects to their families, friends and work colleagues.
“Following the two major helicopter incidents in 2009, the industry, together with the relevant regulators and trade unions, established the Helicopter Task Group to drive immediate improvements in helicopter safety. Its agenda is now being taken forward by the Step Change in Safety Helicopter Safety Steering Group.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman added: “We welcome the publication of this report and hope it provides the families of those men who lost their lives with some clarity.
“As we know, the accident was caused by a catastrophic failure of the helicopter’s main rotor gearbox and this report provides comprehensive details of the investigation and a further 11 safety recommendations.
“We expect the appropriate bodies – European Aviation Safety Agency, Eurocopter and the FAA – to address these recommendations and ensure that they are fully implemented.”
Eight of the men killed were from the north-east. They were Brian Barkley, 30; James Costello, 24; Alex Dallas, 62; and Vernon Elrick, 41, all of Aberdeen; Stuart Wood, 27, of Newmachar; Warren Mitchell, 38, of Oldmeldrum; Leslie Taylor, 41, of Kintore; and Paul Burnham, 31, of Methlick.
Also killed in the crash were Raymond Doyle, 57, of Cumbernauld; James Edwards, 33, of Liverpool; Nairn Ferrier, 40, of Dundee; Nolan Goble, 34, of Norwich; Gareth Hughes, 53, of Angus; David Rae, 63, of Dumfries; Richard Menzies, 24, of Droitwich Spa; and Mihails Zuravskis, 39, of Latvia.