The family of a north-east woman who died in the Sumburgh helicopter tragedy say they have received “no closure” from the results of the fatal accident inquiry.
Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, was one of four people who died after the aircraft crashed off the coast of Shetland in September 2013.
Her parents Anne and Edmund campaigned tirelessly for six years following the accident to ensure the causes of the crash were examined in a courtroom.
Yesterday the couple paid tribute to the strength of the surviving passengers for recounting the “harrowing” events – but said they were still left without closure about the tragedy.
Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle made no recommendations in his determination while ruling the ditching had been caused by pilot error and a “perfect storm” of circumstances.
Meanwhile, union bosses have maintained the tragedy was “avoidable” while calling for a public inquiry.
In a statement issued on their behalf, Sarah Darnley’s family said: “We wish to express our gratitude to the surviving passengers who gave evidence before the inquiry. Recounting the events was very clearly a harrowing task and our thoughts are with them as they try to rebuild their lives.
“Seven years have passed since the tragedy, but we cannot say that today brings closure for us. Sarah was a beloved daughter, sister and niece and we think about her every day. We cherish the memories we have, and are forever grateful she was part of our lives.”
The tragic flight also claimed the lives of Gary McCrossan from Inverness, Duncan Munro from Bishop Auckland and George Allison from Winchester.
The FAI also attributed the death of passenger Sam Bull, who took his own life in December 2017, to the incident. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after ensuring the safety of other survivors and performing CPR on Mr McCrossan.
Speaking to the BBC, his father Michael Bull – who has campaigned about mental health problems to raise awareness of the impact trauma can have – said: “There was clearly an injury, a big change in him, a mental injury, which ultimately led to his death.”
In his findings, Sheriff Principal Pyle also addressed the delays that led to the notice for the inquiry being lodged over six years after the accident and the FAI itself starting over seven years later. He said he had initially been critical of the delay and its impact on families but, having heard evidence from the Crown, now understood much of the delay was beyond its control.
Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said last night she had written to the Lord Advocate to request he address the “inexcusable” delay which had “prolonged the pain for families”.
But the sheriff principal said the nature of evidence gathering and investigating both the incident and whether a crime has been committed, combined with the separate AAIB investigation and the fact its sensitive findings could not be divulged without a court order, all played their part. The investigations of the police and the Crown, he said, could not even begin until that of the AAIB was concluded, more than two years after the accident.
A complicated legal case over access to the black box recorder on its own added 18 months.
Sheriff Principal Pyle concluded the deaths had been caused by the helicopter crew failing to properly monitor the cockpit instruments.
The pilots activated a three-axes autopilot system instead of the more modern four-axes. Alison Campbell of Air Accidents Investigation Branch said the more sophisticated system would have “reduced the workload” of the crew, but the three-axes system was specified by the operator CHC at the time and she added the pilot was “perfectly entitled” to fly in that mode.
RMT union general secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT is disappointed the FAI predictably kept the scope of the inquiry very narrow, looking at the events at the precise moment of the tragedy. There was no consideration of the wider aspects of what led to the tragedy and the loss of four lives, including RMT member Sarah Darnley.
“The fact remains the tragedy would have been avoided if the safety systems in the helicopter had been enabled. Those systems were inhibited because the pilots hadn’t been trained how to use them.”
Step Change in Safety praised changes made by the aviation industry in the years since the Sumburgh crash.